And so it has happened…although the mode of news delivery surprised me. The Cabinet chose the forum of a press conference to deliver the news that Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat had decided not to be the prime minister-in-waiting. I thought it would be announced at a Cabinet reshuffle with players moved around to shore up the team, and a note from DPM Heng to say that he decided his health is of more concern to him than the top job.
So no, the news didn’t surprise me. So many hints had been dropped from above that if DPM Heng didn’t see them, he must be very short-sighted. Or if he did, he turned a blind eye. He must be a terribly nice man if he didn’t ask his boss: Eh, what did you mean when you said you were staying on until the Covid crisis has passed? What do you mean when you said you will hand Singapore over when it’s in ‘good working order’? Your 70thbirthday is in February 2022 hor.
On the face of it, Mr Heng can be described as a casualty of Covid-19. The PM decided that the electorate wanted a stable, established hand to see the country through the crisis. Horses shouldn’t be changed in mid-stream, as his ex-Cabinet colleague S Jayakumar said as well. That threw the transition timeline out of whack.
Mr Heng noted yesterday that he would be 60 soon and that would leave his own successor with too short a runway to take over. PM Lee was 52, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong was 49 and founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was in his 30s when they became Prime Minister. Both Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Goh stepped down before they turned 70.
I was a little puzzled at this. He became the People’s Action Party’s first assistant secretary-general in 2018 and crowned Deputy Prime Minister in 2019. So was original plan for him to take over in 2020, run the general election and stay on for at least two terms?
How was the plan put out of whack? The Covid-19 virus appeared, and even if it disappeared by the end of the year, it doesn’t mean that Singapore would be in ‘good working order’. Tuning up the economy, getting more planes flying and tourists coming in could take a couple more years. So if you hold the PM to his promise to stay on, that would delay the timeline by a few years. If Mr Heng stepped up only then, he could well be a one-term PM, and you know what people say about “seat-warmers’’.
Mr Heng and the PAP can reiterate the official reasons for his decision to step aside, but you can’t stop people wondering if this was because he was considered “not up to the job’’.
He said that the East Coast GRC electoral result wasn’t a factor in his decision. Well, I think it should be. Not just for him, but the PAP as a whole. Despite his name being bandied around as PM-designate since 2018, many constituents still didn’t think it worthwhile to pick such a powerful man as their MP. Surely, the people’s voice matters?
I don’t want to go into his merits or demerits; netizens are doing that already. What’s more important is what the 4G leaders are going to do now. It doesn’t say much for their cohesiveness that they couldn’t decide on the next man immediately. So if Mr Heng was their pick, was there a second choice? Mr Heng’s choice is Mr Chan Chun Sing but the view of the 4G leadership looks more like a “re-set’’ – until more people coalesce around their preferred leader, as Mr Ong Ye Kung said.
It seems to me odd that after so, so many years of working together, the 4G leaders haven’t got a measure of each other – unless they are thinking of someone in the 2020 batch. Mr Heng was viewed as a consensual pick. If there was ever a good time for a split in the PAP to occur, it would be now. All talk of factionalism that was put to rest when Mr Heng was the final choice will be revived, notwithstanding the protestations of the PAP.
Tongues are again a-wagging and four names have been thrown into the mix. Mr Heng, by the way, didn’t step down as DPM. He stepped down from his Finance ministry portfolio although he remains co-ordinating minister for economic affairs. (That’s like the job of a senior minister although he would be too young for this.)
So the next chess move would be deciding who becomes Finance Minister, generally seen as essential tutelage for premiership. PM Lee said he would announce the new Cabinet line-up in two weeks. Will it be one of the two Second Finance Ministers, Ms Indranee Rajah or Mr Lawrence Wong? Plenty of bets are on Mr Wong, who was so much in the shadows till the Covid-19 outbreak.
But what do we, the people, know anyway?
Despite all the questions and answers about whether Singapore is ready for a woman or non-Chinese Prime Minister, the fact is that we do not have a say. This is a parliamentary system, in which the ruling party decides on its top chief. Or rather, where the cadres among the rank-and-file, decide on its top chief. But that’s not accurate either. It’s the PAP Central Executive Committee which decides on the top chief. Errr no, it’s the 4G leaders who decide on who is the top chief.
We can’t influence their pick but maybe we can talk about the qualities that we want to see in a future Singapore Prime Minister. Truth to tell, I was looking forward to a change of leaders, a break from the Lee legacy. It had always been my hope that the 4G leaders would stamp their own mark on Government, instead of doing more of the same. Now, it seems the notion of a 4G leadership is a chimera, because we’re already looking for a 5G leader among them.
There have been too many recent instances of the G tripping up, whether it’s about the scope of TraceTogether, loss of private data, mixed messaging over the wearing of the tudung and, now, a gigantic $370 million mis-payment.
At the press conference, a question was asked about how the (non) succession would affect the country’s international standing. The answer, of course, is that it wouldn’t. Better if the question was about what the people of Singapore think about the PAP now that its political succession is in shambles. The 4G/5G had better buck up.