News Reports

DPM Wong has a lot of work to do

Now we know. We have a timeline at least. So Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is handing over the reins to Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong possibly this time next year, before the general election which has to be held by the end of the following year. We will be told formally that this is the team which will be running Singapore. And then we have to show them if we think they are good enough.

It’s not a question of who the first among equals will be now, but who will be second or third and further down the line. Political observers are all agog about the prospect of a Cabinet reshuffle that will align with Mr Wong’s ideas of leadership but they were hazy about what they think will happen. I don’t blame them because it means putting up some names. 

In the matter of names…

So who will be Mr Wong’s deputy? Recall that when Mr Heng Swee Keat was anointed, he made it clear that Mr Chan Chun Sing would be his number 2. That was the pecking order in case anybody else harboured other ambitions. It was a pointed reference to Mr Ong Ye Kung, whose name was not put up by the CEC for the party ballot that year. Nevertheless, he made it in on his own steam. 

Nothing has been said about Mr Chan’s position now. He played a big part as the logistics man during Covid 19, but was never vaulted into the position of co-chair with Mr Wong. Instead, Mr Ong had his turn at the helm when he was made Health Minister. 

Rewind the clock a bit.

Remember that Mr Heng became DPM as PM-in-waiting. He is still DPM although he is no longer PM-in-waiting. He has charge of some big areas, but no ministry. His fellow Deputy is Mr Wong, who took over Mr Heng’s old job as Finance Minister. Will Mr Heng stay in place, be given a ministry? Will he be a drag on Mr Wong (or seen to be a drag) given he was really the first choice successor? You can expect that whether he stays or goes, the Cabinet will form a united front. Interesting.

And what of the other senior people in Cabinet? Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam has moved on to be President. How things have changed! People used to wonder how former President Halimah Yacob would deal with her former boss, PM Lee. Now we have the opposite – what will Mr Tharman’s relationship with the much more junior Mr Wong be like? So interesting.

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PM Lee’s closest confidante appears to be Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean. He too is ministry-less, but he gets assignments that are prickly and contentious, like heading a committee on what to do with the Oxley Road house and investigating improprieties in the Ridout Road saga. He is, to put it bluntly, the PM’s useful go-to man.

There is Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, whose grip on the portfolio is so tight that no other name pops up as a replacement. He handles all Mindef affairs and relations with foreign military with gravitas and aplomb. Would it be prudent to “change horses in mid-stream’’ when military tension is ratcheting up everywhere? Is renewal a good reason for change?

The same can be said for Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, of the same political cohort as Dr Ng. Mr Heng was adamant at treating Dr Balakrishnan as a member of the 4G, which explained the Foreign Minister’s presence at a talkfest during the 2020GE. Does Mr Wong have the same view?

What about the most visible and voluble of them all, Mr K Shanmugam? He entered politics earlier than most of the Cabinet but became a minister after 20 years as an MP. He holds two powerful portfolios, Law and Home Affairs. This looks efficient from a governing point of view but it might be more comforting to know that there are two different people in charge of law and order respectively who will balance each other out. In this instance, some succession planning appears to be in place with experienced lawyers serving long apprenticeships. 

So how will Mr Wong reshuffle his cards or will he only do so after he has been installed? Who knows? I am pontificating merely as a political observer rather than someone with inside info. In fact, some people would ask why they should even care who is in charge so long as the trains are running, houses keep getting built and wages keep going up. Which brings me to what I thought was the more interesting point of yesterday’s conference.

In the name of Government 

Both PM Lee and DPM Wong dwelt quite a bit about what the party has to do in terms of sharpening the differences between PAP policies and those proposed by the Opposition. They made calls for the branches to go beyond what they usually do and communicate beyond Government channels. 

I think it is in the PAP’s interest to make people see that it is a political entity rather than a Government which happened to be formed by PAP members. 

The line is now so blurred that even PAP MPs are seen as part of the Government machinery with too much privileged information or undue influence. Go ask Tin Pei Ling. I would add that the labour movement, the grassroot bodies and many parts of the Establishment are somewhat fused together under the PAP/Government banner. It is a top-down leadership of the like-minded.

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While the party/government leaders might be oblivious to this perception, as they seemed to be initially in Ms Tin’s case, the people see it differently. In the same way, the Ridout Road saga is a reflection of how people do not see the difference between a minister and a mere government tenant. They see minister first – and only – and have expectations about how ministers should conduct themselves. 

This is why some people get riled up when a frontbencher takes up the cudgels in Parliament against opposition politicians. People, even those who are pro-PAP,  do not see the PAP politicking, but a minister acting in a not very ministerial or parliamentary manner. But who can blame said ministers when the PAP itself is a mouse that only roars around election time? 

You do not see the PAP as an organisation battling the opposition. Maybe that will now change. There has been lately a couple of pieces by MPs in the party organ, Petir, but there are few and far in between. In fact, it will be good practice for wannabe candidates to start talking on behalf of the party, instead of waiting for an official announcement on their candidacy. 

It is also in the Government’s interest to have a separation of communications between official and political.  

Political parties can shout as loud as they like and state who their friends and enemies are. They are outlets for varying points of view or views of different degrees. A Government, on the other hand, must stay moderate and prudent especially in terms of, say, foreign relations.

I don’t think any Singapore minister can tell his foreign counterparts that the other side’s proposal is untenable because “my party members won’t accept this’’. Nor can they substitute “my party members’’ for “my fellow citizens’’ because over the years, we have been conditioned to take the lead from the authorities, with every parliamentary pronouncement as the last word on the matter. 

I think the PAP has been in power for so long that it has taken for granted the political advantages that it has accrued over the years, like having a civil service do policy research, having access to more information than the ordinary member of the public and being able to commission think tanks to do surveys. Its parliamentary dominance ensures legislative changes get through and its hold on the media ensures it stays as the biggest voice in the land, drowning out others. Even the content of national dialogues, facilitated by civil servants, can be turned into party manifestos as I am sure will be done with Forward Singapore.

If nothing goes wrong, it is as it should be especially since the G lauds itself having the best brains around (and paid well). If anything goes wrong, the finger points to the government, whether or not the matter comes under its purview. The G seems to encourage this too, taking on questions on every matter in Parliament, albeit at its own time and pace.

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I believe its overwhelming presence is a reason for its waning electoral fortunes. People see this dominance and they become more and more uncomfortable even as their expectations get higher. It is not corruption per se that people are worried about. It’s about a group of like-minded people having untrammeled power. The opposition politicians, on the other hand, come across as the   hardworking everyman, because they are without those  advantages. They have to come up with policy options on their own – and when these fall short, people are sympathetic. 

What if the PAP was in the opposition? How would it fare without the current massive infrastructural machinery? Will it still have links with the NTUC or will this be seen as too dangerous a combination for political stability? Will the government in charge let the PAP consort with the People’s Association grassroot groups? What is the Citizens’ Consultative Committee, those unelected men and women in charge of the ward, to do then? 

The PAP leaders themselves concede that they might not win every election. If they really do believe this, they should make an effort to refresh, renew and rejuvenate the party machinery so that it is able to stand on its own. 

Just another change of name? 

Look at the timing.

If Mr Wong is PM next November, he has about one year to call an election. It would be a critical election because it is about citizens giving him and the 4G a mandate to lead us. Of course, we won’t be given any numerical figures to speak off in terms of a mandate…

Recall that Mr Goh Chok Tong didn’t wait for the parliamentary term to be nearly over when he went to the polls as Singapore’s second Prime Minister. He called a snap election in 1991 and was so disappointed with the results (the PAP got 67.3 per cent of the vote and lost four seats) that he quit his Marine Parade GRC seat to re-test his mandate in a by-election.  His team took 72.9 per cent of the vote. 

Mr Lee Hsien Loong was Prime Minister for two years before leading the PAP team in the 2006 GE, close to the end of the five-year parliamentary term. The PAP took 75.2 per cent of the votes, a creditable increase from the 64.5 per cent in 2001. 

Numbers can be dissected in many ways. I wager that any number higher than 55 per cent would be deemed as good enough by any democratic standard. This would be the “new normal’’. Remember though that we have mandatory voting, which means we should/would be getting a better sense of the people’s judgment than in countries where the vote must be “got out”. In my view, a vote that is higher than the 2020 GE’s 61 per cent for the PAP would be a good enough mandate. 

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How will Mr Wong and the 4G leadership up this number? I think the institutional methods of providing for “proxy’’ opposition voices like Non-constituency MPs and Nominated MPs have been exhausted. The Group Representation Constituency concept has proven to be a double-edged sword. Carrots such as votes for upgrading were scorned. 

The ground is not sweet now and will start souring again with the next rise in GST in January. If cost-of-living is not reined in, or wages rise too slowly, then the PAP will have to contend with this explosive bread-and-butter problem which affects the majority of heartlanders, its biggest base of voters. I am not sure how much more aid can be dished out before it makes a mockery of the PAP’s insistence that it does not believe in a welfare state. 

Would a refreshed manifesto based on the Forward Singapore report cut it? Frankly, it is a cautious report, more about tweaking than changing policy. Even between the PAP and the opposition, the difference is in degree – whether things are happening too fast or too slow, too much subsidy or too little, comprehensive or piecemeal approach, too lax or too harsh. Shorn of all the buzzwords about inclusivity, resilience and diversity, the report’s key message is for Singapore to change its mindset about grades and jobs. That would take a few generations.

I don’t envy Mr Wong his job. I think he’s got it right in telling the party that the membership has to take on its share of the political work. On this, the PAP might want to learn from the opposition parties which have been running their own show with volunteers. I have always thought it a pity that the PAP branches have stopped holding Meet-the-People sessions in the opposition wards – because it was the least it could do as a political party. This is far better than having a failed candidate give out Edusave bursaries to residents in a community centre.

The PAP will have to go back to its roots and recall how it tried to win the people over in the beginning, the words and deeds that were needed. It needs to plug the gaps in its profile so that its leaders do not look as if they are from the same cookie-cutter mould. While the opposition is getting professionals, academics and corporate people into its ranks beyond the usual “businessmen”, the PAP is still perceived as a bastion for bureaucrats/technocrats and military people. During GE2020, the Workers Party had a far better social media campaign than the PAP, which seems stuck in the mainstream media mindset.

It’s not for me to advise the PAP but I hope the rank-and-file will get behind their new leader and make a concerted effort to rally the ground. “Government” efforts are no longer good enough.

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Further reading

© 2022 Bertha Henson

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