A leader steps down and Singapore moves on


So the day has finally come.  Founder of modern-day Singapore, Mr Lee Kuan Yew retires from the cabinet, together with a former Prime Minister and former Senior Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong.

Born in 1965, the year of Singapore’s independence, I grew up knowing only the Singapore with Mr Lee Kuan Yew actively helming it. Even though he had stepped down as Prime Minister in 1990, Mr Lee’s presence in Singapore’s politics and parliament continued to be strong, at least in the perception of people. His occasional speeches in parliament would seal off debates, be it about having casinos in Singapore, ministers’ pay, or whether our pledge is an aspiration or an ideology. His statements have been eagerly followed and his overseas travels were keenly reported on.

Politics is often driven by personalities, not just in Singapore but everywhere in the world. In reality, while there’s always a team and a philosophy guiding the governance of a country, people want a face to identify with. Mr Lee Kuan Yew has been that face for Singapore’s politics since the fight for independence. He had a rare A-team of dedicated and capable people, such as the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, the late Mr S. Rajaratnam, the late Dr Hon Sui Sen, the late Mr Lim Kim San and many more.  Without these leaders who often toiled in the background, Singapore could not have achieved what it did. This is not to take away from Mr Lee Kuan Yew what he had achieved for Singapore. The fight for independence and the fight to create the economic miracle required an inspirational leader who could helm the team together and provide the face for the people to rally behind. Mr Lee Kuan Yew provided that at a time when Singapore most needed it.

I recall when we first started our fledging education technology business, a respected independent director of our company and  prominent lawyer, Mr Arthur Loke said during a board meeting that the company needed a face for the business so that could be easily identified with by customers. Somehow, I grew to be that face for ASKnLearn, not by design but by circumstances. We had a team to run the operations, a team to create the products and a team to market them. I had the privilege to be the face for our customers, the face for investors and the face for staff to rally with together through the challenging times.

The business was eventually sold. I continued helming the company for 2 years after that and then it was time to move on. I recall the flood of emails and SMSes by staff and customers who were uncomfortable with my sudden departure from the business. I knew the team that I had left behind could continue the work. People just wanted a familiar face to feel comfortable. The business continued to grow after my departure. I am happy it turned out to be so because the business was bigger than me.

By no means am I comparing my small achievement in a start-up with the many achievements made by Mr Lee in building up modern Singapore. My point is that people identify better with a face, be it in the running of a business or a country. Bill Gates was the face for Microsoft, and still is today to a big extent even though he has stepped down as CEO for a long time already. I am confident Microsoft will continue after Bill Gates totally leaves the company because a system is already in place.

It should be so in Singapore politics. For a nation to progress, it has to be bigger than a person. It has to be bigger than even a political party, as former Permanent Secretary, Mr Ngiam Tong Dow once said, that Singapore is bigger than the PAP. We see that happening ever so often elsewhere in the world when respected leaders move on, whether by retirement or demise. As long as we ensure a stable system grounded by a process respectful of the views of the people, the country moves on.

Let’s not take away anything of what Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Goh Chok Tong have accomplished. They have played important roles in modern Singapore. Singapore will move on and build on whatever has been achieved. Soon Singapore will see its 4G leadership take shape. We will also have stronger alternative voices in parliament after GE2011. Personalities come and go. Some leave behind big shoes for others to fill. New personalities will come and define themselves in their own way. We cannot be just engineers of the past, relying on pervious successful formulas without thinking. The world is changing. Our 4G leaders need to be architects for the future, bolding defining Singapore in a way consistent with the new world order. As a nation, let’s have more confidence in ourselves that we have come so far, and we will continue to progress together.

Article written by Yee Jenn Jong, a member of The Workers’ Party. This article is written in my personal capacity and does not reflect the views of the Party.

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5 comments on “A leader steps down and Singapore moves on

  1. MML’s relinquishing of cabinet post is just a symbolic gesture. Judging from the experience of strong man leadership such as in China, before Deng Xiao Ping’s death, he had no official titles, but everyone knew who was the big boss. At crucial times, when he made a statement, whole nation listened and did what he want. This is probably going to be the same in Singapore. This could be also trying to relieve the political pressure on PM for the worst election results. This announcement also in some ways prepares the country psychologically for the eventuality that MML will no longer be around.

  2. Congratulations MP Yee

    For your presentation to Parliament, you may like to ask:

    Who decides the titles of new Ministerial positions?

    Who suddenly decided to create a Emeritus Senior Minister role?

    In America, and most countries, new Ministerial roles have to be approved by the legislature in a long and arduous process.

    We can’t have the Prime Minister or President suddenly make up new Ministerial roles and then give them huge salaries!!

    Where are the checks-and-balances?

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