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5 Minutes With…. Choo Zheng Xi on PM Lee’s interview

Posted by theonlinecitizen on April 15, 2008

On PM Lee, succession, and weak leadership

TOC’s Chief Editor Choo Zheng Xi gives his response to today’s Straits Times’ reproduction of an interview done with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long, and gets him to answer the tough questions the mainstream press isn’t.

(The ST report is titled “Beyond kissing babies”, April 15, Page H6.)

Zheng Xi will try to bust some myths, ask some tough questions, and attempt to shed some light on the PAP’s remarkably opaque succession plans.

Question 1: Succession?

The interview seems to focus quite a bit on questions relating to his Ministers’ caliber, as opposed to focusing on his collective assessment of his government’s work. Why is the press so keen on getting his appraisal of his ministers’ work as individuals?

Zheng Xi:

An unspoken undertone in almost every single interview done with PM Lee seems to be his succession plans. Reporters seem to be doggedly focused on getting his appraisal of his Ministers’ performance, to better enable them and us to read the tea leaves of succession.

More important than who is going to succeed is another question: why is there a feeling that he is ready to hand over?

Remember that inexplicable denial in the recent Budget debate over PM being sick?

PAP backbencher Ong Ah Heng brought it up, saying:

‘When I walk around the constituency, many people ask me: Is our PM in good health? PM has gone overseas. Is it to seek medical treatment? I assure them that the PM is in good health and he has been going round the constituency and attending local events.’

In its report the next day, The Straits Times headlined its article: ‘Speculation spooks more than reality – by the way, PM is fine’. This was written by one of the paper’s more conservative writers, Chua Mui Hoong.

Anyone who knows anything about the Straits Times will realise that clearance for printing something about the Prime Minister’s health would have to be done with at least the tacit acquiescence of the highest levels of government. Otherwise, a scolding by the PM’s Press Secretary will swiftly ensue (remember how the Today editorial team got dressed down after reporting on Lee Kuan Yew’s wife falling ill in England and the treatment accorded to her?).

This resembles the proverbial Chinese story of a man who buries gold in his backyard and puts up a sign saying: no gold here! So I want a clear answer from my government: is the PM in good health or not?

Remember how more cynical Singaporeans saw Goh Chok Tong as a seat warmer for PM Lee? With all this interest in the next generation of succession, who is PM warming the seat for, and for how long?

Question 2: Sizing up the successors

So who is PM Lee warming the seat for? Who seems to be next in line?

Zheng Xi:

Who’s hot: Ng Eng Hen

Who’s not: Khaw Boon Wan, Tharman

Who cares?: Raymond Lim, Vivian Balakrishnan, et al

First you need to see who the press views as plausible PMs-in-waiting. One full question, albeit a critical one, focused on Minister for Health Khaw Boon Wan.

He is the one heavyweight Minister in Cabinet many view as the most capable of connecting with the Chinese-speaking ground. It’s thus not surprising that Lianhe Zaobao would single him out in the PM’s appraisal.

The interview also singled out Education Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen and Transport Minister Raymond Lim for appraisal.

Of all the above, PM spent his interview speaking of Ng most effusively. Most notable was his lukewarm appraisal of Khaw.

In this interview, he displayed an almost wistful longing for more people in Cabinet like his one-of-a-kind Minister for Education and second Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen. If I read this quote out of context, I’d think PM Lee had a crush on him!

‘Regretfully, there are not many people who are like him’.

But it’s not supposed to be read out of context, so here’s what precedes it:

‘Ng Eng Hen was a surgeon who succeeded in becoming a minister, but he needed some time initially to adapt.

Surgeons do not have to consider policies every day. They see patients and are concerned about the patients’ condition, treatment and the required operation. Such experience and way of thinking are different from those needed in policy formulation. But Ng Eng Hen is able to excel in his job as he has strong learning and working capabilities. Regretfully, there are not many people who are like him’. (Emphasis mine)

Contrast that to the tepid appraisal of Minister of Finance Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Khaw:

‘Ministers who have worked in government departments-for example, Tharman or Khaw Boon Wan will face smaller differences, but the disadvantage is they have never worked in the private sector’.

This isn’t just lukewarm, it’s almost downright limiting.

Also, note that he proactively brought up Tharman without being asked directly about him. This, after much talk about the possibility of the him being our first Indian Prime Minister and Tharman’s helming of one of the heavyweight Ministries (Finance), seems to be an attempt to downplay expectations of him.

Question 3: Leadership style

What do you think about PM Lee’s leadership style? He says that a successful leader ‘should not follow the views of other people blindly. He must tell people what he believes in and what his stand is’.

Zheng Xi:
PM Lee’s leadership so far can most kindly be characterised as taking ‘a hands-off approach’, but more realistically be viewed as completely weak leadership. The same way Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir were alter egos, PM Lee seems to be a mirror of his weak counterpart across the Causeway, Abdullah Badawi.

In this same interview, he was asked about Khaw Boon Wan’s unpopular means testing benchmark, which continually had to be adjusted up. His reply is shockingly cavalier:

‘You have to ask Minister Khaw Boon Wan. This is his style, his way of doing things’.

Paraphrased: ‘Khaw’s problem, not mine’.

More recently, Singaporeans will remember how PM was silent for almost one and a half weeks after Mas Selamat’s escape, and responded with a similarly lackadaisical ‘what to do, it happened’.

More remarkable than his tardy response was the fact that his father, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, spoke on the matter before he did.

Even more remarkably (if that is possible), he made the offhand comments not at a specially called press conference to address the issue specifically, but as a response o queries after a grassroots event.

Lest one think I’m nitpicking, remember last year’s Penal Code reforms? The government had no clear position on the repeal of 377A. In fact, as a matter of principle, it seemed committed to not discriminating against homosexuals. However, it still kept 377A on the books as a sop to vocal religious conservatives and for political reasons – heartlanders were not ready for relaxing 377A.

Its resolve on abolishing marital rape immunity was equally abysmal. It chose a pathetic cop-out: partial abolition of the defense of marital rape immunity if the wife was separated from the husband, or had obtained a protection order against him. Instead of biting the bullet and going for full abolition, it chose a weak halfway house that satisfied few.

Most importantly for the man in the street is the government’s slipshod approach to social assistance. Poverty and the widening income gap is becoming a glaringly large problem for PM’s government, and his response thus far seems to bear out my ‘hands-off’ thesis.

The recent NTUC discount vouchers were a clumsy attempt to make finding the solution to poverty alleviation someone else’s. It is striking that the Cabinet itself is taking zero initiative to take the bull by its horns and propose a comprehensive plan to alleviate poverty and narrow the income gap. Instead, it is content to leave it to the NTUC to work out a voucher scheme, and its grassroots MPs to figure out a mode of distribution.

The government’s raising of public assistance payouts by $40 recently came only after a barrage of criticism, Ministerial fee hikes, and record inflation. Basically, too little, too late.

How a society protects and provides for its most vulnerable is the best reflection of its values. On the question of values, PM Lee’s government has been notably frightened to take the lead. Even when it affects people’s livelihood.

Note: The original interview with PM Lee was done by Lianhe Zaobao. The Straits Times later reproduced it in English.

Cartoon from My Sketchbook.



28 Responses to “5 Minutes With…. Choo Zheng Xi on PM Lee’s interview”

  1. Dr Syed Alwi said

    No one can tell the future. Not even the senior PAP people….I have lived and seen enough to know that even plans can go awry when the time comes….Either you have someone in mind to replace you and you openly say it – or you don’t and the outside world will just give you less marks for political risk factors………

  2. thanks said

    interesting that this point was missed out in ST – that even newspaper people and MPs might not understand his policies clearly – are his MPs dumb, or his ministries dumb?

  3. patriot said

    PM Lee Hsien Loong has a Minister Mentor, a Senior Minister, two Deputy Prime Ministers, to assist him in running this tiny dot of land.

    The Next Prime Minister would have the Service of the Current One should the Latter retires. By reasoning, the next Prime Minister would have a very easy task. And as such, it would be easy to find a candidate than before.

    The thing is, the Next Prime Minister must be able to swallow the ‘commanding advices’ of all the Above-mentioned Retired Senior(in age and previous position) Ministers. But not everyone will be able to stomach all the advices, I reckoned.


  4. EY said

    So there will be a new post of Senior Minister Mentor (SMM)?

  5. Alan Wong said

    I would like to pose the following questions for our PM to answer, if he dares to :-

    1) If you happen to lose your seat to the opposition during the next election, does it mean the end of your PMship or would you still be thick-skinned enough to remain as the PM or SM or whatever post that will be created ?

    2) In the above worst case scenario, should you decide to make way for the another person to take over as PM, who will actually be in charge to select the next PM ?

    3) Can we assume that your father will be calling the shots if he happens to be still around or will there be a count of votes in the Cabinet as what we are led to believe in ?

    I believe many concerned Singaporeans deserve an honest answer from the horse’s mouth ?

  6. Free Thinker said

    What I think of what The Lizard thinks about:

    1. The Hen – his face looks like MM,
    rumors say could be LHL’s half-brother or cousin,
    therefore blood is thicker than water syndrome
    takes precedence over others.
    Actually, The Hen’s performance is not “kilat” by any means.

    2. The Crow – links to TT Durian links to Peanuts,
    therefore links to Wooden Head,
    therefore different faction within the Party,
    therefore could be a future threat;
    Crow is also ex-Malaysian,
    therefore loyalty is still questionable.

    3 The Tar Man – private life needs close scrutiny,
    therefore possible political risk in future if raise to top post.
    Also President and PM cannot be of same colour – too much power
    rest in the hands of same colour is bad – will send wrong signals
    to China and India.

    Nothing serious, just my crystal ball reading.

    Free Thinker.

  7. Angrez said

    Free Thinker, So if both the president and the PM are Chinese, then its alright?

  8. Gary Teoh said

    They say need 3 elections to groom the new PM, what happen before 3 elections pap is voted out ? are they so confident they can win every election?

  9. Wong Can't Sing said

    The stage has been set.

    Wong Can’t Sing will be promoted out of the way to be the next Singapore President.

    Spend his multi-million dollar salary cutting ribbons, patronizing boy scouts, attending gala dinners, rejecting the occasional presidential appeal, rubber stamping whatever the PAP puts before him, and oh, safeguarding our national reserves when he don’t even have an idea how much there is because it will take 56 man years to account for them.

    It will be a case of Wong Can’t Sing and Can’t Count.

  10. Seeking Salvation said

    they were wrong on many choices

    Wee Toon Boon – Corruption
    Phey Yew Kok – Corrupted Embezzle and dissappeared
    Teh Chean Wan – Corrupted
    3 down and more to come
    with the current cocky style it made not difference
    because 60 pct of Sporeans are complacent not to care and take control by voting them out

  11. Wong Can't Sing said

    Why is it that with only 66% of the votes, the PAP can control 98% of parliament and 100% of the cabinet?

    Shouldn’t the other 33% singaporean votes translate to a more proportional representation in parliament and cabinet?

    Such a formula by the PAP is in fact, setting Singapore up for social chaos sooner or later because there will be a growing significant proportion of singapore’s society which is NOT BEING REPRESENTED, marginalized and ignored.

    The question is not if, but when.

  12. patriot said

    If memory serves me right, Wee Toon Boon is still a cohort in PAP, I think I saw him appeared at a PAP Anniversary Celebration, just two or three years back, in a News Telecast.

  13. Weijia said

    @Alan Wong

    i can answer for him, cos this one clear cut one. hahaha answer is found in Article 25 of the singapore constitution.

    1) If he loses the election in his ward, he will no longer be an MP. and so is not in parliament. so cannot be PM.

    2) The president is the one selecting the PM.

    3) not quite sure what your third question means. but.. whatever it is i believe they’ll follow the procedures set. as to how independent it is is another question.

  14. joker said

    An unfulfilled life may be defined as:

    A: Being a non-entity when compared to one’s father.

    B: Having a non-entity as a son.

  15. Free Thinker said

    Angrez Says:
    April 15, 2008 at 10:02 pm

    Free Thinker, So if both the president and the PM are Chinese, then its alright?


    Hi Angrez,

    No, if both President and PM are Chinese, also not alright. From past experiences, only two Chinese Presidents, i.e. the late Wee Kim Wee and Ong Teng Cheong. Wee was more penarakan than Chinese, so no problem – smooth sailing all the way; but Ong was very Chinese, as he had a Chinese-education background, so big big problem. Best is never to have same race between PM and President. Like this will be good for local multi-racial consumption as well as for international, foreign-relations, image projection.

    That is what I personally think, freely think.

    But what I have said earlier was on what I’d thought what LHL’s thinking was. I was only trying to read his mind, albeit very amateurish.

    Have I answered your question?

  16. macktheknife said

    In my opinion, the next PM is a fixed deal. I reckon the chosen one is already in the making. Lets call it ‘glooming’ the next generation, a maxim so often heard in many organizations. Actually, there is no need for discussion. I am kinda sick and tired of it. Whether or not Chinese or Indian, not important. The thing is whether the next PM is a people’s PM, a fighter, a great leader, definitely not the next George Bush or so, which matter most. Let’s wait and see.

  17. Robert HO said

    1. Dear Alan Wong, Comment 5 and Weijia, Comment 13:

    In reply to your misreading of the Constitution and LIE KY LHL PAP’s unscrupulous, dishonest, election-cheating, corrupt, greedy and totalitarian rule, THE CONSTITUTION WAS AMENDED TO ALLOW FOR A VOTED-OUT PAP MP TO REMAIN IN THE CABINET.

    2. How? Through the carefully prepared method of ‘Nominated MPs’. This Constitutional amendment was rubberstamped through and never mentioned by the PAPaganda media for this possibility. If and when LHL loses an election, he will simply be ‘Nominated’ as Nominated MP, which being a MP title, then allows him to be appointed back into the Cabinet as minister.

    3. Do read the Constitution again. The entire system is not only corrupted, but rigged to be failsafe — for the LIEs.

  18. […] PM V1.3. Search for the next Prime Minstar – The Online Citizen: 5 Minutes With…. Choo Zheng Xi on PM Lee’s interview […]

  19. EY said

    Hi Robert,

    That’s news! Is it possible for you to direct us to the relevant sections of the Constitution please? Thanks.

  20. Elfred said

    Zheng Xi,

    I have waited for this topic to be ‘old’ to quietly tell you that… Your ‘analysis’ is wrong lah~ 🙂

    Trust me…

    As for the next PM, it’d probably not be someone in parliament right now. After MM Lee, will there be another MM is a question in itself. Hahahahahaha…

    Given the future, the succeeding PM, for the sake of the party and Singapore, he/she must be excellent in politics, yet must be young enough to pull a regime off for enough time for internal and external confrontation.

    The Law minister’s appointment is a show for all to realise the essence of political appointment: From the bottom to the top, or from the top falling to bottom… anything can happen. The signal is very strong.

    There is no need to guess. In politics, and if pragmatism must be, the coming political appointments will be astonishing. No choice, the global scene is changed, the domestic matters are changed drastically; but Singaporeans…

  21. CelluloidReality said

    I’m not buying the idea of a single party dominant political position in Singapore for the next 20-30 years.

    It’s not tenable and frankly, the wider the scope of political participation and liberalisation to allow for greater ownership and less schadenfreude in domestic politics, the greater the effect this has on enhancing our existence for the long term.

    What’s afflicting Singapore is the current state of its socio-political dynamics.

    Who’s up for public service? Wait, do I see hands going down.

    Yeap, I do. And I roughly know why.

    But I hope more are able to reckon the missives involved.

  22. […] course I want the next SG PM to go beyond kissing babies, I want him/her to be a web2.0 […]

  23. Robert HO said

    Dear EY Comment 19,

    1. The Constitution is online, last time I checked, because I asked once in an online forum — and the PAPs heard — why this most important piece of legalese was not online and shortly after, it was. But you will never find a single clause that states this possibility of a voted-out PAP MP or Minister waltzing back into the Cabinet. LIE KY LHL PAP are too dishonest to state that explicitly since it is their backdoor route back into power and millions — big motivations for greedy and corrupt men like them.

    2. Rather, you will have to note that THERE ARE NO DISQUALIFICATIONS OR PROHIBITIONS FOR A NOMINATED MP BEING MADE A MINISTER. So, this carefully created backdoor is never mentioned in the PAPaganda media or by the PAPs themselves but they all know the possibility. Remember LIE KY kept warning about “freak elections results”? So he prepared for this 1. Just like calling out the army if the entire PAP govt is voted out. Preparations long made and contingent plans worked out, who does what to whom, etc.

    3. In the Constitution, the Nominated MP has the same legal and parliamentary status as an elected MP, except for pay [allowance] and some voting restrictions, I believe. So any NMP can become Minister or even PM. So “freak results” prepared for.

    4. I had a short exchange of emails with Warren? Fernandez of the Straits Times years ago in which he admitted and acknowledged this possibility and he is 1 of those trusted and in the know; also in the right circles.

  24. Jackson said

    I think the PAP should wake up their idea and realise that now is 2008 and Singapore is very transparent to the world. How long can LKY live on? 100? LKY was born in 1923, I’m born in 1986, so I’ve got another 50 years to play. By then, will PAP still be around? As a Singaporean, I’m disgraced that Singaporeans like the PAP don’t understand politics. When it’s time to rotate the party, it’s time to rotate. Die die wanna stay at the top, eventually will come down.

  25. macktheknife said

    Hearing so much from you guys, we can’t exactly say PAP is doing all that badly. Just to raise the tempo of the discussion – Last night, a Taiwan TV program caught my attention which appraises Singapore for having the best government in the world. The host and the some of the Professors cum Political Representatives agrees that they admire LKY for his works done on Singapore and its system that keeps us competitive. The issue of whether President Ma is able to emulate LKY is immaterial. I’m totally honored and proud to be a Singaporean. Now, after the past few days, we have been criticizing PAP for this and that. My question is: Are our opposition parties capable of doing better? Do we really think PAP is lousy? Come on, lets be frank with each other. I am not a PAP supporter, but rather, I support the Worker’s Party because I wanted more balance. If the opposition parties are not up to the task, I rather keep the current system and move on in life. How say?

  26. pisces said

    The key issue is whether there are sufficient checks and balances in the political system to ensure that the government (formed by whatever party) is accountable, non-corrupt and protects fundamental rights of the citizens.

    The current operating assumptions by the PAP (and shared by Singaporeans at large) are that it will
    1) continue to find and select the right people to join the government;
    2) remain non-corrupt; and
    3) remain in power perpetually.

    As a result, there has been a lack of focus on developing the necessary checks and balances in the system. If and when one of the assumptions break down, we may find ourselves in deep trouble…

  27. Daniel said

    Yes, check and balance…’s-report-millions-missing/

  28. […] the next Prime Minstar – Hard Hitting in the Lion City: Successor Question – The Online Citizen: 5 Minutes With…. Choo Zheng Xi on PM Lee’s interview – The Daily Backtrack: PM Lee, protector of meritocracy – nofearSingapore: Voting with the feet is […]

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