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Singapore Elections -- May 6

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on May 3rd, 2006

1988, the year of Chiang Ching-kuo’s death, marked the end of the dynasty founded by Chiang Kai-shek, who had fled from China in 1975.

Now the Lee dynasty, which has ruled Singapore since it was expelled from Malaysia in 1965, looks to be on the way out as well: perhaps not immediately, but nevertheless facing the prospect of greater and greater weakness.

Genuinely contested elections are coming May 6. The opposition is contesting a majority of seats. Reports suggest some uneasiness within the ruling People’s Action Party that even if it wins, an unexpectedly strong showing by the opposition will hurt its image and prospects.

Singapore has been ruled by the Lee family since it was expelled from Malaysia in 1965. Lee Kwan-yew (born 1923) served as Prime Minister, and then after retirement, as Senior Minister and now Mentor Minister. Many believe he continues to have the deciding voice in Singapore.

His son, Lee  Hsien-loong (born 1952) is the current prime minister. Lee Hsien-loong’s wife the businesswoman Ho Ching, manages Temasek, a state holding company, whose portfolio includes shares in major Singapore and foreign companies.

When Malaysia expelled Singapore, many in Kuala Lumpur expected the island state to encounter insurmountable difficulties and become, in effect, a client. That this did not happen, and Singapore instead became one of the most wealthy and technically advanced states in the world is owed to a substantial extent, most Singaporeans would agree, to Lee Kwan-yew’s leadership during the crucial decade that followed.

But having won office as a declared champion of democracy, the senior Lee gradually became a spokesman for authoritarian rule. The People’s Action Party controlled media, restricted dissent, and made use of the forms of law—libel suits and so forth—to bankrupt critics and disqualify them from politics.

None of this has gone down well with the mass of Singaporean citizens.

The sense is in the air that it is time for change. The problem is that unlike Chiang Ching-kuo in Taiwan, who specifically excluded his own family members from political succession and began the process of democratization, Lee Kwan-yew never brought his formidable intellectual gifts or his political prestige to bear on the question of how Singapore would rule itself after he was gone.

The issue is now becoming pressing, but the best times to address it have passed. As the campaign began, rain bucketed down from the Singapore sky. The People’s Action Party canceled the rally they had planned. The opposition democrats went ahead, with greater numbers turning out and much more enthusiasm evident than anyone had expected.

This may tell us something.

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