LONDON – All political leaders worry about their legacies. Lee Kuan Yew, who presided over Singapore either directly or indirectly for more than a half-century – remaining influential right up to his death at 91 – had more time in power than most to do so. Several volumes of memoirs attest to Lee’s concern about his legacy, although Singapore’s extraordinary success under his leadership speaks for itself. Like him or not – and many did not – there is no denying the city-state’s remarkable and enduring prosperity and stability.
Yet the effort put into those memoirs by the man who called himself “Minister Mentor” during his later years offers a clue about Lee’s ultimate concern. His legacy in terms of Singapore’s past success may be clear, but what about the future?
That, of course, is one of the few things he could not control, beyond offering his teachings to future generations. Yet in one crucial respect – determining who Singapore’s new generation of leaders will be – the tight control that Lee exercised in the past may now make that future more difficult. The issue is certainly solvable, especially given an excellent education system and high-quality institutions of all kinds. But Lee’s own actions suggest that he harbored doubts.
The succession to Lee was clear: after handing over the premiership in 1990 (at the surprisingly young age of 66) to a trusted associate, Goh Chok Tong, he groomed his eldest son, Brigadier-General Lee Hsien Loong, for the job. After serving as Singapore’s trade minister, finance minister, and deputy prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong took over the top post in 2004. What is unresolved is where power goes next, and how.