He and Goh Chok Tong retire to give PM room to break from the past
By Zuraidah Ibrahim
Mr Lee Kuan Yew yesterday nudged Singapore decisively towards a future without his towering presence as he, together with Mr Goh Chok Tong, announced their desire to quit Cabinet.
In a 148-word joint statement, the two former prime ministers said the time had come to give Mr Lee Hsien Loong and his team a 'fresh clean slate' to carry the country forward in a more difficult and complex situation. Both will remain Members of Parliament.
Prime Minister Lee did not confirm that he would accept their resignations from Government. 'It's a major matter so I'd like to take some time to think it over to decide how I should decide and I'll think about it for a couple of days before I give my response,' he said last night.
But he described their moves as a 'selfless decision' and a major event for Singapore. 'It shows that they are thinking of Singapore and of the future of Singapore,' he told reporters at a post-election parade to thank voters in his Ang Mo Kio GRC.
The retirement of Minister Mentor Lee, 87, would end an extraordinary 52 years in government, including 31 years as Singapore's first Prime Minister. Senior Minister Goh, 69, has spent 35 years in office, including 14 as Mr Lee's successor.
Noting that younger Singaporeans wanted to be engaged in the decisions that affect them, their joint statement said: 'After a watershed general election, we have decided to leave the Cabinet and have a completely younger team of ministers to connect to and engage with this young generation in shaping the future of our Singapore.'
The announcement comes exactly a week after a general election that the ruling People's Action Party won with its least impressive performance since Independence, losing six seats and 39.9 per cent of the popular vote to the opposition.
Both men had stirred controversy with some of their statements during the heated campaign. Responding to the election results, PM Lee said that voters had expressed 'significant concerns, both on the issues and on our approach to government'.
In their statement yesterday, titled Joint Statement By SM Goh Chok Tong And MM Lee Kuan Yew, reflecting their relative ranks on the protocol list, the two men said that they had studied the new political situation and thought about how it could affect the future.
While they had made their contributions, they noted the yearnings of a younger generation that wanted, apart from a non-corrupt and meritocratic government and a high standard of living, to be more engaged in the decisions that affected them.
Even as they declared their desire to step down, the two leaders urged the younger team to bear in mind the interests of the older generation who had contributed to Singapore and to look after them well.
MM Lee once famously said that if he knew something was wrong with Singapore, he would rise as he was being lowered into his grave to set it right.
Asked about the sudden decision to withdraw from Government, he said last night that he and Mr Goh wanted to show that Singapore was in a new era.
'It cannot be government as usual. Both former PMs withdrawing from the Government will indicate that it is not government as usual and that the PM can and will revise and revamp his policies going into this new situation,' he said in an e-mailed reply to The Sunday Times.
'SM Goh and I believe this is the right thing to do, to give PM and his team the room to break from the past, and we want to make it clear that the PAP has never been averse to change. It is vital to avoid a situation where people vote to have more opposition for opposition's sake.'
Mr Goh, who turns 70 this Friday, posted the news on his constituency's Facebook page, MParader: 'PM can then refresh his Cabinet to forge a new Singapore consensus by rethinking policies and reshaping Singapore with fresh ideas.'
PM Lee said he would probably be ready to announce his new Cabinet line-up early this week. If his predecessors are not on it, Cabinet would no longer have any minister inducted before 1984. The oldest minister after the two is Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng, who is 64 and was elected in 1984 along with PM Lee.
Several newly elected PAP MPs are expected to become office holders in the coming years, forming the core of a fourth-generation leadership. One of them, Brigadier-General (NS) Tan Chuan-Jin, reacted quickly to yesterday's news on his Facebook page: 'This is part of our efforts to move forward. But I have to say with all respect that it is with a very heavy heart that I see this day.'
There had been mounting speculation about when Singapore would enter the post-LKY era. On top of his advancing years, MM Lee suffered the loss of his wife and confidante of 63 years, Madam Kwa Geok Choo, last October.
Mr Lee led the PAP into power in 1959 at the age of 35. Mr Goh took over in 1990 and pledged to build on the first generation's success while opening up new avenues for consultation and nurturing a more gracious society. Mr Goh handed over the premiership to Mr Lee Hsien Loong in 2004.
A Cabinet with two former prime ministers has always been an oddity, but the Government has maintained that they remained assets to the team.
Since stepping down as PM, Mr Goh has travelled to various parts of the world to raise Singapore's profile, most notably in the Middle East, India and Europe. He was credited with fostering closer ties between Asia and Europe.
MM Lee has repeatedly voiced his concern that younger Singaporeans might forget the constant vigilance required to secure the future of a small and vulnerable island republic, an '80-storey building on marshy land', was how he put it in the recent book, Hard Truths.
His two-volume memoirs and lengthy interviews for Hard Truths were motivated by his conviction that Singapore was no ordinary country that could run on auto-pilot and a desire to impress that upon a younger generation.
This year marked his 14th General Election. MM Lee won his Tanjong Pagar seat uncontested. On Nomination Day, when he took the microphone, he pledged to take care of his constituents for the next five years.
At 87, he missed not a beat when he noticed that none of his other GRC colleagues had spoken in Chinese. He grasped the microphone for a second time and said in Mandarin: 'Thank you everyone, thank you all, let's progress and fight on' - and this after a walkover.
His decision yesterday stemmed from that same instinct to never take voters for granted. If it was change that people demanded, he was not afraid of it.
Whatever the future holds for him, one thing is not likely to change for Singapore's most influential son. As he said over and over again in the course of this newspaper's interviews with him for Hard Truths: 'Singapore is my concern till the end of my life.'
'We have studied the new political situation and thought how it can affect the future. We have made our contributions to the development of Singapore.
The time has come for a younger generation to carry Singapore forward in a more difficult and complex situation. The Prime Minister and his team of younger leaders should have a fresh clean slate.
A younger generation, besides having a non-corrupt and meritocratic Government and a high standard of living, wants to be more engaged in the decisions which affect them.
After a watershed General Election, we have decided to leave the Cabinet and have a completely younger team of ministers to connect to and engage with this young generation in shaping the future of our Singapore.
But the younger team must always have in mind the interests of the older generation. This generation who has contributed to Singapore must be well-looked after.'
Singapore is his lifelong concern
MM reminds younger team to look after older generation even as they move forward
By Lydia Lim , Rachael Chang
When he turned 80 in 2003, Mr Lee Kuan Yew said he would retire from office when he was no longer able to contribute to the Government.
In an interview with The Straits Times to mark his birthday, he was asked, what if no one in Cabinet dared to tell you when that time came.
Mr Lee laughed then, and said: 'You don't have to tell me. I can feel it when I am no longer making a contribution.'
Yesterday, the Minister Mentor let Singaporeans know that in his judgment, that day has come.
In a statement issued jointly with Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong one week after Singaporeans went to the polls in the 11th General Election since independence, he said:
'After a watershed General Election, we have decided to leave the Cabinet and have a completely younger team of ministers to connect to and engage with this young generation in shaping the future of our Singapore.'
They asked the younger team of leaders to always have in mind the interests of the older generation, who have contributed to Singapore and must be well-looked after.
The People's Action Party (PAP), which Mr Lee helped found in 1954, first came to power in 1959.
As the party's secretary-general, Mr Lee became Singapore's first prime minister. He was 35 years old.
Six years later, in August 1965, he found himself in charge of a newly independent Singapore, after a failed merger with Malaysia. Observers did not regard the British trading outpost without a hinterland of its own, as a viable sovereign state.
Yet within a generation, Mr Lee was able to, in the words of former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, transform Singapore from Third World to First.
He and the first-generation leaders grew Singapore's economy, found jobs for the people and rehoused the population.
He led by example to create a culture of clean and incorruptible government.
He set the pace in leadership renewal, which began in the 1970s and proceeded in earnest in the 1980s when the Old Guard ministers made way for younger talent.
In 1990, while still in robust health, Mr Lee, then aged 67, resigned as prime minister and handed over the reins to Mr Goh.
Weeks before the handover, he said in an interview with a foreign magazine, Worldlink: 'I think my mission will not be complete until the system has been handed over and works without me. Whether my colleagues and I have succeeded or failed depends upon whether Singapore works without us.'
But Mr Lee remained in Cabinet, as senior minister, to share his experience and views with the younger ministers.
He went on to play a key role in shaping a new institution of government, the Elected Presidency, designed as a check on the executive arm's ability to spend the nation's reserves.
He was also behind a policy that has proved controversial to this day - the 1994 decision to benchmark ministerial salaries to top private sector pay.
During the parliamentary debate in November 1994, he said:
'I say this is necessary for Singapore. I say face up to the facts, get a good generation in, get the best of this generation.'
In May 2004, Mr Lee became Minister Mentor when his son, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, was appointed Singapore's third Prime Minister.
On his decision to retain the elder Mr Lee in Cabinet, the new PM said he remained 'a unique national resource'.
His role as Minister Mentor would be that of 'a wise and trusted guide, who gives advice and counsel'. Younger ministers could continue to draw from his 'databank'.
Foreign leaders and diplomats also continued to seek out the Minister Mentor for his analyses of international developments, especially those affecting the Asia-Pacific region.
Despite his advancing age, MM Lee travelled overseas regularly to represent Singapore at international conferences and meetings, his reputation always ensuring him an appreciative audience.
But over time, the Minister Mentor's political style began to diverge from how a younger generation of Singaporeans preferred to engage with their leaders.
During the recent election campaign, MM Lee upset many when he warned residents of Aljunied GRC that they would have 'five years to live and repent' if they voted for the opposition.
It fell to the Prime Minister to correct this misstep.
At a lunchtime rally at UOB Plaza, PM Lee sought Singaporeans' understanding, saying that MM could not be other than himself in speaking his mind on issues.
He added that he had spoken to the elder Mr Lee that a younger team of leaders would work with Singaporeans in their own way to deliver results.
Last Sunday, a day after the May 7 polls, MM Lee observed at a community event that '2011 has seen a generation that does not remember from whence we came'.
'That is to be expected,' he said. 'But I do and those amongst you who are older than 50 will remember.'
'And do not believe that the Singapore flight can be on autopilot. We will run into a storm, we will run into all kinds of emergencies and we must have good pilots on board,' he added.
In January, Mr Lee had launched a book, Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, based on 32 hours of interviews with Straits Times journalists.
He wrote in the foreword that his aim was to convince younger Singaporeans, who had never seen harsh economic times or known threats from neighbouring countries, that Singapore must remain strong in its economy and defence to stay safe, and prosper.
Now, Mr Lee has decided he should step back and leave the Prime Minister and his crew to steer the country as they see fit.
One member of Singapore's fourth-generation leadership, Brigadier-General(NS) Tan Chuan-Jin, yesterday said MM Lee and SM Goh's decision means PM Lee can refresh his Cabinet to forge a new Singapore consensus.
'This is part of our efforts to move forward,' he wrote in a post on Facebook. 'But I have to say with all respect that it is with a very heavy heart that I see this day.'
Back in 2003, when he spoke about retiring from office, MM Lee also said that he would remain as a Member of Parliament as long as he was fit and able.
Sir Winston Churchill, he said, had done so long after he retired as prime minister.
'Critical decisions are made in a parliamentary caucus before the vote. I want to speak my mind when it comes,' Mr Lee said then.
He could leave office, he added, 'but emotionally, I will always be concerned about the future of the people of Singapore'.
Lee Kuan Yew: 52 years in politics
Secretary, Straits Chinese British Association
Member of Malayan Forum in Britain, a grouping established by Dr Goh Keng Swee and Tun Abdul Razak to advocate Malayan independence
On return to Singapore from England, Mr Lee joined legal firm of Chan, Laycock and Ong. Later, he forms his own legal firm, Lee and Lee, with his wife and brother
1950s: Legal adviser to several trade unions and political detainees
1954: Together with associates, he founds the People's Action Party (PAP), initially an alliance between non-communist and pro-communist left. Became Secretary-General of the party and held this office until November 1992 (except for a brief period in 1957, when the party was captured by extreme leftists).
1956-1957: Participated in constitutional talks with British colonial government, leading to the establishment of self-government for Singapore in 1959
May 1959: Became Singapore's first PM after the PAP won the general election
1961: PAP splits over merger with Malaya. Narrowly wins a vote of confidence in the legislative assembly after 13 PAP assemblymen leave the party to form breakaway party Barisan Sosialis. Trade unions also split into pro-PAP and pro-Barisan Sosialis factions
1962: PAP wins a referendum on merger with Malaya, with 71.1 per cent of the vote
1963: Operation Coldstore launched to arrest key extreme-left leaders. The PAP wins a crucial general election, gaining 37 seats to Barisan Sosialis' 13. Malaysia established in September 1963.
1963-1965: One of 15 MPs representing Singapore in the Malaysian Parliament
1964: Racial riots in Singapore. Launches a campaign for a 'Malaysian Malaysia'. Opposes 'Malay ultras' in the federation
1965: Singapore separated from Malaysia, became PM of independent Singapore. He says, in tears, of the Separation: 'For me, it is a moment of anguish. All my life, my whole adult life, I... believed in Malaysian merger and unity of the two territories... It literally broke everything that we stood for...'
Proclaimed from City Hall: 'Now, I, Lee Kuan Yew, as Prime Minister of Singapore, in this current capacity of mine do hereby proclaim and declare on behalf on the people and the Government of Singapore that as from today, the ninth day of August in the year one thousand nine hundred and sixty-five, Singapore shall be forever a sovereign democratic and independent nation, founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of the people in a most and just equal society.'
1960s: Subdues left-wing trade unions; embarks on export-oriented growth strategy; presides over the establishment of key institutions in the country: among them HDB, EDB, SAF and MAS
1967: Singapore launches own currency. Sterling devalued. Britain announces withdrawal of its forces 'East of Suez', threatening the jobs of tens of thousands of Singaporeans
Late 1960s: Launches campaign to make Singapore a 'clean and green' country. Initiates move to clean up Singapore River
1970s: Institutes bilingual policy. Schools with English as medium of instruction displace vernacular schools
1976: Visits China for the first time; meets Mao Zedong
Inducts future successor Goh Chok Tong into politics
1978: China's new Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping visits Singapore.
1980: Gives a landmark speech urging Singaporeans to help him test out the second-generation leadership for the sake of the country's 'self-renewal'. Speaks in the pouring rain for an hour; the rally crowd barely budges
1980s: Begins retiring 'Old Guard' ministers to induct a new generation of political leadership
1984: PAP vote share slips 12.8 percentage points in the general election, the largest drop ever
1988: Introduces Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) for political candidates to contest in 'teams' to ensure minority representation in Parliament
1990: Signs the Points of Agreement with Malaysian Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin regarding Malayan Railway land in Singapore
Reaches agreement with Malaysian government allowing Singapore to construct, 'at her own cost', the Linggiu dam across the Johor River. The last among the water agreements with Malaysia signed by Mr Lee's government since 1961
Passes the Religious Harmony Act, giving the Government sweeping powers to act against anyone or any group attempting to use religion for political purposes
Steps down as PM, making him the longest-serving PM in the Commonwealth and the longest-serving head of government in Asia. Becomes Senior Minister in Goh Chok Tong's Cabinet
1991: Elected President, empowered to protect the reserves, instituted. Idea first mooted by Mr Lee in the 1980s
2004: Becomes Minister Mentor in Lee Hsien Loong's Cabinet.
PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS TRACK RECORD
From 1991 to 2011: Helmed Tanjong Pagar GRC, which was uncontested for five elections
From 1955 to 1988: Stood and won in Tanjong Pagar single-seat constituency
'I'm very determined. If I decide that something is worth doing, then I'll put my heart and soul to it. The whole ground can be against me, but if I know it is right, I'll do it. That's the business of a leader.'