Singapore's changing of the guard is slow but discernible

Slowly and carefully, Singapore is preparing for the post-Lee Kuan Yew era. Mr. Lee, who has dominated Singapore for 25 years, said several years ago that the next general elections would be his last. The elections are due later this year: The government has yet to announce the date but says that September or December are the most likely times.

But that leaves him almost five more years before the next election. And it is hard to imagine Lee Kuan Yew retiring. Only 61, he seems as fit and as sharp of mind and tongue as ever.

If the leadership has its way, the transition will be gradual, undramatic, and slow.

Yet clearly discernible changes are taking place in Singapore's lineup.

Mr. Lee's colleagues in the old guard are disappearing. The first deputy prime minister, Goh Keng Swee, who together with Lee has been the principal architect of modern Singapore - and who is one of the few people Lee probably feels to be his intellectual equal - is thought to be seriously ill.

The other top member of the old guard, Second Deputy Prime Minister S. Rajaratnam, also seems to be slowing down. Few observers would be surprised if either man drops out before the elections.

At the same time younger ministers, the so-called ''second generation'' leaders, are playing a greater role in the day-to-day administration of Singapore. Two of them, Defense Minister Goh Chok Tong and Finance Minister Tony Tan, are apparently in charge of organizing the next elections.

The changes are visible in other ways. The last 12 months have seen the introduction of a number of unusually controversial measures by the government. These include:

* Birth policy: Women with a university education and husbands to match are being offered incentives to have more children. Meanwhile women from lower income groups will be offered grants of about $4,700 to be sterilized.

The move stems from Lee's concern that highly educated Singaporeans are having smaller families than the poor and less educated. The program seems to have produced little result so far, however. Few women have come forward for sterilization, and many well-educated women seem to treat the policy as something of a joke.

* Compulsory opposition. After the next election there will be three opposition members in the Singapore Parliament. They do not have to win their seats: They will be appointed. The move does not reflect any newfound love for a political opposition. Lee regularly heaps scorn on the single opposition MP in the present Parliament, Benjamin Jeyaretnam.

Late last month, for example, Lee told Parliament that ''there is something pathetic about the way proceedings in this house [Parliament] are debased, demeaned by [Jeyaretnam's] incomprehension of the significance of the debate.''

The idea behind the change, the government says, is to encourage talented Singaporeans who are not attracted to the ruling People's Action Party to become involved in shaping Singapore's future.

But the appointed members will not be encouraged to become too involved: They will not be able to vote on key issues such as the budget, constitutional amendments, or no-confidence resolutions.

If this very moderate experiment in parliamentary opposition works, Lee hints , he may be willing to broaden the powers of an opposition. But speaking in Parliament at the end of last month, he made it clear he was far from decided on the subject. The Western parliamentary type of democracy, he said, ''is not part of either Chinese, Malay, or Indian culture or tradition.''

A Singaporean opposition, Lee added, should not have any idea of ''social welfare giveaways,'' of reducing defense expenditure, or ''generally weakening the state.''

* Press merger. Lee's move on parliamentary opposition was quickly followed by the unexpected announcement of the merger of Singapore's two main newspaper groups into a monopoly.

The government denied the motives for this were anything other than economic. But the suddenness of the announcement - and the fact that Singapore's papers, docile by most standards, had encountered government criticism before - led many observers to conclude that the government was trying to keep the press well-behaved in the future.

What Lee and the old guard seem to be trying to do is create a framework of government that his political successors can handle, and that can protect his island from the dangers surrounding it.

Singapore is one of the most prosperous and dynamic nations in Asia, but its leadership remains deepy concerned that all this could disappear overnight. Some of the perceived threats are external: regional unrest, or a particularly long and violent dip in the world economy.

But the major dangers, the leadership says, lie at home. If Singaporeans become complacent and succumb to the desire to relax and enjoy the good life, the leadership fears, the country's present prosperity will vanish overnight.

''All you need is a few strikes here,'' says a senior government spokesman who requested anonymity, ''a loss of international confidence, and we're finished. We have no hinterland and no natural resources to fall back on.'' And once Singapore goes under, the leadership feels, it will not come up again.

This is the message that Lee and his colleagues are trying to put across to Singapore's overwhelmingly young population this month, as the island celebrates 25 years of self-government.

At times the leadership, and Lee in particular, display a frustration bordering on bitterness that young Singaporeans do not fully appreciate the tough struggle that the old guard had to wage, notably with a powerful Communist Party, during the early years of independence.

The result is that Lee and his close advisers seem to be determined to program the political succession with the maximum care. As the senior but anonymous government spokesman put it, ''Lee and Goh Keng Swee are optimistic about Singapore so long as they are there.''

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