Singapore Table of Contents


Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew marked his sixty-fifth birthday in October 1988 and celebrated thirty years as prime minister in May 1989, and the question of political succession received increasing attention. The prime minister and his long-time associates devoted a good deal of their attention to the issue during the mid- and late 1980s. They continued their efforts to identify promising younger leaders and bring them into the cabinet. The process of selection was an elaborate one, which began by identifying welleducated administrators from the public service or private sector. Those people selected would be promoted to managerial positions, often when in their thirties; those who succeeded would be considered for appointment to a government position, often by being designated a parliamentary candidate. In addition to identifying good administrators, the older leaders tried to select persons of integrity and good character who were able to work as members of a team. Second-generation leaders were then tested by being given ministerial portfolios and encouraged to go out and meet the common people. The selection favored technocrats and administrators and rewarded those able to defer to senior leaders and get along smoothly with their peers. The senior leaders were aware that the process did not test the ability of the second-generation leaders to cope with a severe political crisis, but apparently could find no way to select for that skill.

The first-generation leaders were confident of their own rectitude and ability to use their very extensive powers for the common good, but they were not confident that their successors would be so self-restrained. Throughout the 1980s, they considered various limits on executive power that would minimize the possibility of arbitrary and corrupt rule. These included constitutional changes such as a popularly elected president with significant powers. The leaders claimed, perhaps with hindsight, that their refusal to build up the PAP as a central political institution and their efforts to bring a wide range of low-level community leaders into the system of government advisory bodies reflected a deliberate effort to disperse power and, in this sense, to "depoliticize" the society. The effort to encourage the circulation of elites between the government and the private sectors and between the military and the civilian structures served the same end. In so centralized a system, much depended on the decisions of the prime minister and undisputed leader, who was reluctant to appoint a designated heir or to approve any measure that would diminish his authority. The expectation clearly was that a much more collective leadership would replace the old guard.

The next generation of leaders, called the "new guard," was led by Lee Kuan Yew's son, Lee Hsien Loong. A brigadier general in the army, he first attained prominence in mid-1984 when he was cited as a possible candidate for the December 1988 general election. His prominence soared when, as minister of trade and industry and second ministor of defence (services), he was appointed head in 1986 of the critical Economic Committee assigned to redraft Singapore's economic strategy.

Lee Hsien Loong's ascendancy and his consolidation of administrative and political power assisted the political fortunes of bureaucrats who formerly had served in the Ministry of Defence (known as the "Min-def mafia") and ex-army officers who had served with Lee when he was a brigadier general. The ascendancy of the socalled "Min-def/ex-army officer group" under Lee initially was suggested by some observers when the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) appeared to assume new importance in government policy decisions. In March 1989, when the government announced a substantial pay raise for the civil service, the military received an even larger raise with guarantees that future raises would be consistently higher than those allotted for the civil service. The government also announced that the policy of assigning SAF officers to twoyear rotations in civil service positions would continue. The policy ensured that the SAF would be represented in all branches of the government and that the distinction between the civilian and military bureaucracies would be less clear.

The younger Lee's ascendancy to positions of greater power both in the PAP and the cabinet demonstrated his increased political stature. He was elected second assistant secretary general of the party in 1989, a post that had been vacant since 1984. This position placed him second in line in the party hierarchy behind his father and Goh Chok Tong, who was first assistant secretary general of the party and deputy prime minister and minister for defence in the cabinet. Lee enhanced his position in the cabinet when, as minister for trade and industry, he was named chairman of a special economic policy review committee. In this capacity, he gained the power to review the policies of all the ministries for their economic impact on Singapore. Previously such reviews were conducted only by the Ministry of Finance. Some Singapore observers speculated in 1989 that Lee would one day be appointed minister for finance and add control of Singapore's purse to his influence over the armed forces.

Generational ties supplemented the institutional links. Lee Hsien Loong and his associates were in their mid- to late thirties in 1989. Lee's nearest rival for power was Goh, who was forty-seven years old. Goh and his few allies in the cabinet, who were in their mid- to late forties, appeared to be increasingly losing ground to the younger group, however. For those with a military background, the military connection remained important even though they had resigned from the military before undertaking their civilian posts. The obligation of all males to periodically undergo reservist training assured that the military connection was not severed. If the army became a source of future cabinet ministers, some political observers expected that ethnic Malays and Indians would find it even more difficult to gain access to senior government positions. Ironically, the army in pre-independent Singapore was predominantly Malay and Indian. After independence, however, the government changed this bias by increasing Chinese representation through universal conscription.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress