Is Power Behind the Throne or Power Really on the Throne?
The survey results at the sidebar may not be the most statistically accurate but it probably does reflects on how the majority of Singaporeans felt and think about our Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. There are many other blogs, websites, anarchists, rubbish and websites that criticize and, maybe even ridicule Lee Hsien Loong (LHL) and how he became PM with the help of his father, Lee Kuan Yew. This blog will not be another biased slur on him. If you need these slanted and profane articles, this may not be the best article you need. Maybe what this article can provide is the views from inside (people working with him and former school mates) as well as assessments.
Lee Hsien Loong was born on 10 February 1952 and educated in Nanyang Primary School, Catholic High School and National Junior College. Later, he was awarded the President's Scholarship in 1970 and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Scholarship in 1971. LHL studied at the University of Cambridge, where he graduated in 1974 with First Class Honours in Mathematics and a Diploma in Computer Science (with distinction).
In 1979, he became a Mason Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, graduating in 1980 with a Master's degree in Public Administration. He joined the SAF in 1971, held various staff and command posts, and attended the US Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, USA, in 1978. He was the first Director of the Joint Operations and Plans Directorate, and Chief of Staff of the General Staff, when he left the SAF in 1984 as a Brigadier-General to enter politics.
LHL was appointed Minister of State in the Ministry of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Defence in 1984. He was promoted to Acting Minister for Trade and Industry in 1986, and confirmed as full minister in 1987, when he became concurrently Second Minister for Defence. In 1990, LHL was appointed Deputy Prime Minister with responsibilities for economic and civil service matters. He also continued as Minister for Trade and Industry until 1992. Concurrently, he was appointed Chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore in 1998, and Minister for Finance in 2001.
On 12 August 2004, LHL succeeded Mr Goh Chok Tong as Prime Minister. He remains the Minister for Finance but relinquished the chairmanship of the Monetary Authority of Singapore to Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.
First married to Wong Ming Yang in 1978, Mr Lee was widowed in 1982. He remarried to Ho Ching in 1985. He has one daughter and three sons.
Behind the Background
The details of his background (above) can be quite easily retrieved from the PMO website, but beneath these qualifications, who is, really, our Prime Minister?
We do know that LHL was from Cambridge and graduated with First-Class Honours, but maybe some might suspect that he was riding on his father’s might. First and foremost, Cambridge does not take such favourism, even the son of a Prime Minister of a small, backwater former British Colony that broke free. An Associate Professor, Jayaram Muthuswamy, currently teaching in one of the local universities, once asked his friends in Cambridge, how smart was LHL? The answer he got from the senior professors there was that he results was so high up in the scale that the number two in the class was quite a distance from his score. Don’t quote me on that, but trust the reputation of Cambridge. From young, he bears the burden of being the Lee Kuan Yew’s son. The pressure to perform academically was second to none. He has to perfect his English, Malay, Mandarin, and even learn Russian. And there was no compromise in his education, he was demanded the best of him, the best he delivered.
Academically, he might be brilliant, but you might wonder, politically, how acute is his leadership and senses. And what was his political history in the government behind the public veil. Look no further, just read between the lines of former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s National Rally Speech:
“As for the new team leader, I have taken uiet soundings from Ministers and MPs on whom they would choose. The clear consensus is Hsien Loong. He is also my choice.
No one doubts Loong’s competence, his leadership qualities and his commitment to Singapore. Foreign leaders and investors respect him. This is important for Singapore.
But I know that some Singaporeans are uncomfortable with Loong's leadership style. Loong's public persona is that of a no-nonsense, uncompromising and tough Minister. Singaporeans would like Loong to be more approachable. They have got used to my gentler style.
But it is not fair to expect him to be like me, just as it was not fair to expect me to be like SM. In 1990, before I became Prime Minister, SM advised me to be tough and be feared. But I thought it best to be myself, and not try to act tough…
My point is, I found my own way to communicate with you, the people. Likewise, I believe that Loong will find his own way to establish rapport with you. He is not me, and he is not his father. Loong is aware of the people's perception of him. We have discussed it frankly among the Ministers. I have told Loong that he has to let his softer side show.
Already, I see Loong becoming more relaxed in public. In a TV discussion with junior college students last year, he was open, and willing to give and take good arguments, often with good humour. That is the Loong the MPs and Ministers know.”
Later, PM Goh mentioned the “Dhanabalan’s slapping incident” and later feigned amnesia. Below is the full quote:
“You may also have heard this old story about Loong. Back in 1990, Loong had a quarrel with Richard Hu. Dhanabalan sided with Richard. Loong lost his temper, reached across the table, and gave Dhanabalan a tight slap! The whole Cabinet was thrown into commotion. I then forced Loong to apologise.
I must be suffering from amnesia. I just cannot remember this incident! Now you know how creative Singaporeans are!”
Earlier he made the comment that LHL has a tough, no-nonsense persona. Seemingly, GCT seems to be giving an example of LHL’s “so-called” tough persona and reconfirming this public image. But he didn’t want to go all the way in that comment and said that that was the past and is not representative of the present. To be honest, I think the LHL is a very different person now, compared to the LHL 15-20 years ago. Two events changed his life tremendously.
First turning point was the death of his first wife, Malaysian-born medical doctor Dr Wong Ming Yang, in 1982. According to public media, she died of a heart attack shortly after giving birth to their second child. Others claim that she committed suicide by pressures from her in-laws but this is certainly not true and probably arisen from people that bore aversion out of LKY’s authoritative rule.
Second turning point and the more defining one, was his cancer (lymphoma) in 1992. Prior to the diagnosis, the doctors found three small polyps in BG Lee's rectum. He had earlier complained of bleeding. The doctors said that they were benign, and left the operation to a convenient time. As it turns out, the polyps turned out to be intermediate-grade malignant lymphoma. He then underwent several months of chemotherapy and recovered. As GCT mentioned about LHL’s perceived tough style in 1990, the cancer in 1992 may have mellowed him. During then (1990), everyone assumed that he was “Heir-Apparent” and PM Goh was just a “seat-warmer”. LHL was rising so fast so quickly that his confidence might have got the better of him. After all, there seems to be nothing stopping from taking on the most powerful office in the land (President is the “highest” office in the land, but the power is, of course, with the PM). All the sudden and “like a bolt from the blue” (LKY’s words), he was struck down with the cancer.
The impact on the lives of any born-again former-cancer patient cannot be underestimated. It probably brought him down-to-earth and made him felt vulnerable. For once, he was not the “doctor” addressing symptoms but a “patient”. Thus, reconciling with what PM Goh mentioned on events in 1990, it is important to note that, if at all he was the tough-talking Minister in 1990, he was a very different man after 1992.
Policies That He Initiated Before Becoming PM
A lot of people wondered, has LHL contributed that much in terms of policies to earn him the seat in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO)? The same people probably didn’t know that he was the Minister that steered an economic committee to pull Singapore out of its first recession in 1980s. During his time as the Minister for Trade and Industries, he has proven much of his capabilities in steering the economic progress since the 1980s until 1992. The shift from a manufacturing based to a knowledge and value-added economy was very much (unpublicized) attributed to him. As the Second Minister for Defence he had handled the tricky issue of having Malays as pilots and key military officers. Later, he also played a key role in helping Singapore out of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997.
Politically, he was also the first chairman for the youth wing of the PAP (then called the youth committee) which is called the Young PAP (YP) today. If you do ask any ex-Ministers or MPs to describe LHL the same words will occur: “sharp and unassuming”. Indeed, even during my several times of meeting him, you could see that he is extremely sharp in the minute details that would have eluded any Ministers. Ask any residents of his Teck Ghee constituency, he is not the pretentious MP that nods his head at every story that the resident tells him. He will ask and know if it was a tall tale or a genuine case. Rarely, would you see a Cabinet Minister of his status attending the MPS (meet-the-people session), but he is the one that attends at least 2 out of 4 MPS if he is in Singapore.
How Was Our Prime Minister Chosen?
Following up on the National Day Rally, PM Goh had a discussion with Wong Kan Seng and Mah Bow Tan on how to put in place a process for selecting the next Prime Minister. They (Wong and Mah Bow Tan) tossed around several ideas and finally settled on a three-stage process: First, the ministers to choose their leader; Second, the caucus of PAP MPs to show the support and Third, the CEC to endorse the decision.
On May 22, Wong Kan Seng called for a meeting with the Cabinet Ministers (at his office at New Phoenix Park), at the request of PM Goh. 11 Ministers (LHL, Mah Bow Tan, Lim Boon Heng, Teo Chee Hean, Lim Hng Kiang, George Yeo, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Lim Swee Say, Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Khaw Boon Wan) were invited to the meeting. They went round the table to discuss on the possible candidates and all showed clear support for LHL. In that same afternoon, Wong Kan Seng reported the unanimous decision of the Ministers present to PM Goh.
Next, on May 28, the PAP MPs gathered at Parliament House for the caucus meeting. PM Goh started the meeting and informed the MPs that they are free to put up other names and their nominations would be considered by the CEC. He then told the MPs that the younger Ministers had chosen LHL as his successor. “If you support this, then show it by the usual way,” he said. MPs then broke in applause. This process was not a formal voting by MPs session but by default process. The reason could be to minimize any Party in-fighting or disagreement.
Lastly, on May 29, PM Goh held the CEC meeting and presented the results to the CEC. The CEC approved and endorsed their choice.
One would say, was there any possible number 2 challenger in the first place? There are but they never made it pass the watchful eyes of the “Cabinet Custodian”. I’ll leave it to your imagination and research.
Why He Held on to the Finance Minister Portfolio
Ask any political analysts, on which is the most important ministry in all government and the answer would unanimously similar. It is not Ministry of Defence, not Ministry of Foreign Affairs and not even the Prime Minister’s Office but is the Ministry of Finance. In the modern day of politics, what goes up in the agenda (policy of focus) or what falls out of favour depends on the directives of the Ministry of Finance. Behind the public veil, there is lots of bartering and negotiation within Ministries and inter-Ministries for the limited financial resources to carry out the policies. All policies are costly. The prominence and glam of both Ministries and Ministers depends on the budget they are allocated with. Quite simply, without money, there is little the Minister can do to implement or gain prominence.
For LHL to be both PM and Finance Minister is his masterstroke (or maybe his dad’s). With both decision-making power and financial resources in his hands, he is able to control every Minister and Ministry. The rise and fall of each Minister’s career depends on the resources he is given to work on. With LHL control it, he holds the key to all the careers of Ministers. Furthermore, he is a mathematics genius and nobody is more qualified in the Cabinet than him.
However, harnessing resources of MOF is just an empty power. MOF is basically a “distribution centre” for resources. Like every economy, there is a pulse that keeps the heart beating. For Hong Kong, it is in the hands of the tycoons such as Li Ka Shing. For China, it is the state-owned enterprises such as Salt and Agriculture Industries. For Singapore, the pulse cannot be controlled by private-ownership such Li Ka Shing for Hong Kong. The economy would be too vulnerable to the market-forces. Yet, it cannot be in the closed arms (as in within a Ministry) of the government due to the pressures in the 80s for privatization. So LHL has to have some form of control over Temasek Holdings, or else any directives from the MOF might not be effective on the economy if the pulse is not under control.
Wife of Our PM: Ho Ching
There is lots of criticism over LHL as the Finance Minister, while his wife, Ho Ching as the CEO and Executive Director of Temasek Holdings. Of course, there isn’t a need for me to add any more criticism to the already plentiful sources.
I’ve met Mdm Ho Ching once, in 2001 at the Opening of the DSTA. She came across as polite and unassuming women with no airs of the power she possesses. From a business point of view, if the company is making profits year after year, why should they change their CEO? Since this topic isn’t on Mdm Ho Ching, I should not write too deeply into it.
Personally, I think LHL was quite unfairly labeled as “Lee Kuan Yew’s son” without giving due credit to his capabilities. From my sources inside, LHL is not the authoritative and tough Minister that he was portrayed as by the media and critics. One such example is the Casino issue. Contrary to what most people think, LHL was one of the very few that oppose the casino, initially. His grandfather was an addicted gambler and nearly caused the breaking up of LKY’s family. Thus, both LKY and LHL are dead against gambling and casino. But they still accepted the proposal, hear more about it and listened to the Cabinet Colleagues. The details of that discussion I can’t write it here but the point is that LHL didn’t insist on his only point of view but accepted opinions and differences with his colleagues. From my time of meeting him, I think he is an extremely smart and sharp individual but wasn’t given adequate credit due to his birth links. Time will tell if he is a good PM, but he is definitely a better orator than GCT. After all, he is one of the world’s longest serving Deputy Prime Minister with 13 years of understudy. I say, “Give him a chance and credit where credit is due”.