A call for change
Lee Kuan Yew’s successor wants his governance tenet replaced as
outdated even while the architect is still alive. By Seah Chiang Nee
Aug 18, 2013
weakening Lee Kuan Yew prepares to celebrate his 90th birthday, a
question being asked is: “How much of his legacy will remain
Singapore’s guiding force?”)
THE call by a former prime minister for ending one of Lee Kuan Yew’s
cornerstone tenets for governing Singapore when he is still alive has
got some questions flying.
Goh Chok Tong, who succeeded Lee in 1990, said Singapore needs to forge
a new social compact between people and government to replace the old
one to avoid a “mid-life crisis”.
In a constituency speech marking the island republic’s 48th National
Day, Goh, long believed to be part of the ruling party’s softer
faction, spoke of the need to write a new chapter of the Singapore
The reason, he said, is that both the external environment and Singaporeans at home have changed.
His speech came as leaders are getting citizens to prepare for a major
policy change to be announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong when he
delivers his National Day Rally address tomorrow.
Comparable to America’s presidential State of the Union address, this
annual event will be televised in all the four official languages with
the English version expected to last two hours.
“Singapore will have to tread a different path ... Our road ahead will
be different from the road we have travelled,” said PM Lee without
“So we must reassess our position, review our direction, and refresh
our strategies to thrive in this new world.”
He did not refer to the social compact, but his predecessor did during a constituency speech.
“Some policies and programmes that had served us well in the past need
updating, or maybe even an overhaul, to ensure that they continue to
serve their intended purposes,” said Goh, who is Emeritus Senior
“A new social compact between the people and the government will have
to be forged. Otherwise, I fear that Singapore will begin to go
This has led to some speculation that Singapore may be on the verge of
doing away with one of the ruling principles created by the founding
leader to define government-people relations since independence.
If it does, it is hardly surprising since the current leadership – now
operating in a globalised economy – has slowly been erasing some of its
Many economists had been advocating ending it, but none in government
had so far openly talked about it since Lee is still around, possibly
for fear of upsetting him.
His son’s message tomorrow may reflect, but not really mention its demise.
Instead, PM Lee will likely dwell at length on major problems that
embitter Singaporeans, including public housing, healthcare and
It may be one of the most important speeches in modern times to be made
by a PAP leader that will impact his party’s survival.
The PAP’s political fortunes have been falling steadily, mainly over
numerous problems caused by his immigration strategy.
In his surprising address, Goh said: “I dare say that Prime Minister
Lee and his Cabinet are having a tougher time governing Singapore than
Lee Kuan Yew and I had. And it is not going to get easier.”
The social compact was Lee Senior’s basic philosophy of governance that
was befitting of an ill-developed, backward Singapore. The changing
world has left it on the wayside, neither dead nor alive.
What is this principle?
Lee enunciated it when he was expounding Asia values to anyone who
would listen. Smacked of Confucianism, it goes something like this: The
government has a duty to govern well and look after the welfare of its
If it succeeds, it is the people’s duty to vote for it. If it fails to
take care of them, the citizens have the right to throw it out.
I remember during the 1984 general election when 12.4% of the votes
went from the PAP to the opposition, then PM Lee Kuan Yew was livid.
“The government did so much for them; they are ungrateful,” he told editors.
In his belief, the people broke the social compact.
This principle was copied from ancient China that described the
relationship between the emperors (who were not elected) and their
In one briefing, the elder Lee explained to us journalists that – like
the scholar system – it had allowed China to survive a long history of
The philosophy worked superbly in the early years of independence which
allowed the early leaders to develop Singapore and build up its
The PAP delivered jobs, housing and prosperity to citizens. The Compact worked then.
Then came globalisation and trade competition increased.
They made it difficult for Lee – or indeed any leader – to promise jobs and the good life to his people.
Added to it was the weakening of the current leadership’s vision or
capability to manage a modern-day complex Singapore, as PM Lee himself
These factors contributed to the inability of the PAP to fulfil its
social compact duty to citizens, and as a result more and more voters
went to the opposition.
Singapore’s most prominent author, Catherine Lim said it was the PAP
government that has failed to deliver its part of the social compact.
Now with all its vast resources, the PAP has the responsibility to mend
that weakened bond and restore Singaporeans’ trust, she said.
However, not everyone blames the social compact as much as government non-performance for its failure.
In the broadest sense, the principle is actually being practised by all democratic countries.
“It defines the responsibilities and roles of an elected government and the electorate towards one another.
“Nothing wrong in that,” said a retired secondary school teacher.
(This article was first published in The Star, Malaysia)