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Next GE is likely a vote of confidence in next PM

In Singapore, a good politician is a reluctant politician, at least according to the People’s Action Party.

You have to be persuaded first to enter politics and become a candidate and that any sacrifice made in terms of salary is worth it because you will finally acknowledge that serving the country beats any cut in pay. Then you’ve got to be persuaded that having yourself and your family come under scrutiny is par for the course in the political arena. Perhaps, you’re told that, luckily, Singapore isn’t like other countries where the paparazzi follows your every private move. Here, they only follow your public moves – and don’t worry, these can be orchestrated and organized down to the last detail because your support network is a strong one.

And don’t even think that you should be Prime Minister. That’s because ambition in the political realm is frowned upon – or you will seen as more interested in acquiring power and status than in service.  So keep your head down, do your own little job well and if your peers like you and what you do, you might find yourself thrown up as first among equals. Oh. And if that happens, make sure you are suitably humble.

This is paradox of politics in Singapore.

I started thinking about the above after Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam put out the lay of the political/PAP land in a speech yesterday. It was the most expansive that I’ve heard so far on how the PAP elects its leaders, something that will happen late this year.

Yes, we know that the PAP cadres elect the members of its policy-making Central Executive Committee, which is almost a mirror of the Cabinet. And we know the members in turn select those among themselves to head the different party positions like chairman, secretary-general and so forth. We even know that those who didn’t make the electoral cut can always be co-opted into the CEC.

What we don’t know is how the candidates for the CEC were nominated in the first place, and whether cadres – the backbone of the PAP – always succeed in putting up its own candidates who may not already be in positions of power. There was just one occasion I can recall when this happened. Ayer Rajah MP Tan Cheng Bock was catapulted into the CEC decades ago, which given the current tension between the person and the party, is probably not something the PAP leadership wants to be reminded of.

We also don’t know exactly how many votes each elected member got, a bit like how we don’t know how different candidates in a Group Representation Constituency did in his or her own precinict – unless someone in the know tells. That means getting someone to leak the information – or the information is selectively put out to make someone look good/bad.

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What’s interesting is that Mr Shanmugam has confirmed how much of a top-down leadership the PAP has. He noted that in Singapore, each minister typically anchors a group representation constituency (GRC) with several MPs.

“The cadre members are usually based on branches so… if you don’t like the prime minister, within Cabinet if you can get about seven to eight ministers on your side, it’s a fair bet that they will be able to swing their cadre members from their branches and their GRCs,” he said.

“So then you form a team either quietly, as happened in the early 60s, or openly, and then you stand for elections at the CEC.

“And if you get the majority, and then you tell the prime minster you are no longer secretary-general of the party, please step down. That’s how a coup takes place.”

He calls it a coup. Leadership challenges “don’t do the country any good”, he said, especially in a small country like Singapore, where it will have a wide impact – on not only politics, but also other areas like the business environment.

I suppose others might counter that such challenges are part and parcel of the workings of the democratic process. After all, we do have general elections and by-elections. I pity any aspiring Prime Minister who is bursting to put forth his vision and egotistical enough to say that he is best suited for the job. This is a disqualification. Sorry.

Of course, coups, or democratic processes, can swing to the other extreme, when party leaders are deposed again and again, like in Australia, and this means the top job of prime minister changes too. Supposedly, a large country like Australia can absorb the impact of frequent leadership changes. In Singapore, with a G wielding a very visible and even heavy hand, consequences could be tumultuous as people start to worry about the stability of policies.

It’s the prerogative of the PAP to decide how it wants to pick its leaders. Those who think the Prime Minister should be elected by the people have got the wrong end of the stick. This is not how the parliamentary system works. Even in a presidential system, like in the United States, the leader must first be thrown up by the party grassroots to face the public at large in an election. As for whether Singapore is ready for a non-Chinese prime minister, it’s really up to the PAP cadres to decide – or the ministers who can influence the cadres to decide. Evidently, for example, the Reform Party and the Workers’ Party think that Singapore is ready for a non-Chinese prime minister, going by the secretary-generalship of the parties. Why? Because that is what will happen if either party takes the majority of the votes in a general election.

So what was Mr Shanmugam’s speech in aid of? I suppose it’s to assure Singaporeans that the leadership renewal will take place, that is, the Prime Minister will step down as he said he would by 2022. And that the 4G leaders are now hard at work, assessing who among them (not himself or herself) will be first-among-equals.

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Mr Shanmugam said: “If they have chosen, then it’s less likely, not impossible, but less likely that they will go against whoever is in power.”

That’s illuminating because Singapore has never had to deal with public intra-Cabinet struggles, because the past and current prime ministers have been so dominant and the succession issue settled way in advance.

In fact, you sort of wonder how the public will take to the next prime minister who will emerge in the manner that Mr Shanmugam sketched out. Hopefully, the PM-select will be able to shed any self-effacing façade and project himself and herself as a strong leader. Because he will suddenly be thrust before us. Face it. Can members of the public really judge who among the 4G is better than the other given they all look and sound the same? Doubtless, we will be told to trust the judgment of the collective.

Mr Shanmugam noted that the person selected to be the next prime minister will have to face the general election. “And then Singaporeans will have a say, and if you’re not good, you will be out,” he said.

It seems to me that the next general election is going to be framed as a mandate or vote of confidence in the next prime minister. So for those who hanker after a vote on who should be prime minister, this is it then.

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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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