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Next Step : Shakeup in Singapore: An Autocrat Steps Aside : Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew is turning power over to his deputy. Can his country's economic miracle survive without him?

November 20, 1990|CHARLES P. WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SINGAPORE — It has been an epochal year for Singapore. In August, the tiny island nation celebrated 25 years of independence--a notable achievement given that few outside observers present at its birth believed the country would even survive, much less go on to become a model of the Asian economic miracle.

On Nov. 28, an even more momentous event will take place: Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the man who made the miracle happen, transforming a backwater seaport into a high-tech financial and trade center, is stepping aside. Lee's handpicked deputy, Goh Chok Tong, will take over as prime minister and Lee's son, Lee Hsien Loong, will advance to the No. 2 job in the government.

Will Singapore change? Without Lee at the helm, can Singapore hope to maintain its remarkable record of growth and stability? And will a government used to an authoritarian style of leadership survive the transition to rule by consensus?

The answers may lie in Singapore's unique situation and traditions.

Lee's legacy is one of the success stories of Asia. Sandwiched into just 240 square miles, Singapore's 2.6 million people now enjoy the highest per capita income in the region after Japan and oil-rich Brunei, with an economy that grew by 11% in 1988 and 9.2% last year.

The country is a bounty of civic amenities, ranging from tropical gardens to sparkling clean mass transit, a government where corruption is virtually non-existent and where the majority of residents live in publicly built homes that they were able to buy outright from the government.

But it is also a place so competitive that parents often feel compelled to hire tutors to coach their children through nursery school, and where the government tinkers with "genetic engineering" by trying to arrange marriages of well-educated civil servants. The pervasive presence of this "nanny" side of the government is frequently mentioned as one of the reasons that Singapore faces a problem with the emigration of its skilled workers.

The dilemma confronting the post-Lee leadership will be to create what Goh, borrowing from President Bush, calls a "gentler, kinder" government to keep the new generation content without diminishing Singapore's renowned economic discipline.

Western diplomats stationed here are fond of remarking that Singapore functions more like a Fortune 500 corporation than a nation, which is both a tribute to the renowned efficiency of its management style and a barbed commentary on the intrusiveness of the government in the life of its people.

The analogy is a useful guide, however, when trying to understand the transition that is taking place. If Lee Kuan Yew at age 67 is stepping aside as Singapore's chief executive officer, he is very much staying on as the chairman of the board.

Lee was quoted in 1988 as having told his political followers: "Those who believe that when I have left the government as prime minister, that I've gone into permanent retirement, should have their heads examined. Even from my sickbed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave, and I feel something is wrong, I'll get up."

After the transition, Lee is staying on in the government as a senior minister without portfolio, meaning that the considerable force of his personality will continue to be felt in Cabinet sessions. Most analysts believe that Lee had long ago turned over the day-to-day operations of the government to his deputies while reserving his time for setting the country's broader agenda.

Perhaps equally important, Lee will continue as secretary general of the People's Action Party, the political movement he founded with the Communists in the 1950s to fight for independence. Later, he wrested the party away from his erstwhile allies and used it to crush their opposition.

The party, which controls 80 of the 81 seats in Parliament, still functions more along the lines of a Communist movement than a Western political party, with an unknown number of key officials, secretly selected from the membership, exercising the real power. Thus, the man who controls the selection of these "cadres" will continue to command the loyalty of the government apparatus. That means the Anglophile Lee, who reportedly invites potential candidates to his home for an interview over afternoon tea.

There has even been speculation that Lee aspired to take on the post of Singapore's president, which recently was beefed up from a ceremonial job to an elective post with veto powers over the judiciary and civil service. But Lee said last week that he has no intention of running for the job when the term of the current president, Wee Kim Wee, expires in October, 1993.

The transition is obviously focusing a lot of attention on the personality of Goh Chok Tong, the 49-year-old first deputy prime minister, who has finally begun to emerge from Lee's shadow after 14 years in politics.

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