History repeats

The Economist on Lee Hsien Loong:

He is the son of Singapore’ s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, and shares his father’s measured, practical and technocratic approach to government. He also shares a somewhat condescending, didactic bent, and a tendency to chide and admonish rather than charm and encourage. His speeches brim with grim economic prognoses and stern injunctions to Singaporeans to tighten their belts. After a 14-year interval under the affable Goh Chok Tong, most Singaporeans will find the reversion of leadership to the Lee dynasty more like a cold shower than an exhilarating leap into the unknown.

Sons turn out like their fathers, the saying goes (personal note: I’m really glad I don’t have a brother). I was (and am) away for much of the 14 years Goh Chok Tong has been prime minister, so I’m not sure about that whole ‘affable’ thing. As for Lee Hsien Loong, his profile has been energetically lifted in the last couple of years, we’ve all seen him on teevee, doing the public relations thing, being the finance minister, being the head of the central bank.

Quicksilver coverHark back to the days of Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, where language was flowery and men dressed like poofs. The younger Mr Lee puts me in mind of the Earl of Upnor, a well-educated, well-spoken, privileged young man. Naturally, I would never claim that Mr Lee killed a Puritan, or anyone for that matter — I am only talking of attitudes.

I’m sure growing up in the Lee household is tough — if you’re not among the best (if not number one all the way) among your peers, the weight of family disappointment must be crushing. I imagine it’s Chinese Family Expectations Turbo®, really. But with these expectations comes a life of privilege and preference (see my previous post on the Lee Family Super Gene® that can apparently be transmitted through marriage).

Fans of the family argue that this concentration of power stems simply from its members’ remarkable talent, not their connections. They claim the younger Mr Lee’s rapid ascent through the ranks of the army to become a brigadier-general by the age of 32 rested purely on merit, as did his promotion to the post of deputy prime minister after only six years in politics.

Six years? I demand to know why the Bush Administration isn’t scoffing at his lack of experience!


Does Singapore want another prime minister like Lee Kuan Yew, whose tactics brought the country much progress when it wasn’t exactly developed? The younger Mr Lee, as well as all the Smart Political Friend-Lees® in the government or political machines, know he cannot rule like his father did. Hence all that talk about ‘taking the plunge’. But they are not loosening the ropes that bind their power together (yet, if ever).

Who cares if bungee-jumping is allowed, what difference does it really make? If Mr Lee is serious about opening up, let us do things like gather freely in groups to discuss politics and society, or anything under the sun — don’t let an old law from the days of riots hang over our heads. Let us express ourselves in speech, in print, on stage, on the teevee — don’t let the Internal Security Act bogeyman hide under our beds.

With freedom comes responsibility, and not letting Singaporeans be free is explicit in its distrust for our capacity to act responsibly.

To add another cliche, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.