Singapore has always been canny at adapting to change

Singapore has always been canny at adapting to change

ITS leaders are masters at knowing when a formerly sacrosanct policy is near its sell-by date or when the fuse on a tense situation is close to detonation point.

In 1976, when I first visited, the city-state was known for strict censorship laws, anti-littering rules, and edicts against everything from long hair to gays to gambling.

When I was posted there in 1989, the People’s Action Party government still banned Cosmopolitan, the racy women’s magazine, and vetoed the sale of chewing gum.

But as the millennium came and went, the PAP realised that in a digital age it could no longer act as a nanny to the region’s most educated citizenry.

In swift succession, it began openly employing gays, lifted the ban on Cosmo, allowed sugar-free gum and long hair and all the trappings of a hedonistic society.

Massive glitzy shopping malls selling every expensive frippery you never really needed rose up beside Michelin-starred restaurants, vintage wine bars and Condomania stores peddling prophylactics on tony Orchard Road.

This year even gambling was approved and two huge ultra-modern casinos opened their doors. Las Vegas Singapore, yeah!

But while this was occurring, another more difficult and portentous challenge loomed: the issue of national leadership.

In the past, there has never been much doubt about who would lead Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew became prime minister in 1959 and ruled for 31 years. He is still there now, as minister mentor.

When the party began to consider who would replace him, Lee favoured fellow intellectual Tony Tan, who held several ministerial portfolios.

But Tan did not want the job, so Defence Minister Goh Chok Tong got it in 1990 and became the most popular figure in the party.

When he stepped down in 2004, Lee Kuan Yew’s eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, who had been long groomed for the job, took over.

That made two smooth transitions in a row. The current PM Lee, 58, is unlikely to step down until his mid-60s, but that is not far off and there is no credible younger candidate to replace him at the moment.

What to do? Well, this is where Singapore shows its adaptive prowess.

Although a general election is not due until early 2012, the authorities have recently examined 1,400 polling station venues.

Clearly, an election is imminent and will provide a chance to induct fresh talent – and with any luck a potential new prime minister.

Now, if you thought the advent of casinos and gay civil servants were shockers, consider this: the new leadership candidate may not be a member of the PAP or even Singapore born.

Remember, the city-state is a canny exponent of foreign talent. As Prime Minister Lee said in his national day address in August: “We have very good people, but never enough and therefore we need to draw from all over the world to supplement our local pool.”

He spoke of the professions and the business world, but it is true of politics too. Some years ago, a PAP MP told me that within his lifetime he expected the party to open up to non-Singaporeans.

It will not be as easy as unbanning Cosmopolitan, but the process is already underway and older leaders are being phased out.

Last month, Senior Minister S Jayakumar and DPM Wong Kan Seng relinquished their other ministerial portfolios and are now in the retirement waiting room.

Of the younger generation, only Home Minister

K Shanmugam and Transport Minister Raymond Lim have leadership potential, but they are both 51 and so likely out of contention already.

A new candidate is urgently needed at the coming general election.

It’s a tempting job for the right person. After all, it comes with a salary of US$2.7 million plus perks.

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