SINGAPORE — After nearly 14 years at the country’s helm, Goh Chok Tong has announced that he will step down as Singapore’s prime minister on Aug. 12. Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will become the nation’s third prime minister since it gained independence in 1965. It is believed that Goh will remain in the Cabinet, probably as a senior minister, just as Goh’s predecessor (and Lee Hsien Loong’s father) Lee Kuan Yew has done.
Singapore’s three main social stratas — the young professionals/elites, the blue-collar workers and the middle class — have differing expectations of Lee.
The political transition also represents a major challenge to the republic’s drive for greater creativity, social redistribution and tolerance. Singapore must meet these three challenges if it is to compete with emerging Asian giants China and India for export and services markets, as well as maintain harmony in its multiethnic and multireligious society.
For the young professional/elite class, the transition will mark another milestone in Singapore’s political evolution. This group yearns for greater economic and social liberalization. It views creativity as Singapore’s biggest challenge as its economy matures and evolves. It expects the new prime minister to mobilize Singapore’s most critical natural resource — its human capital — to develop a more creative economy and innovative society that will no longer depend on traditional industrial-economy activities such as assembly-line manufacturing.
Creative product design, innovative services, and research and development should propel the Singaporean economy forward at the same time as the country becomes receptive to new social, artistic and political aspirations.
Revamping the education system and molding Singapore’s attitudes toward work and culture into more inquisitive and innovative forms will be a priority for Lee. The development of a more open, exciting lifestyle that would make Singapore a fun place to live and work for expatriates should accompany this massive restructuring effort.
In a January speech given at Singapore’s Harvard Club, Lee stressed the importance of developing civic society to help bridge the government-people gap and further “open” Singaporean society. Doing so would help retain Singapore’s best and brightest professionals, who may seek greener pastures elsewhere in the West if their political, economic and social aspirations are not met. Lee will need these people to help build a more creative, developed economy.
The concerns of the second social group, termed the “underbelly” of society by one local political scientist, underscore the importance of the country’s second challenge: greater social redistribution.
The 2002 economic recession and the 2003 SARS epidemic have shown the imperative of closing the growing income gap in Singapore between the burgeoning middle/upper class and those who have failed to reap the benefits of globalization. Older and under-qualified workers who cannot easily ride the wave of globalization due to their low level of education and other factors fill the ranks of this blue-collar class.
The new prime minister’s challenge is to win these people over. Goh had always prided himself as a product of a lower middle-class background. Social redistribution, a hallmark of Goh’s tenure, will undoubtedly constitute a major plank in Lee’s platform as well.
The blue collars will expect more social handouts from the new prime minister as he seeks to gain its popular support before the next elections, which must be held by the end of 2006.
The third challenge for Lee is to maintain the ruling party’s traditional appeal to the country’s middle class, which is its primary constituency. Tolerance will constitute the third aspect of Lee’s trilogy of challenges as he seeks to preserve Singapore’s social harmony. The SARS episode last spring, as well as Singapore’s fight against Muslim radicals from the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist network underscore just how fragile Singapore’s social fabric remains despite the country’s economic progress and prosperity.
Last year’s controversial debates over homosexuals and the opening of a casino on Singapore soil show that considerable sections of Singapore society remain conservative and parochial, especially those led by religious interests.
Goh has appealed to Singaporeans to be more tolerant of each other so as to preserve social harmony and develop a more open society and economy, which in turn would guarantee Singapore’s future survival as a developed country. Thus the eclipse of the “nanny state” mentality must go hand in hand with the development of social responsibility and tolerance, which are the only means of stabilizing Singaporean society. The middle class expects Lee to promote creativity and social redistribution within tolerable limits of evolving social mores, thus guaranteeing them continued predominant social influence.
When he takes the reins of power, Lee must satisfy the demands of Singapore’s three main social groups if he is to both improve the country’s prosperity and enhance his own political legitimacy in the next general elections.
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