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New prime minister takes office in Singapore

Lee Hsien Loong, scion of Singapore’s founding father, was sworn in as the third prime minister Thursday. Lee said Singaporeans “should have the confidence to engage in robust debate.”
Newly appointed Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong takes the oath of office Thursday night in Singpapore. Wong Maye-e / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Lee Hsien Loong, the son of Singapore’s founding father, was sworn in as the third prime minister Thursday and called for citizens of the tightly controlled city-state to feel free to express diverse views and dare to be different.

Lee, 52, replaces Goh Chok Tong, who ruled since 1990 and who now assumes the role of senior minister.

In his speech after being sworn in, Lee said Singaporeans should “feel free to express diverse views, pursue unconventional ideas or simply be different.”

“We should have the confidence to engage in robust debate, so as to understand our problems, conceive fresh solutions and open up new spaces,” he said. “Ours must be an open and inclusive Singapore. Therefore, do not wait to be invited to tea, but step forward to make a difference.”

Critics have often called Singapore a “nanny state,” which coddles — and stifles — its citizens, and have accused the government of using defamation suits and their accompanying financial penalties to drive opponents out of politics. The opposition holds only two of 84 elected seats in Parliament.

Mindful of China-Taiwan relationship
Lee said the export-oriented island nation needs to “stay alert for signs of danger” and needs to be on watch for developments in China’s relationship with Taiwan.

The new prime minister angered China last month when he made a “private and unofficial” visit to Taipei where he met President Chen Shui-bian and opposition leader Lien Chan. Mending fences with China is likely to be among his top foreign policy priorities.

Beijing claims the self-ruled island as part of its territory and opposes any actions by foreign governments that appear to treat it as a sovereign nation.

The evening ceremony was broadcast live on all of Singapore’s television stations. Dressed in a navy blue suit and cream tie, the Harvard and Cambridge-educated Lee took the oath before President S.R. Nathan and the chief justice.

Father named ‘minister mentor’
Lee’s father, Lee Kuan Yew, who remains broadly influential, was sworn in as “minister mentor” in the new Cabinet, alongside Goh and deputy prime ministers Tony Tan and S. Jayakumar.

Lee Kuan Yew, 80, shook his son’s hand after taking his oath of office. The younger Lee mingled with guests and signed autographs after the grand ceremony on the lawns of the Istana, a century-old colonial building where Singapore’s seat of power is located.

“Tonight’s occasion belongs to all Singaporeans,” the younger Lee said. “Through our hard work and dedication, we have together built a cohesive and progressive nation that is founded on principles of meritocracy, social justice and compassion.”

Reaching out to citizens
Lee has struggled to escape comparisons to his legendary, authoritarian father, and has been actively fighting an image that he is aloof and out of touch with the average Singaporean. The guest list of 1,400 — including taxi drivers, street vendors and students alongside the usual dignitaries — was likely a reflection of the need to show he connects with the city-state’s 4 million citizens.

The ceremony culminated an elaborately choreographed succession plan that was put in place 14 years ago when Goh became prime minister and named the younger Lee as his deputy.

Goh has said that while Lee’s rise to the top has the appearance of a dynastic succession, it is not. He has described the incoming premier as the person best suited for the job.

The new prime minister’s wife, Ho Ching, runs the government’s powerful investment arm, Temasek Holdings, while his brother, Hsien Yang, heads SingTel, Southeast Asia’s largest telecommunications company.

Ho Ching, who controls a multibillion dollar investment portfolio, was recently named as one of Asia’s most powerful businesswomen by Fortune magazine, alongside the likes of Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing and Toyota’s Fujio Cho.

Lee said that among his priorities would be to begin looking for his successor and “encouraging more Singaporeans to get married and have more babies,” a reference to the nation’s falling birth rate.