Americans got their first close look this week at the man Singaporeans believe is being groomed as their next prime minister. Brig. Gen. Lee Hsien Loong, acting trade and industry minister, is on a nine-day visit to the United States seeking to sell Singapore as an ideal target for American businessmen and investors.
He has already made his sales pitch in Japan, where the packed audiences at his public appearances indicated that the Japanese, too, believe that this is a young man with a future.
He was given the trade and industry portfolio last February, only 14 months after entering Parliament and shortly after celebrating his 34th birthday. This gave him immediate extra exposure as the man with a pivotal role in guiding the recession-hit Singaporean economy back onto the track to solid growth.
In journalese shorthand, Mr. Lee is normally referred to as ``BG'' (after his military rank), to differentiate him from his famous father, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
Although Lee Sr. has denied any intention of forging a ruling dynasty, there are many Singaporeans who see growing evidence that the premiership will indeed stay in the Lee family (although there might be a short-lived ``regency'' of a more senior figure while Lee Jr. continues his political education).
Lee Kuan Yew, the only leader Singaporeans have known in 21 years of independence, has indicated his intention of stepping down in three years' time. But Lee Sr. has not ruled out taking over an enlarged presidency (more influence, less ceremony) that is likely to develop from a proposed constitutional amendment.
Starting with the 1984 general election, he has been luring the most promising business and academic talent into government, stepping into the background and letting the ``youngsters'' take charge of day-to-day government operations.
``The easy thing would have been to leave it to time to look after the problem [of succession]. But I think time would not look after it so well,'' he explained in an interview last year.
Most of the leading candidates are in their early 40s. But it is the youngest rookie member of Parliament who commands the public's attention. Sporting spectacles, a perpetual grin, and a crewcut that often looks in need of a barber's attention, Lee Hsien Loong sometimes looks at first glance like an overgrown schoolboy.
But he won considerable respect from the hard-nosed local and foreign business communities by the thoroughly professional and open-minded way in which he went about tackling the problem of economic reform.
As trade and industry minister, he oversaw a committee of private- and public-sector experts who examined every facet of Singapore's economic performance, pondering what triggered the unexpected 1984 recession and how to reverse the downward trend. To the surprise of many, the committee's proposals involved tampering with, if not abandoning, policies at the core of Lee Kuan Yew's successful turnaround of the economy. The final report did not mince words about the arrogance of civil servants, the heavy hand of regulators, and the simplistic approach of policymakers -- all of whom, it said, contributed to Singapore's disastrous economic slump.
Lee Kuan Yew insists he never tried to steer his son into politics, but here is no doubt that everything has been done to prepare him for a leadership role in public life. At the time of his decision to contest the 1984 general election, the younger Lee was second in command of the Singapore armed forces. Like his father, he is an honors graduate (maths and computer science) of England's Cambridge University. He also has a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University and he attended the United States Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Apart from his duties at the Trade and Industry Ministry, he continues as minister of state for defense.
When asked if he will some day become prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong usually bursts into laughter and says: ``I wouldn't tell you even if I knew.''