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Why care about who will be PM?

And there we were thinking we’ll know soon enough who will run Singapore as Prime Minister. Alas, it was not to be. All that foreplay ended up in an anti-climax. So no new Deputy Prime Minister will be appointed in the next Cabinet re-shuffle after the Budget debate. All we know is that it will take longer than the six to nine months time-frame ESM Goh Chok Tong had suggested.

Said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong: “ESM (Goh) is speaking with the privilege of watching things rather than being responsible to make it happen. I think we know it’s a very serious matter.”

In other words, please butt out.

But why is it taking so long, especially since PM Lee had said he wanted to make way after the next GE due in April 2021?

His answer is more or less this: “The team is taking shape. The dynamics amongst them, they are working it out. They are learning to work together.

“Also, they need a bit of time for Singaporeans to get a feel of them – not just to be known as public figures, but to be responsible for significant policies… carrying them, justifying them, defending them, adapting them, making them work, and showing that they deserve to lead.’’

Oh dear. Can we get “a feel’’ of any one of them by then? The upcoming Budget must be an extra special one, for us to be able to divine the best among the rest. Yet, the Budget is also a collective effort.

The PM also talked about how the Cabinet re-shuffle will be “a significant step in exposing and building the new team, and putting them into different portfolios”. When that happens, speculation will start again, as we examine which minister has one or two portfolios, heavier or lighter portfolios, high-profile or low-profile portfolios.

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After all, isn’t that why “observers” seem to think that the field has been narrowed down to three?

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat – oldest of the lot who led the Singapore Conversation and the Economic Restructuring Committee

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing – who entered one GE later than Mr Heng and who is also leader of the NTUC

Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung – the latecomer who launched SkillsFuture and is also in the defence ministry and on the board of Monetary Authority of Singapore.

Does anyone remember that there used to be more people? So Mr Tan Chuan-Jin was deemed out of the running because he is no longer in the Cabinet. What of Messrs Lawrence Wong and Ng Chee Meng? Perhaps, they fell away because they have a relatively lower public profile compared to the rest. Mr Ng, the military man, however, has been pushing forth some new education policies that will have far-reaching impact. Is there room for a dark horse to emerge? If so, what role will this person, once he is chosen, play in fighting the next general election, which has to be called by April 2021?

Perhaps, we will know the answer  in the run-up to the election, by looking at who will handle the campaign or take the biggest role.  Mr Lee said the leading man, that is, if he hasn’t been picked yet even at this late stage “will have to pull his weight and… show that he deserves to be what his peers and his colleagues in Cabinet think that he can do.

“This is necessary. If you’re unable to win elections, you cannot be the leader. You can be a great thinker, you can be a great planner, but you have to be in politics.”

Unlike his late father, PM Lee is averse to discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the 4G team. The late Lee Kuan Yew, for example, had once described his successor, Mr Goh Chok Tong, as “wooden’’. That put Mr Goh under an uncomfortable spotlight, but I believe it earned him plenty of points with the people. We like underdogs.

So, PM Lee is really not giving anything away. He has said he has no part to play in picking his successor. Today, he reiterated that point: If the ministers ask him for his views, he will try his best “to be helpful’’.

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I have always wondered at the way politics works in Singapore. That the decision on who will be PM is made behind closed doors, like the way the Pope is elected. It makes you wonder about the existence of the People’s Action Party membership. In most democracies, the party faithful picks its leader who becomes the Prime Minister if he leads the party to victory. Here, the cadres pick a slate of people, who decide among themselves who does what. It’s a wonder that the PAP faithful aren’t  chafing at having so little say in the matter.

PM Lee suggested that people view leadership as a team effort, rather than “personalized as a person’’. When decisions on who will be PM are so opaque, can you blame people from speculating who will be Pope (sorry, PM)?

And if we view the G as “team effort’’, why should we care who becomes Prime Minister?







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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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