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Singapore's tough-minded premier wrestles with growing public discontent

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Since gaining its independence in 1965, this island republic has thrived under a regime widely judged the strongest in Southeast Asia. In two decades, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew established stability and prosperity as the birthrights of Singapore's 2.5 million citizens. Nonetheless, the tough-minded premier and his People's Action Party (PAP) are struggling to reverse a steady decline in public confidence. Increasingly, the institutions that this the most affluent nation in Asia, except for Japan, are meeting with popular criticism and a widespread sense of restlessness and discontent.

``People are no longer satisfied,'' one Singaporean says flatly. ``And we have reached the stage of development where it is easy to gripe.''

Visitors often remark, as this man suggests, that the republic's wealth has made it a spoiled nation. But the political issues now confronting the government here go far beyond this trait, whether it is real or imagined.

Singapore is at a crossroads. Its leaders face growing pressure to evolve away from the authoritarian rule that has until now underpinned the island's progress.

Under Mr. Lee, who has governed without challenge since 1965, the PAP is seeking to accommodate demands for more democracy and more political choice. But the party is also clearly committed to maintaining its exclusive grip on power.

Criticism of the government has intensified lately because of a dramatic decline in economic performance. After two decades of near double-digit growth, output shrank by 1.7 percent last year, and little improvement is expected in 1986.

The island's political difficulties are also compounded by its succession crisis. Although Lee, who is 63, will soon relinquish the premiership, it is still unclear who is to replace him. The succession issue is crucial because it will effectively determine Singapore's future political direction. Like Asia's other Chinese-influenced societies, this nation must decide whether it needs another strong, traditional leader or whether it will allow a more politically diverse system to develop.

``The central question is simple: Can Chinese societies exist without an emperor?'' says one political analyst here.

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