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Singapore's tough-minded premier wrestles with growing public discontent

By Steven B. Butler and Patrick L. SmithSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 10, 1986



Singapore

Since gaining its independence in 1965, this island republic has thrived under a regime widely judged the strongest in Southeast Asia. In two decades, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew established stability and prosperity as the birthrights of Singapore's 2.5 million citizens. Nonetheless, the tough-minded premier and his People's Action Party (PAP) are struggling to reverse a steady decline in public confidence. Increasingly, the institutions that this the most affluent nation in Asia, except for Japan, are meeting with popular criticism and a widespread sense of restlessness and discontent.

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``People are no longer satisfied,'' one Singaporean says flatly. ``And we have reached the stage of development where it is easy to gripe.''

Visitors often remark, as this man suggests, that the republic's wealth has made it a spoiled nation. But the political issues now confronting the government here go far beyond this trait, whether it is real or imagined.

Singapore is at a crossroads. Its leaders face growing pressure to evolve away from the authoritarian rule that has until now underpinned the island's progress.

Under Mr. Lee, who has governed without challenge since 1965, the PAP is seeking to accommodate demands for more democracy and more political choice. But the party is also clearly committed to maintaining its exclusive grip on power.

Criticism of the government has intensified lately because of a dramatic decline in economic performance. After two decades of near double-digit growth, output shrank by 1.7 percent last year, and little improvement is expected in 1986.

The island's political difficulties are also compounded by its succession crisis. Although Lee, who is 63, will soon relinquish the premiership, it is still unclear who is to replace him. The succession issue is crucial because it will effectively determine Singapore's future political direction. Like Asia's other Chinese-influenced societies, this nation must decide whether it needs another strong, traditional leader or whether it will allow a more politically diverse system to develop.

``The central question is simple: Can Chinese societies exist without an emperor?'' says one political analyst here.

Indeed, Lee has governed Singapore as the most self-consciously Confucian ruler in postwar East Asia. He has built his administration on a strong, reliable bureaucracy and is notoriously intolerant of corruption.

In theory at least, this has enabled him to govern by moral example rather than by force -- a cornerstone of Confucian practice. But Lee's intolerance of his opponents has often resembled political repression as much as the Confucian ruler's demand for absolute loyalty.

Under Lee, Singapore has developed into an efficient, orderly society -- one in which democratic alternatives have been traded, in effect, for material well-being. At more than $6,000 a year, the island's per capita income already exceeds those of some European countries. But affluence has brought demands for a more responsive form of government. In part, the demands come from the island's restless middle class. They also come from those who have not shared equally in the nation's prosperity.

The first major sign of popular discontent here came in 1981, when an oppositionist was elected to Parliament for the first time since the mid-1960s. Although the new MP posed no political threat, the ruling PAP party was clearly shocked.

Two years ago, another opposition MP, Chiam See Tong, was also elected. In that election, the PAP got only 63 percent of the vote -- the lowest percentage in its history. Since then, the economy has begun to slide -- creating a potentially serious unemployment problem.

Because of these adverse circumstances, some analysts say, the government recently has become discernibly more responsive. The PAP's ability to reform itself, says one political observer, is likely to be a key element in limiting the growth of an opposition movement.

Not everyone agrees. But even the island's small opposition parties recognize the dangers of too much political volatility in a country dependent on foreign investment, trade, and tourism. Singapore is a young nation -- more than half of its voters are under 40 years of age. But this economic dependence -- the legacy of its national independence -- is likely to determine its future as much as its citizens' increasing political maturity.

``Stability is of paramount importance,'' says Mr. Chiam. ``We want freedom and democracy, but we can never afford the kind of opposition they have in the West.'' Tomorrow: Taiwan seeks new political identity.