From Lee Kuan Yew to Lawrence Wong: The changing leadership styles of Singapore’s Prime

Professor Terence Lee from the Sheridan Institute of Higher Education in Perth said Mr Lee’s leadership style was “rather unrelenting”.

Detractors would probably describe him as “on the stronger side of authoritarian”, said the dean of humanities and social sciences, whose research interests include Southeast Asian politics. 

Yet there is no denying that Mr Lee succeeded in ensuring not just Singapore’s survival but also its growth.

In 1965, the founding PM famously said: “Over 100 years ago, this was a mudflat; swamp. Today, this is a modern city. Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear.”


When Mr Goh Chok Tong took over as Prime Minister in 1990, it heralded a period when Singapore thrived economically and Singaporeans enjoyed wealth, safety and security, experts noted.

“We had this whole massive boom across everything. Property values and wages probably doubled in that period of time,” said Prof Lee.

“(Mr Goh) actually oversaw Singapore into what we would call a global city today. The bulk of globalisation was very much in the 1990s, and he was there overseeing that.”

Prof Lee noted that very early on, even before he became Prime Minister, Mr Goh had attempted to set the tone for a “kinder and gentler” Singapore.

He emphasised consensus-building and the need to balance economic growth with social cohesion, for instance launching a committee to strengthen Singapore’s “heartware”.

However, “that unraveled very quickly with the Catherine Lim saga where he decided that he needed to show a bit of an authoritarian streak in him”, Prof Lee noted.

In 1994, local author Lim penned two pieces critiquing the ruling PAP and its governing style. It drew a response from Mr Goh, who said that if she wished to comment on politics, she should join a political party; and that what she had written was unacceptable and “out of bounds” in political discourse.

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