Family state

August 15, 2004

BY ALL ACCOUNTS, Lee Hsien Loong, inaugurated last week as Singapore's third prime minister in its 39 years of independence, is up to the job. He holds degrees from Cambridge and Harvard, rose to brigadier general in the tiny island-state's military, and has served the last 14 years as deputy prime minister and, most recently, as finance minister and central bank chief.

But no one should doubt for a moment that he ended up atop the small but economically mighty city's political structure because he is the elder son of Singapore's founder, Lee Kuan Yew. Though retired in 1990, the famously stern patriach has lingered at the helm with titles of convenience, first as "senior minister" and now as -- get this -- "minister mentor."

The Singapore Lees have hardly stopped there. The younger Lee's wife runs an investment firm that controls many of its biggest state corporations, including its airline and its telecommunications system. And his younger brother is the phone company's CEO.

The West has long been wowed by Singapore's very real and remarkable rise from a swampy backwater to global economic player.

Mr. Lee has lectured Westerners beleaguered by violence, disorder and dissent as to the stability, efficiency and calm induced by his so-called Confucian capitalism, a mix of economic freedom and tight government social controls with only nominal political opposition allowed.

But of course the Lees -- through the apparatus of state -- control much of Singapore's land, capital and labor supply. Only two seats in its legislature are not held by their ruling party. The city-state is such a family affair that the Lees might as well be despots.

At his inauguration, the younger Lee vowed to increase Singapore's vibrancy and competitiveness by allowing for more nonconformity. "Our people," he said, "should feel free to express diverse views, pursue convential ideas or simply be different. We should have the confidence to engage in robust debate."

He's right, of course, that world-class economic competitiveness ultimately turns on fostering independent and creative thinking. But for that to happen, it also seems essential that Singapore's political structure must soon evolve out of the Lee family control and into something far more democratic than a family state.

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