Lee Kuan Yew
Baring knuckles

A lesson how he did it in the past; older Singaporeans unfazed, but younger ones who'd never seen it before, shocked. By Seah Chiang Nee, Sunday Star.
Jan 11, 2004

FOR the first time since he retired as prime minister 13 years ago, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew has emerged to show young Singaporeans how tough he can be when facing a threat.

The 80-year-old Senior Minister said he was taking personal charge to "clean up" a problem posed by the 1,700-member pilots union of Singapore Airlines (SIA), possibly heading off a strike.

Obviously feeling the government’s response was slow or inadequate, Lee came out swinging, providing young Singaporeans a glimpse of how he used to handle problems during his time.

He warned of "cracking heads" if the pilots union moved towards a strike that could rip apart Singapore’s aviation and tourism-related businesses, which employ 220,000 people.

Specifically, Lee is worried about the future of the national carrier, one of the world’s most successful, and Changi Airport even without the pilots’ action.

These two major assets have entered 2004 with a severe challenge from budget airlines and the advent of long-haul aircraft which could bypass Singapore as a stopover point.

By moving into attack mode, the ageing senior minister has made good his pledge to "speak out" in times of turmoil.

In 1990, when he retired as Prime Minister, he likened his advisory role to that of a goalkeeper keeping the city out of trouble. However, he added, he would never retire from politics and would even "rise up from my grave" if things went wrong.

Today, he appears to be doing just that - except it is more than just talk.

First, Lee warned the recalcitrant pilots that he would "break heads" if necessary to stop potential industrial action against SIA.

Some 55% of the pilots had recently voted to sack its leaders for accepting a 16.5% pay-cut during last year’s business slump caused by SARS.

To the government, SIA’s majority owner, this was tantamount to preparing for war since both parties were about to negotiate a new wage structure.

Using the language that earned him a fearsome reputation as an authoritarian leader, Lee said the government was prepared to go to the brink, and it was no bluff.

"This is a very serious game of brinkmanship we are playing.

"The rest (45%) decided not to sack the old committee, so we have 45% who will stay," Lee told the Straits Times.

"Of the 55% who will leave, I think we are prepared to see half of them go, or if worse comes to the worst, all go."

The message appeared to have sunk in. Newly elected union president Mok Hin Choon says he wants to heal the rift.

Explaining his harsh action, Lee said what was at stake was the future of SIA and Changi Airport, which were already facing threats from budget airlines and long-haul aircraft.

He called on SIA to deal fairly during the talks with the pilots but made it clear he wanted no strike or industrial action.

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong also warned the pilots that the airline would be grounded if they went on strike.

"No group of employees in Singapore should act without regard for the impact on others, or hold the company and fellow workers hostage to their narrow self-interests," Goh added.

But that may not be the end of the trouble. Lee has warned of more SIA cost-cutting, and retrenchment.

He said further job losses at SIA would be inevitable as the airline cuts costs to become trim, and fight and win in a more difficult environment.

The carrier had to look at its various cost components and remove redundancies, he added.

While it needs to reduce costs by 10% to 15%, some costs could not be compromised, such as those for fuel - which make up about a fifth of the total bill - and maintenance, as well as for the food it serves.

While wages make up 15% to 20% of the total cost, it did not mean SIA’s cost-reduction efforts should focus only on wages.

"I’ve had to study this problem because it needs to be looked into," Lee said.

"The luxury of just carrying on as before is something we cannot afford."

Lee’s toughness was no surprise to the older generation. But young Singaporeans, who are unused to this bare-knuckle style, were shocked by it.

A small liberal breed that dominates Internet groups was vocal, calling it dictatorial interference in what was a union-employer dispute.

His action may make it harder for his son, Hsien Loong, to convince Singaporeans that he will not inherit his father’s authoritarian characteristics when he takes over as Prime Minister this year.

There’s a widespread fear among Singaporeans that the open, responsive society under the milder PM Goh will come to an end.

One reason is the senior minister’s unchanged position after Hsien Loong, who is now Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, takes over.

All these years, he has retained a vast influence over the government and Singapore. Many people believe Hsien Loong will have a hard time - as had Goh - getting out from the senior minister’s shadow.

Others, however, see the father’s continuing presence as useful for Singapore as it encounters tough new challenges and dangers.

Obviously the public’s discomfort about him is high on Hsien Loong’s mind.

In an interview last week, he emphasised there will be no turning back of the clock when he takes over and the opening-up process will continue, and even pick up speed.

"I have no doubt that society will have to open up further," he told a Harvard Club dinner.

Singapore was going through a transition not just because of a changing of the guard, but rather the world had changed irrevocably which precluded going back.

A younger generation born after independence now formed the majority, and strategies to grow the economy and bond the people to Singapore had to change.

And the Government? It "will pull back from being all things to all citizens?.

(This article was written for and first published in The Sunday Star on Jan 11, 2004).