Blast from the past: reinventing the heir

Seven years later, is he (Lee, known popularly as “BG Lee”) kinder and gentler? Perhaps. He says the government can’t legislate away social change: Young people are more Westernized, have greater access to information, and won’t accept the social restrictions they once did. “We are not a museum,” Lee says. “We are plugged in and switched on.

So as the world changes, we also have to evolve.” He says today’s Singapore is “a Singapore which the new generation identifies with in a way they wouldn’t if it were the same as it was in 1990,” and tosses off the name of the Backstreet Boys, a mild pop band that his sons listen to.

But watch out if you’re politically involved, because Lee, like most of his colleagues, sees no quarter for compromise. He defends the lawsuits which government leaders, including himself, have lodged against opposition politicians. “I think it generates the right type of debate that we want to encourage,” is his explanation of the lawsuits. “We want politics to have a certain tone, a certain dignity, a certain integrity and uprightness.”

Still, many figure that Singapore can’t go back to the authoritarian style of Lee Kuan Yew. “Goh Chok Tong has allowed him to move away from his father,” says Chua Beng Huat, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore, who says Lee Hsien Loong’s government will be more like Goh’s regime than Lee Kuan Yew’s.

Lee dodges questions of his relationship with his father, whom he still consistently refers to as “the senior minister.” Still, the two are close. Lee’s family dines with his parents weekly, and when the senior minister was learning to use a computer to write his recently released memoirs, he once telephoned his son to come help him retrieve a file he’d inadvertently lost. His son did.


This article by Ben Dolven appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review on 15 July 1999 and the full extract is available at Asia Wind