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Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong Steps Down, Ending a Political Era

After 20 years in power, Singapore’s long-serving Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will step down, marking the end of a significant political era for the island nation. He will formally hand over leadership to Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong on Wednesday night.

Since gaining independence in 1965, Singapore has had only three prime ministers, all from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Lee Kuan Yew, Mr. Lee’s father and widely regarded as the founder of modern Singapore, led the country for 25 years.

Analysts view this transition as a pivotal moment in Singapore’s political evolution, moving beyond the shadow of the Lee family. Despite stepping down, Mr. Lee will remain in the cabinet as a senior minister.

In his final interview as Prime Minister, Mr. Lee expressed gratitude to Singaporeans for their support. “I didn’t try to run faster than everybody else. I tried to bring everybody to run with me,” he said. Reflecting on his leadership style, he noted, “I tried to do things my way, different from my father and predecessor, Goh Chok Tong.”

Mr. Lee entered politics in 1984 as a backbencher while his father was still in power, rising through the ranks under Singapore’s second Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, before assuming the top role in 2004. His early career was marked by scrutiny, with critics accusing the family of nepotism and creating a political dynasty, which the Lees denied.

During his tenure, Mr. Lee significantly impacted Singapore’s economy, transforming it into an international financial hub and top tourist destination. Under his leadership, Singapore’s GDP per capita more than doubled. His government also adeptly navigated several recessions, the global financial crisis, and the Covid-19 pandemic.

On the international stage, Mr. Lee balanced relationships with the US and China amidst growing tensions. Domestically, his government repealed a controversial anti-gay sex law following years of lobbying by LGBTQ groups, although freedom of speech remains restricted.

Mr. Lee’s avuncular, scholarly image made him a popular figure among Singaporeans, frequently topping surveys of the nation’s most admired politicians. However, his tenure was not without controversy. The decision to allow large numbers of immigrants in the late 2000s to address labor shortages led to public discontent, social inequality, and a widening income gap. Under Mr. Lee, the PAP received its lowest-ever vote shares in 2011 and 2020.

“Lee Hsien Loong’s main legacy would be the way he supercharged the economy,” said Donald Low, a governance expert. “But this came at the price of rising inequality and social tensions.”

Political commentator Sudhir Vadaketh noted that Mr. Lee’s government was unprepared for the high immigration levels, leading to racism and bigotry. Additionally, unresolved issues with public housing, where many Singaporeans’ savings are tied up, have persisted.

On a personal level, Mr. Lee faced a public family feud over his father’s home, culminating in accusations from his siblings of dishonoring their father’s legacy and abusing power, claims Mr. Lee denied. He has stated that his children have no interest in entering politics.

As Mr. Lee steps down, his leadership has left an indelible mark on Singapore’s political and economic landscape.

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