Lee Hsien Loong: scion PM modernised Singapore, stifled dissent

Lee Hsien Loong presided over efforts to retool Singapore's export-driven economy by focusing on advanced industries such as biotechnology and electronics (Lillian SUWANRUMPHA)
Lee Hsien Loong presided over efforts to retool Singapore's export-driven economy by focusing on advanced industries such as biotechnology and electronics (Lillian SUWANRUMPHA)

Under Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore has held its own in an era of globalised finance and cutting-edge tech, while continuing his venerated father's policy of muzzling free media and snuffing out dissent.

The premier steps down Wednesday, passing the baton to his deputy Lawrence Wong, the second non-member of the Lee family to lead the wealthy Asian nation.

As the son of the country's founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, Lee had to live with the perception that he could not have become prime minister without his pedigree.

But after nearly two decades at the helm, steering Singapore through a global financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic while diversifying its economy, he has left his own imprint on the city-state.

He has not hesitated to use defamation laws against critics, suing anyone who suggested corruption or nepotism in the government.

Under his watch, rules against public protests have been tightened; even a one-person demonstration can be dispersed as an illegal assembly.

Lee was sworn in as the nation's third prime minister on August 12, 2004 at age 52.

Lacking his father's fiery oratory and iron fist, the younger Lee, now 72, has projected a more consultative style.

He has presided over efforts to retool the city-state's export-driven economy by focusing on advanced industries such as biotechnology and electronics, as well as financial services.

Singapore -- a small and open economy that imports most of its needs -- forged a wide network of bilateral and regional free-trade agreements.

Lee Hsien Loong was born on February 10, 1952, to lawyers Lee Kuan Yew and Kwa Geok Choo, during a time of race riots, trade union militancy and rising communist influence in the British colony.

His father was carving out a reputation as a steely leader in the rough and tumble of Singapore politics ahead of self-rule in 1959 -- when he became prime minister -- and eventual independence in 1965.

"Of course, growing up as my father's son could not but mean being exposed to politics very early... Growing up with my father, living through those years with him, made me what I am," the younger Lee said in a eulogy after his father's death.

He joined the Singapore Armed Forces in 1971 and graduated on a scholarship from Britain's Cambridge University in 1974 with first-class honours in mathematics and a diploma in computer science.

When Cambridge's Trinity College offered him a fellowship to teach maths, he wrote to his tutor: "I must go home. I've joined the Singapore Armed Forces, my father's the PM and for me not to go home and do what I have to do would be bad for the country and for me."

He became a brigadier-general, but left the military in 1984 to become an MP.

Lee Kuan Yew stepped down in 1990 as part of a succession process worked out within the long-ruling People's Action Party (PAP), his son becoming deputy to successor Goh Chok Tong.

Before ascending to the top job, Lee was chairman of the central bank, as well as finance minister.

- Family feud -

Balancing Singapore's strong cultural and historic ties to both East and West, Lee has refused to pick a side in the US-China rivalry, carving out a niche for the country as a diplomatic honest broker.

Under his leadership, Singapore hosted historic summits between then Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou and China's Xi Jinping in 2015, as well as 2018's meeting between US president Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un.

Despite his seemingly charmed life, Lee had to endure two major personal crises.

In 1982, his first wife Wong Ming Yang, a Malaysian-born doctor whom he met at Cambridge, died after giving birth to their second child.

Three years later he married senior civil servant Ho Ching, the former chief executive of state-linked investment firm Temasek Holdings. They have two children.

In 1992, Singapore was stunned when the country's two deputy prime ministers -- Lee and Ong Teng Cheong -- were both diagnosed with lymphoma, a form of cancer.

Lee underwent intensive treatment and was pronounced cured in 1997, but Ong died of cancer in 2002 after serving as the republic's first directly elected president.

Seen as an aloof intellectual when he first entered politics, Lee has undergone an image overhaul since becoming prime minister. A month after taking office, he hit the dancefloor at one of Singapore's trendiest discos, in a bid to reach out to younger Singaporeans.

But the family's image was stained by a bitter sibling feud that blew up after the patriarch's death in 2015.

Lee's sister and younger brother accused him of going against their father's wish to have the historic family bungalow demolished.

The sister, Lee Wei Ling, publicly called him a "dishonourable son" and accused him of trying to capitalise on their father's legacy to build a dynasty -- a charge the brother has rejected.

In his last major political speech as prime minister on May 1, Lee said he felt "a sense of satisfaction and completeness" as he hands over the top job.

"I have done my duty, and I am very happy I chose this path of public service all those many years ago," he said.