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ST attempts to shape public opinion with 3rd option: PM Lee to stay beyond 70 as PM

by Vincent Low

ST Insight Editor Elgin Toh published an article today ('Should PM Lee lead beyond 70?', 2 Feb) advocating a third option of having PM Lee to continue to lead Singapore as PM, well beyond age 70.

This option came about because of differences between PM Lee and ESM Goh in the last couple of months.

On 31 Dec 2017, ESM Goh suddenly posted a Facebook message urgently asking the 4th generation PAP ministers to choose the next PM amongst them. He wanted to see the PM-designate in place in the next 6 to 9 months.

But about a month later, PM Lee publicly rebuked him through the media. PM Lee said, "ESM (Goh) is speaking with the privilege of watching things rather than being responsible to make it happen." PM Lee thinks it will take a "little bit longer" to appoint the next PM-designate.

In the past, People's Action Party (PAP) would let the designated PM to work under the PM for a number of years before succeeding as the next PM of Singapore. ESM Goh was the designated PM working under Lee Kuan Yew for nearly 6 years before he took over as PM in 1990 (he was First DPM from 1985 to 1990). And when ESM Goh became the PM then, PM Lee himself was promoted to become DPM working along side with ESM Goh as PM-designate for the next 14 years before becoming PM in 2004.

Identifying someone early, as proposed by ESM Goh, has its advantages. The PM-designate can be given more significant tasks to the extent of running the Government day to day, as was the case for Goh when he was the First DPM. With the added responsibility, the PM-designate can show to everyone that he can hold his own. Acting early also ensures room for manoeuvre. If he doesn't pass, there is time to explore alternatives.

Then, there is another issue. In the past, PAP PMs did not stay beyond 70. Even PM Lee was not enthusiastic to stay beyond 70 as PM. In a 2012 interview when he was 60, he was asked if he saw himself as PM beyond age 70. He replied: "I hope not."

And added, "Seventy is already a long time more. And Singapore needs a prime minister who is younger, who's got that energy, and who is in tune with that very much younger and very much different generation."

PM Lee was born in Feb 1952 and will be turning 70 in 2022, which means he only has about four years to hand over to a successor and step down as PM. ESM Goh's call makes sense because the PM-designate, if chosen this year, will have at least 4 years to work as an understudy.

ST Editor proposes PM Lee stay beyond 70 citing Reagan and Churchill

In his article, Editor Toh argued that having PM Lee stayed beyond 70 would satisfy ESM Goh's concerns as well as PM Lee's wishes to have a longer time for the 4th generation leaders to learn to work together and for Singaporeans to know them.

"If the purpose is to entrust the mantle of leadership to the next generation, then a more sensible third option is to give the younger ones more time by having PM Lee stay on as PM for slightly longer, beyond the original timeline. This ensures continuity, while the succession issue is worked out," Editor Toh wrote.

Editor Toh also noted that in the 2012 interview, PM Lee did not say no to staying beyond 70. He only said he hope not. "Hoping not is different from saying never," Editor Toh pointed out. "If called on by circumstances to do so, one hopes PM Lee would not refuse to stay on for perhaps a few more years after 70."

He went on to argue that a 70-year-old isn't too old to run a country. He quoted Ronald Reagan was in his 70s when he was the US President. Sir Winston Churchill stepped down as Britain's PM at 80.

"Both were elected by their electorates well after they were 70, and stayed effective," Editor Toh said. However, he played down PM Lee's health scares in recent years and said that the PM "appears to have recovered fully and has shown no public signs of ill health since".

"Having PM Lee lead beyond 70 presents a neat solution to the succession dilemma. It gives enough time for the changing of the guard to happen smoothly and uneventfully. It is an option that merits serious consideration," he concluded.

ST's job of shaping public opinion

In 2011, notes written by US Embassy staff in Singapore were leaked online via Wikileak. In one of the documents, it recorded conversations between ST US Bureau Chief Chua Chin Hon with the US Embassy staff.

Chua lamented that the ST editors have all been groomed as pro-government supporters and are careful to ensure that reporting of local events adheres closely to the official line. He said that none of them has the courage to publish any stories critical of the government.

Chua also revealed that the Singapore government has an established track record of using the press, the ST in particular, to shape public opinion. He noted how the government intends to push a certain policy is often foreshadowed by extensive media coverage (published before the official policy announcements).

As an example, he pointed to the government's decision to assist retirees who lost investments in "mini-bonds" following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. That official decision to help the retirees was announced after a spate of media coverage casting the retirees' plight in sympathetic terms, before the government came to the "rescue".

Given Chua's testimony, it's not known if ST Insight Editor Elgin Toh has been tasked to shape the public opinion with the first ever mention of having PM Lee to stay beyond 70 years and continue on as PM of Singapore.

What do you think?