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Political transition’s ambiguous timeline

Singapore has had only two leadership transitions – with a third on the way. And the way looks bumpy. You have the Prime Minister talking during the general election about staying on to help Singapore through the Covid-19 crisis. 

You have my word: Together with my older colleagues like Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, as well as the 4G ministers, I will see this through. I am determined to hand over Singapore intact and in good working order to the next team.”

I thought then that he was attempting to placate people who thought that the A team shouldn’t have left the management of the crisis to the B team. Poor Heng Swee Keat. 

Then former Cabinet Minister S Jayakumar raised the possibility of PM Lee Hsien Loong staying in place for the full term and even to fight  the next general election in 2025. He said that “changing horses in mid-stream’’ doesn’t make sense. If the PM agrees, what does that do to his pledge that he would like to step down before his 70th birthday in February 2022?

I thought again, poor Heng Swee Keat. 

Over the weekend at the People’s Action Party conference, the PM talked again about staying on. 

Leadership renewal remains one of my top priorities. But as I have explained, because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact, it is my duty to see our nation through the crisis, before I hand over responsibility for Singapore in good shape to the next team and into safe hands. I ask you to support me and my whole team – older and younger MPs, office holders and backbenchers. We will do our very best to fulfil our duty at this critical time.’’

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I searched for signs of an endorsement of the 4th leadership but other than that they were leading initiatives and getting feedback, nothing further was said about them stepping up. There was no rousing call to cadres to show support for the younger team, but more an injunction to party members to put their backs into making sure the party stayed relevant. 

His 2018 speech to PAP cadres was more fulsome: “The 4G team has been in Cabinet for several years now. Many of them joined in 2011. Some joined earlier, others in 2015. They have been tested in several portfolios. At the same time, they are working with each other, and learning to complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

It is a team of able men and women, with a good combination of skills amongst them. They are gaining experience, willing to serve, and most importantly, with their hearts in the right place. I can see them gelling as a team, and am confident that they have what it takes to lead Singapore. I hope that you will join me in giving your whole-hearted support to the new CEC and our 4G leaders.’’

Given Singapore’s opaque partisan politics, it is natural for the people to read “signs’’ to foretell the future, whether they are real or not. 

Following GE2020, I listened carefully to PM Lee’s speech at the opening of Parliament and wondered why he said almost nothing about the 4G. His speech is better remembered for his castigation of free-riding voters who wanted both a PAP government and an opposition presence in Parliament. 

On the outside looking in, the succession process looks terribly unwieldy and wobbly, despite the PAP’s boast that it takes leadership renewal seriously. 

The first transition from Lee Kuan Yew to Goh Chok Tong had never gone off-course, despite the late Mr Lee’s grumblings about how his deputy wasn’t his first-choice pick. The late Mr Lee’s criticisms of Mr Goh’s lack of charisma and wooden demeanour seemed to have backfired if the idea was to de-legitimise Mr Goh as successor. In fact, Mr Lee’s blunt honesty about the “gentle man’’ led to a wave of sympathy for the underdog, sandwiched in the hierarchy between the father and the son. 

Mr Goh declared that he would walk in his “own shoes’’ rather than try to fit that into his predecessor’s gargantuan ones.

You can say that, barring the Kennedys, our current Prime Minister had the best and most extensive tutelage for the job, both at home and in political office. Everybody knew the lay of the land; nobody would attempt to make a pitch for the top job, especially with Mr Goh and the late Mr Lee still in the Cabinet. 

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The baton passed smoothly from Mr Goh to the current PM in 2004. No surprises. This second handover was like a “done’’ deal, given that Mr Lee had been a deputy prime minister for 14 years and early declarations by Mr Goh that Mr Lee would be his successor.

So what happened in the third generation? My guess is that PM Lee left the succession plan too late. One of chess pieces was knocked off the board in 2011 when Mr Ong Ye Kung, now Transport minister, didn’t make it in the general election along with the rest of the Aljunied GRC team.

PM Lee seemed content to try individuals out in different capacities to see who would rise above the others while leaving it to the 4th generation to decide among themselves on who would be their choice of leader. It was such a slow process that even Mr Goh weighed in, to tell the ministers to “get a move on’’.

From the 2015 election till the Covid outbreak early this year, I believe most people felt that the 4th generation was in the driver’s seat. We’re told several times that they would be making the decisions, and that the veterans would take a back seat. Both Mr Teo Chee Hean and Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam became Senior Ministers which Singaporeans have come to think of as the pre-retirement stage. Mr Heng became Number 2 in the People’s Action Party as First Assistant Secretary-General and holds the sole Deputy Prime Minister job in the Cabinet. 

I had great hopes in the leadership of Mr Heng, whom I thought performed superbly in the education and finance portfolios and as chairman of the Our Singapore Conversation. I wanted to see him perform like a Deputy, and more than just a Finance minister, never mind how important the portfolio is. I don’t think he succeeded. I also did not like that he had to front a couple of parliamentary altercations with the Workers’ Party MPs. It seemed uncharacteristic of his personality and more like attempts to look “tough’’. 

Despite unveiling four Budgets, he was eclipsed by Covid-19 taskforce co-chairman Lawrence Wong, who was also picked to make public the PAP’s preliminary post-mortem of GE2020 and has excited pundits who view him as a front-runner in the PM stakes. I thought yet again: poor Heng Swee Keat. 

So what’s happened to the succession plan? Is it on track? Because the “signs’’ are not clear. 

I doubt that Mr Heng can live down his “East Coast plan’’ election speech any time soon, but should that be a deciding factor? As for the election results in his East Coast GRC, you can argue that he propped up the PAP team to prevent it from slipping into opposition hands, or that he should have done better. 

Mr Heng’s technocratic ability is not in doubt, but some people think that this is not enough for the job. Note that Mr Goh suffered from the same compliment/drawback : that while he was able, he was not inspiring. The difference, however, is that no one ever believed that he would be re-routed from the job.

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If Mr Heng is still their man, the 4G leaders should be rallying around him too – publicly. After all, in November 2018, they said in a joint statement: “Now we have a consensus that the team will be led by Swee Keat.” It can’t have escaped people’s notice that it was Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, not Mr Heng’s political contemporary, who said the 4G leaders were in “complete unity’’ behind Mr Heng. 

Prof Jayakumar said that whether PM Lee Hsien Loong retires two years from now or a few years later, the exact timing is not the critical issue. “What is important for Singapore is that there is no abandonment of the strategic impulse to plan for and execute an orderly succession.’’ 

I wondered at that. Of course, a successor must be appointed. Nobody lives forever.  

And while Prof Jayakumar is right to say that horses should not be changed mid-stream, it is also true that most Singaporeans have been prepared for the change for some time. To have the status quo remain – that would, in fact, be a change. 

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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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