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5 Minutes With…. Choo Zheng Xi on PM Lee’s interview

On PM Lee, succession, and weak leadership

TOC’s Chief Editor Choo Zheng Xi gives his response to today’s Straits Times’ reproduction of an interview done with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long, and gets him to answer the tough questions the mainstream press isn’t.

(The ST report is titled "Beyond kissing babies", April 15, Page H6.)

Zheng Xi will try to bust some myths, ask some tough questions, and attempt to shed some light on the PAP’s remarkably opaque succession plans.

Question 1: Succession?

The interview seems to focus quite a bit on questions relating to his Ministers’ caliber, as opposed to focusing on his collective assessment of his government’s work. Why is the press so keen on getting his appraisal of his ministers’ work as individuals?

Zheng Xi:

An unspoken undertone in almost every single interview done with PM Lee seems to be his succession plans. Reporters seem to be doggedly focused on getting his appraisal of his Ministers’ performance, to better enable them and us to read the tea leaves of succession.

More important than who is going to succeed is another question: why is there a feeling that he is ready to hand over?

Remember that inexplicable denial in the recent Budget debate over PM being sick?

PAP backbencher Ong Ah Heng brought it up, saying:

'When I walk around the constituency, many people ask me: Is our PM in good health? PM has gone overseas. Is it to seek medical treatment? I assure them that the PM is in good health and he has been going round the constituency and attending local events.'

In its report the next day, The Straits Times headlined its article: ‘Speculation spooks more than reality - by the way, PM is fine’. This was written by one of the paper’s more conservative writers, Chua Mui Hoong.

Anyone who knows anything about the Straits Times will realise that clearance for printing something about the Prime Minister’s health would have to be done with at least the tacit acquiescence of the highest levels of government. Otherwise, a scolding by the PM’s Press Secretary will swiftly ensue (remember how the Today editorial team got dressed down after reporting on Lee Kuan Yew’s wife falling ill in England and the treatment accorded to her?).

This resembles the proverbial Chinese story of a man who buries gold in his backyard and puts up a sign saying: no gold here! So I want a clear answer from my government: is the PM in good health or not?

Remember how more cynical Singaporeans saw Goh Chok Tong as a seat warmer for PM Lee? With all this interest in the next generation of succession, who is PM warming the seat for, and for how long?

Question 2: Sizing up the successors

So who is PM Lee warming the seat for? Who seems to be next in line?

Zheng Xi:

Who’s hot: Ng Eng Hen

Who’s not: Khaw Boon Wan, Tharman

Who cares?: Raymond Lim, Vivian Balakrishnan, et al

First you need to see who the press views as plausible PMs-in-waiting. One full question, albeit a critical one, focused on Minister for Health Khaw Boon Wan.

He is the one heavyweight Minister in Cabinet many view as the most capable of connecting with the Chinese-speaking ground. It’s thus not surprising that Lianhe Zaobao would single him out in the PM’s appraisal.

The interview also singled out Education Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen and Transport Minister Raymond Lim for appraisal.

Of all the above, PM spent his interview speaking of Ng most effusively. Most notable was his lukewarm appraisal of Khaw.

In this interview, he displayed an almost wistful longing for more people in Cabinet like his one-of-a-kind Minister for Education and second Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen. If I read this quote out of context, I’d think PM Lee had a crush on him!

‘Regretfully, there are not many people who are like him’.

But it’s not supposed to be read out of context, so here’s what precedes it:

‘Ng Eng Hen was a surgeon who succeeded in becoming a minister, but he needed some time initially to adapt.

Surgeons do not have to consider policies every day. They see patients and are concerned about the patients’ condition, treatment and the required operation. Such experience and way of thinking are different from those needed in policy formulation. But Ng Eng Hen is able to excel in his job as he has strong learning and working capabilities. Regretfully, there are not many people who are like him’. (Emphasis mine)

Contrast that to the tepid appraisal of Minister of Finance Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Khaw:

‘Ministers who have worked in government departments-for example, Tharman or Khaw Boon Wan will face smaller differences, but the disadvantage is they have never worked in the private sector’.

This isn’t just lukewarm, it’s almost downright limiting.

Also, note that he proactively brought up Tharman without being asked directly about him. This, after much talk about the possibility of the him being our first Indian Prime Minister and Tharman’s helming of one of the heavyweight Ministries (Finance), seems to be an attempt to downplay expectations of him.

Question 3: Leadership style

What do you think about PM Lee’s leadership style? He says that a successful leader ‘should not follow the views of other people blindly. He must tell people what he believes in and what his stand is’.

Zheng Xi:
PM Lee’s leadership so far can most kindly be characterised as taking ‘a hands-off approach’, but more realistically be viewed as completely weak leadership. The same way Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir were alter egos, PM Lee seems to be a mirror of his weak counterpart across the Causeway, Abdullah Badawi.

In this same interview, he was asked about Khaw Boon Wan’s unpopular means testing benchmark, which continually had to be adjusted up. His reply is shockingly cavalier:

‘You have to ask Minister Khaw Boon Wan. This is his style, his way of doing things’.

Paraphrased: ‘Khaw’s problem, not mine’.

More recently, Singaporeans will remember how PM was silent for almost one and a half weeks after Mas Selamat’s escape, and responded with a similarly lackadaisical ‘what to do, it happened’.

More remarkable than his tardy response was the fact that his father, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, spoke on the matter before he did.

Even more remarkably (if that is possible), he made the offhand comments not at a specially called press conference to address the issue specifically, but as a response o queries after a grassroots event.

Lest one think I’m nitpicking, remember last year’s Penal Code reforms? The government had no clear position on the repeal of 377A. In fact, as a matter of principle, it seemed committed to not discriminating against homosexuals. However, it still kept 377A on the books as a sop to vocal religious conservatives and for political reasons - heartlanders were not ready for relaxing 377A.

Its resolve on abolishing marital rape immunity was equally abysmal. It chose a pathetic cop-out: partial abolition of the defense of marital rape immunity if the wife was separated from the husband, or had obtained a protection order against him. Instead of biting the bullet and going for full abolition, it chose a weak halfway house that satisfied few.

Most importantly for the man in the street is the government’s slipshod approach to social assistance. Poverty and the widening income gap is becoming a glaringly large problem for PM’s government, and his response thus far seems to bear out my ‘hands-off’ thesis.

The recent NTUC discount vouchers were a clumsy attempt to make finding the solution to poverty alleviation someone else’s. It is striking that the Cabinet itself is taking zero initiative to take the bull by its horns and propose a comprehensive plan to alleviate poverty and narrow the income gap. Instead, it is content to leave it to the NTUC to work out a voucher scheme, and its grassroots MPs to figure out a mode of distribution.

The government’s raising of public assistance payouts by $40 recently came only after a barrage of criticism, Ministerial fee hikes, and record inflation. Basically, too little, too late.

How a society protects and provides for its most vulnerable is the best reflection of its values. On the question of values, PM Lee’s government has been notably frightened to take the lead. Even when it affects people’s livelihood.

Note: The original interview with PM Lee was done by Lianhe Zaobao. The Straits Times later reproduced it in English.

Cartoon from My Sketchbook.

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