Constructing Singapore: “pragmatism” and personalised power

29Jun09

The SDP provides some excerpts of Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-Building Project by Michael D. Barr & Zlatko Skrbis (previously reviewed here).

The oil that lubricates the Singapore system is the exercise of personal power.  The personal character of power is demonstrated without much effort in the person of Lee Kuan Yew, who remains in Cabinet 15 years and two prime ministers after his retirement from the premiership, with the creative title of “Minister Mentor”. He was previously “Senior Minister” for the duration of Goh Chok Tong’s premiership, but now Goh holds that title.

His presence in Cabinet must be most uncomfortable for Lee Hsien Loong.  Not only does he have to work in the shadow of the founding father of modern Singapore, as did his predecessor, but in his case the man in question is his father.  Even if Hsien Loong is really his “own man”, who is going to believe it?  Hsien Loong did not even get to announce this Cabinet line-up.  It was Lee Senior who announced that he would continue in Cabinet for as long as he was fit and able to serve, and it was Lee Senior who announced the new hierarchy (for protocol purposes) within the Prime Minister’s Office, whereby he would be third in line behind Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.  An anonymous “government official” was left to confirm Lee Senior’s announcement six days later.

Why does Lee Hsien Loong not simply remove him from Cabinet, as is his constitutional right?  Why did not Goh Chok Tong do so when he was Prime Minister?  Regardless of the power they notionally possess or possessed by virtue of their institutional positions, they both understand that in or out of Cabinet, Lee Kuan Yew retains his personal networks and his personal power.

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