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News Reports

PAP changes: Casting around for a star – and a script

So everybody’s trying to guess who’s going to be the next Prime Minister after yesterday’s People’s Action Party convention.

But what do we know?

  1. We know who’s got the most votes for 12 places in the policymaking Central Executive Committee, as well as the two with the next highest votes who have been co-opted, namely, Dr Ng Eng Hen and Ms Josephine Teo.
  2. We don’t know how the divine dozen fared in the polls. Was Mr Lee Hsien Loong, the PAP’s secretary-general, the top vote-getter? We don’t know what the PAP cadres thought of the three front-runners – Messrs Chan Chun Sing, Ong Ye Kung and Heng Swee Keat – because we don’t have any voting numbers either. But we know Mr Ong was voted in, unlike the last time when he had to be co-opted.
  3. We know whose name wasn’t on the ballot: the two Deputy Prime Ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam (so he’s definitely out of the running) and Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan. Mr Lim Swee Say and Dr Yaacob Ibrahim have been left off the list too, which is no surprise given that they had relinquished their ministerial portfolios earlier. (The CEC is practically a mirror image of the Cabinet)
  4. We know that there were at least 19 names on the ballot. According to ST, Messrs S. Iswaran, Lawrence Wong, Desmond Lee, Janil Puthucheary and Alex Yam, the only backbencher on the list, didn’t muster enough votes to make it into the CEC.
  5. We know that it really doesn’t matter who made the cut because the CEC has the power to co-opt another four members.

So what will we know next or what will be allowed to know?

We know that with the withdrawal of the 3G leaders, there are now five senior vacancies: chairman, vice-chairman, first and second assistant secretary-generals, as well as treasurer. If you recall what Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said recently, how this new hierarchy is staffed would give clues on the leadership transition.

After Mr Lee as secretary-general, the next two top slots are first and second assistant secretary-general. This is a bit like first and second DPM (told you it’s a mirror image). As for who decides who gets what job, that’s up to the CEC members themselves.

Given that this college of cardinals is now filled mainly by 4G leaders, this means they should have the most say on who should lead them. Mr Lee has already said he wouldn’t interfere in their discussions, and the younger team seemed to have been in a huddle over the past few months to secure a consensus.

When will we know this? In a few weeks time when the CEC meets. That when the real show starts.

The change in the cast of actors is intriguing to watch. But I can’t help but think about the pressure the star performer will face when the curtain finally parts. It isn’t just the 4G leaders who have been trying to reach a consensus, there’s plenty of talk on who will be leader among the polity itself. It isn’t enough for the lead actor to have the backing of his peers, he needs to demonstrate to the audience why he deserves top billing as well.

But the audience doesn’t have any clue about what sort of performance the entire cast will put up. The 4G leaders have always emphasized its collective position, rather than point to individual characters who are making their mark.

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Given its collective persona, is there then a distinctive style that separates them from the earlier leadership?

The year started on a high note, with President Halimah Yacob calling on the younger leaders not to be afraid to make bold changes. We’re told that the year’s Budget is in their hands and would have their imprint.

The response from the 4G leaders, in the person of Mr Heng, was to pledge a new compact with the people, with more interaction with the people. But there is no sign of a second Singapore conversation, unless we count the multiple-minister walkabouts which end in closed-door dialogues. Or the various interviews they gave on television, over radio and in print.

What we remember instead is a year in which Mr Heng and Ms Grace Fu, also elected into the CEC, tussled with the Workers’ Party on the proposed rise in GST, and the town council law suits against some WP leaders which, to many, smack of the old-style PAP confrontational politics even though the suits were initiated by an independent panel.

We recall the grilling that the Parliamentary Select Committee gave to some representors, especially historian P J Thum, at the hearings on deliberate online falsehoods. We see the tightening of OB markers, with new laws to secure public order and lower thresholds for contempt of court indictments. The 4G leaders have given some very vigorous responses even to moderate comments in the media, demonstrating that they have a pretty short fuse despite the promise to listen to opinions with respect and humility.

On the bread-and-butter level, I’m sure many are glad that the MRT is working well, after so many hiccups. But we are now told that the worth of our HDB flats, once touted as an ever-appreciating investment, will go down to zero eventually. We have to face the facts of course, but it’s hard to digest, especially for those now trying to sell off their old properties.

And I haven’t even started on about jobs and cost-of-living.

Perhaps, the 4G is intending to make its mark in education, breaking the Singaporean mindset away from the emphasis on grades and the reliance on connections that give those from privileged families a headstart. Several announcements have been made to this effect, whether about polytechnic students’ admission to universities, pre-primary programmes and how international rankings might not give a complete picture of Singapore’s higher education landscape.

Perhaps, these tweaks will have an impact on another big set of issues they have to deal with:  the merits and demerits of meritocracy, its impact on social mobility, and whether elitism has seeped in too deep into society to be uprooted. These are philosophical and cultural issues that would have to be factored into policymaking.

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In this respect, they suffer from an image problem. They are viewed as products of a system which has nurtured them, buffeted by the ever-controversial ministerial salary issue, in a closed elite of technocrats bound by old school/public service connections. Even the CEC doesn’t have a single backbencher in its ranks.

Their vigorous defence of the social support system in place – Workfare Income Supplement, Silver Support Scheme, Progressive Wage Model – doesn’t give much room for alternative viewpoints. Instead, increasingly, the blame seems pinned on the people at large, for not being able to see beyond their noses and sniffing at the less well-off.

In other words, I don’t see any kind of political or governing style emerging from the 4G leaders. What’s worse is I think they will make a virtue of continuity of policies and style, even while they deliver lectures on Singapore’s vulnerabilities in an increasing complex world.

The cast is acting out the same old drama. Hopefully, the unveiling of the star will be accompanied by a change of script.



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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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