28 October 2016
Lee Hsien Loong's stumble during a key speech last Sunday has sparked intense concern in Singapore about the leader's health and succession issue. Photos: Bloomberg, Reuters
Lee Hsien Loong's stumble during a key speech last Sunday has sparked intense concern in Singapore about the leader's health and succession issue. Photos: Bloomberg, Reuters

Singaporeans fret after PM Lee stumbles at National Day rally

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s speech at the city-state’s 51st National Day rally last Sunday made global headlines, but for all the wrong reasons.

Lee almost collapsed halfway into his speech, which was being broadcast live, and had to be helped off the stage inside a packed auditorium. The event was suspended for over an hour.

“I gave everybody a scare,” said Lee when he returned to the podium later to finish his address.

The PM’s official Twitter account subsequently released a statement saying that Lee had merely felt “unsteady” because of prolonged standing, heat and dehydration.

“His heart is fine and he did not have a stroke,” it said, seeking to quash rumors of a cardiac attack.

Official assurances notwithstanding, many still remain skeptical about Lee’s condition.

Some political observers, meanwhile, are wondering if the Singaporean leader will be able to convince his people that he is physically fit to be at the wheel of the Lion City for four more years.

In a nation that worships authoritarian governance and a strong commander-in-chief, Lee’s stumble during the National Day rally has, not surprisingly, fueled various doubts and speculation.

PM’s health back in focus

The Aug. 21 incident has sent a shock wave across the tiny Southeast Asian nation where people gave a fresh landslide to Lee’s People’s Action Party in a general election last September.

The leader, 64, has twice survived cancer. He was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1992 while serving as deputy prime minister but was given a clean slate after three months of chemotherapy.

Lee had his prostate gland removed in February 2015 at Singapore General Hospital (SGH), almost at the same time when his father Lee Kuan Yew was on mechanical ventilation in the hospital’s ICU.

The elder Lee, the founding father of modern Singapore, passed away a month later.

Prostate cancer patients with similar medical profile as the Singapore PM have a survival rate of 99 percent at 15 years, the leader’s office said at the time.

One of the PM’s sons, Yipeng, has albinism.

Succession uncertainty

Lee’s stumble last Sunday was attributed to a fainting spell.

“Doctors have told me that I’m alright,” Lee said, but admitted that he had been advised some rest.

“I will have a full check-up after this. Ministers or not, all of us are mortal.”

Lee posted a Facebook message that he went straight to the SGH for a thorough checkup.

“I’m glad to report that the doctors think I am ok, but they have advised me to rest, so I will be on [medical leave] for a week,” he wrote.

He later spoke about the next leadership for the ruling party and the city state.

“Nothing that has happened has changed my timetable or my resolve to press on with a succession.

“In the next general election, we will reinforce the team again, … my successor must be ready to take over from me.”

Singapore’s next general election is due by January 2021.

Leadership vacuum

Though Lee is talking about handing over the baton, Singaporeans are yet to know who will take over from him, and if the successor be as efficient and competent in governance as the incumbent chief.

The worries come as the city-state’s economy has begun to falter, making it necessary more than ever for a strong and capable hand at the helm.

One person mentioned in local media as Lee’s favored candidate was Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, but the 54-year-old’s prospects are in doubt as he suffered a stroke during a cabinet meeting this May. 

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam is also tipped by some as a potential successor, but he is 60 and as an ethnic Tamil, he doesn’t speak Mandarin.

As for Teo Chee Hean, Lee’s another deputy, he turns 64 this year.

Another frontrunner is Ong Ye Kung, now the acting education minister and formerly Lee’s principal private secretary.

But Ong suffered embarrassment during the 2011 general election, when he was a key election advisor to the then foreign minister George Yeo Yong Boon.

Yeo lost his parliament seat to the opposition, a defeat that took a toll on his political career. Ong had to take some of the blame.

Given these choices and the lack of clarity over the city’s next leadership, Singaporeans are understandably a bit nervous about their future. 

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Read more:

Why the Singapore way will never be a cure for HK’s woes

Why you are better off living in HK than in Singapore

Lee Kuan Yew’s lessons for Hong Kong

Let’s not compare Hong Kong and Singapore: they’re worlds apart

Singaporeans fret after PM Lee stumbles during National Day rally 


Lee almost fainted during a National Day event and had to be helped off stage for rest. Photo: YouTube

Lee had his prostate gland removed in February 2015, a month before his father — Lee Kuan Yew — passed away. Photos: Lee’s Facebook page

EJ Insight writer

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