Overturning Lee Kuan Yew's Legacy in Singapore

Can Democracy and Development Coexist?

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's storied first prime minister, gave his countrymen two things that elude most developing nations: stability and prosperity. Now, a new generation of Singaporeans with little recollection of Lee's crusade against poverty and violence wants democracy as well. In pursuing greater political openness in two elections this year, they are challenging one of Lee's most deeply ingrained beliefs: that development and stability do not necessarily go hand in hand with democracy.

Although Singaporeans voted in May's parliamentary elections to keep the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) in power, the party had its poorest showing since Singapore became an independent nation in 1965. It lost six seats to the opposition, prompting Lee, the party's "minister mentor," and another ex-prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, to resign. In a joint letter to parliament, the two described the elections as a "watershed," explaining that they "decided to leave the cabinet and have a completely younger team of ministers to connect to and engage with this young generation in shaping the future of our Singapore."

Lee's son, Lee Hsein Loong, the country's current prime minister, tried to boost his party's approval before the August 27 presidential elections by increasing spending on health care and tightening control over immigration. He also announced a committee to recommend cuts to the salaries of ministers and the president, whose wealth is a major sticking point for the public.

But his grasping did not prevent another setback. A record number of contestants (four, all with the surname Tan) threw their hats into the ring for the presidential election. The candidate with the closest ties to the government, the former cabinet minister and deputy prime minister Tony Tan, won with 35.2 percent of the vote. His margin over the nearest rival (Tan Cheng Bock, a legislator from the PAP who maintained his distance from the party) was only 7,269 votes, or 0.34 percent. Tan See Jay, a candidate from the opposition party, got 25 percent of the vote. And Tan Kian Liang, another candidate, got 4.9 percent. Had the field of contenders been smaller, it is unlikely that Tony Tan would have won.

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