MONTHS away from his son becoming premier, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew has acted to revoke the permanent resident status of a Malaysian citizen for "instigating" a labour dispute.
It's the first time since 1990, when he stepped down as Prime Minister, that such action has been taken.
SIA pilot and union representative Ryan Goh Yew Hock, who has lived here for 26 years, was accused by SM Lee of trying to instigate a union revolt against the government-controlled airline.
The subsequent cancellation of his PR status – pending the outcome of his appeal – was seen as a warning to foreign residents not to meddle in domestic issues.
In the 60s, this would have passed as a non-event by people who knew him well.
But in the 21st century, with a whole new generation of better educated citizens, what he did has caused concern – even anger – among people who know little about his role in history.
The episode has given rise to complications, which veteran People's Action Party (PAP) MP Tan Cheng Bock brought up in Parliament.
Firstly, Singaporeans felt disquiet that Lee had to step in and, secondly, it raised questions in people's minds about the younger ministers' capability to handle such problems, Tan said.
He was reflecting what the public generally felt.
People were asking: Why did Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong or the minister in charge keep quiet when it was happening? Were they agreeable to SM Lee's action?
SM Lee had accused the Malaysian-born pilot of being the "chief instigator" behind the move to sack the SIA pilots' union leadership after it had approved pay and job cuts during the SARS crisis.
Unhappy with the union's concession, the majority of members eventually did just that. The plan was for a new team to confront SIA in forthcoming negotiations.
Ryan Goh, Lee alleged, had "surreptitiously" taken actions "that would undermine industrial peace in SIA and also put the economic interests of Singapore at risk".
Lee revealed that Goh had accepted permanent residence in Australia, bought a house in Perth, moved his family and car there – and sold his flat in Singapore. It implied he was preparing an escape route should things go wrong.
Lee told the pilots: "It is not just SIA that goes down, but you go down, too."
He added that it was different for permanent residents such as Goh because they could "opt out".
To some critics, it raised a bigger question of a possible change of leadership style after the milder Goh Chok Tong retires as premier, probably this year.
The elder Lee's move came just after his son had promised in a newspaper interview to continue with the process of opening up society on taking over.
SM Lee had also said he would remain in his present position after the changeover.
Despite his declining health, the 80-year-old Lee has been enhancing his political role in recent months that seemed to show dissatisfaction with the way some things were run.
He had stepped in to take charge of the SIA labour conflict, evidently on feeling that his younger colleagues were too soft or hesitant in dealing with it and allowing a potential threat to build up.
With his mind still quick and alert, Lee had earlier declared that Singapore was too small for two competing domestic television networks.
Then he reportedly called up editors and journalists of a daily tabloid for a tongue-lashing session.
In an interview obviously targeting his younger ministers, Lee said he did not believe in a populist government whose policies were just to win votes.
This was not something new. In the past, he had said that Singapore would have been in trouble if his actions were based on meeting public demands.
Long before he stepped down, he had been advising his successor on the need to run a "tight ship" and once chided Goh for not being firm enough.
Lee had ruled with two ingredients – superior logic and fear – which transformed Singapore from a poor, squalid city with high unemployment and low education into an affluent, global city.
Many in Singapore's heartland, especially the baby-boomers, still admire him but youths, raised under new circumstances, think differently.
Does his handling of the SIA dispute mean that Singapore is reverting to Lee's authoritarian past?
The answer is no. It's not possible. The trend is towards a more open society.
I believe pilot Goh's case was a one-off action rather than the beginning of a new political trend.
It came because of Lee's personal conviction that, unless firmly handled, this dispute would lead to a dangerous confrontation with far-reaching impact for Singapore's economy.
SIA is no ordinary company. On its shoulders lies the bulk of the city's tourism industry and up to 100,000 jobs.
Living with constant dangers had made what Lee is – even today. He has a suspicious mind that makes him act when others debate.
On spotting danger signs, as in the case of the SIA dispute, his instinct is to act firmly and if he erred, it would be erring on the side of caution.
However, what he did and how he ruled are less relevant today. It is unlikely to be how his son, Hsien Loong, will behave when he takes over.
The troubles confronting Singapore and the new economic necessities, both globally and internally, have changed dramatically. So have Singapore's highly educated population and even the ruling PAP.
Where Kuan Yew had used logic and the stick, Hsien Loong has to resort to persuasion.
The stick (tough, punishing laws) could be effective when Singapore was dealing with communists, violent extremists, kidnappers or simply people who spit.
But legislation must be relied on to resolve today's pressing problems of citizens' emigration, marriage and procreation, work ethics, loyalty and promoting entrepreneurs – which is what the new leader is faced with.
The process of de-control, I believe, will continue steadily and, at times, hesitatingly. The question is not "if" but "how fast".
Sources and Relevant Links:
The Star Kuan Yew is still quick to act 14 March 2004
AIR WISE NEWS, Reuters Singapore-based pilot loses residency after union action 8 March 2004