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At 82, Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew battles on

Written by: Staff

SINGAPORE, May 4: Even at 82, Singapore's elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew relishes a fight. With elections set for May 6, he is once again busy blasting the opposition and silencing his critics with lawsuits.

At a late-night People's Action Party rally this week, Lee took the stage, dressed in the party's trademark pristine whites and a garland of purple orchids, and told voters to ignore the ''rubbish'' they heard at opposition rallies.

''Many people go to their election rallies to enjoy the noise and excitement,'' said Lee, who described one opposition candidate as a ''liar'' and another as a ''bad egg''.

''But when you go home, consider carefully which candidate or the group of candidates ... can look after your lives, your jobs, homes, your children's education ...,'' he said.

Last month Lee and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, launched defamation lawsuits against Chee Soon Juan and his sister, Chee Siok Chin, two leaders of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party. Several other SDP leaders threatened with similar action over political comments have since apologised.

A founder of the People's Action Party (PAP), which has been continuously in power for more than four decades, Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore's leader for its first 31 years and is widely credited with turning the former British colonial outpost into one of the world's great manufacturing and financial hubs.

He has remained a vocal presence at home and abroad after resigning in 1990 to take up the advisory posts of senior minister and then minister mentor.

The PAP government plays a pervasive role in the lives of Singapore's 4.4 million people, using a state investment firm to buy shares in major companies and setting down prescriptive rules to preserve harmony among the Chinese, Indian and Malay communities.

And Lee Kuan Yew is at the centre of the PAP, the star speaker whose views are cited at length in the pro-government media. As one former diplomat put it: ''He didn't leave the stage, he just stepped behind the curtain''.


But now, some voters are asking the almost unthinkable: Isn't it time for Lee to quit? The Cambridge-educated lawyer, who follows a strict health regime of lots of sleep, careful diet and exercise, shows no sign of bowing out.

''There are things which I can do as a minister in government which I believe ... no other person can do. It's as simple as that,'' Lee said in a televised debate last month when asked if he would step down.

Lee did not elaborate on what he alone could do, but the mere suggestion that he should retire sparked a strong response.

''I felt sorry for Minister Mentor Lee having to defend his continuing presence,'' wrote Tan Bee Lan in a letter to the Straits Times newspaper after the debate. ''I almost flipped when one of them asked him why he is still hanging around.'' What emerged from that televised debate -- which set off ripples of commentary in the local media -- was the sharp difference in views between the younger and older generations.

Many older Singaporeans see Lee as the man whose pro-business and law-and-order policies turned Singapore from a raffish port into a clean, green and safe city. In his Singapore, spitters and jaywalkers were fined, vandals caned and drug offenders hanged.

But younger voters seem to chafe against the PAP's authoritarian style: one youth in the debate with Lee called it arrogant, prompting a sharp retort from the minister mentor.

''Yes, we thank Mr Lee for what he has done since the 1950s,'' wrote Clement Wee Hong En in a letter to Today newspaper.

''But we wish to be allowed to shape our country's future in our own way. A great father is one who nurtures his children to prosper in adverse circumstances, but an even greater is one who knows when to let go, and who trusts that his children can take care of their future.''


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