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MM Lee on PAP losing power: That day will come

By Angela Lim – January 21st, 2011

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, the founding leader People’s Action Party’s (PAP) has predicted its rule of Singapore will come to an end one day.

In a new book to be launched on Friday, the 84-year-old founder of modern Singapore said he has no illusions about his legacy and the future of the ruling PAP,  which he led for 38 years and which has been in power since 1963.

“There will come a time when eventually the public will say, look, let’s try the other side, either because the PAP has declined in quality or the opposition has put up a team which is equal to the PAP and they say, let’s try the other side,” wrote Mr Lee in his new book.

“That day will come,” he said.

“No system lasts forever, that’s for sure. In the next 10 years to 20 years, I don’t think it will happen. Beyond that, I cannot tell. Will we always be able to get the most dedicated and most capable, with integrity to devote their lives to this? I hope so, but forever, I don’t know,” he said.

He gave the example of the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party, which held power from 1955 to 2009, with an 11-month interruption from 1993 to1994, as an example. He said its downfall was in part because it “carried on with old ideas”.

Mr Lee, who now remains on PAP’s central executive committee after serving as PAP party leader until 1992, revealed his concerns in a series of candid interviews with journalists from The Straits Times.

The interviews are published in a new book “Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going” which will be launched on Friday at St Regis Singapore.

Mr Lee said the change in government could take place suddenly if PAP leaders splits “either for reasons of principle or personality”.

Or it could happen over time, if the PAP declines in quality or if the opposition assembles a team equal to the PAP.

He said, “If the decline in standards happens gradually, an opposition of quality will be launched. The public can sense it. If it is sudden, well, you’re landed with an emergency, and unless a credible team emerges, the country will start to go down the drain.”

But despite his concerns, he was confident Singapore would survive a handover to another party because of the safeguards in its political system. These include the elected presidency, free and regular elections and a bureaucracy separated from the political leadership.

“If we are voted out, the system is still working,” he said. “The new government cannot frivolously change the top men with its own sycophants nor spend the country’s past reserves without the President’s consent. They need to govern within these rules.”

He pointed out that it was this projected shift in power some day that prompted the PAP to start the safeguards in the first place.

Growing wage gap a ‘government concern’

Mr Lee also singled out the growing wage gap as a potential source of trouble for the PAP, explaining that it could spark class interests.

“There could come a time when the interest of the upper middle class will be divergent, that they don’t think they should subsidise the lower classes. They may well support a party which says, ‘No I don’t think this taxation is right. Why should I support the people in the two-room and three-room and four-room flats?’ We will widen the divide in our society. I don’t know when, but it will come,” he said.

He explained this was why the Government payed special attention to cater to the needs of those in the lower-income groups. Otherwise, it may result in the entrenchment of a ”disaffected, discontented and rebellious” underclass like in America might result, he added.

However, Mr Lee insisted that attempting to solve these problems with welfare payments, like many European countries, would not work in Singapore. “We will not perform,” he said.

Instead, he said the PAP redistributes enough to secure the support of more than half the electorate, but not to the point where the country loses its competitive drive.

“So you say to me, the chaps at the bottom will become anti-government. Do we change because of that or do what we say, ‘Right, we are likely going to lose that number of votes each time and so we’ve got to win from the median upwards’? I mean, that’s politics,” he added.

On democracy

When probed for his views on liberal democracy, Mr Lee revealed he was not convinced that democracy is superior. If it was clearly better, it would “take over the world”, just as the market economy has, he said.

However, he did admit that democracy’s attraction lay in its allowing of non-violent changes of government.

So, would an independent commission prevent gerrymandering?

Mr Lee said Singapore had “one-tenth the gerrymandering others have done”, even in countries with independent elections commissions.

Despite acknowledging that the PAP would lose power one day, he dismissed the suggestion that the PAP should therefore assist the opposition.

He quoted from a note younger ministers which said, “If voters elect more opposition MPs, so be it. But we do not believe that helping to build an opposition, to buy insurance in case the PAP fails, will work. Instead, it will lead to party politicking and distraction from long-term issues.”

“I’m not out here to justify the PAP or the present government,” he added. “I’m beyond that phase.”

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