September 5, 2016
Singapore: Countdown to next PM picks up speed
Young ministers tipped for the top job have shorter ‘runway’, with less time than previous PMs to earn their stripes
by Charissa Yong
Clockwise from top left: Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, Minister in the Prime Minister‘s Office Chan Chun Sing, Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin, Acting Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng and National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.
When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced his new Cabinet line-up soon after last September’s general election, he made it clear that planning for leadership succession was a key priority.
Younger ministers and new office-holders were given a range of responsibilities to expose them to new areas of work.
The key assignments given to Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat – such as chairing the Committee on the Future Economy – led some observers to conclude he was the clear frontrunner among the fourth-generation leadership.
So when Mr Heng suffered a stroke during a Cabinet meeting in May, undergoing emergency surgery the same day, many were worried that Singapore’s leadership succession plans might be disrupted.
Then, two Sundays ago, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong caused hearts to pound when three hours into his televised National Day Rally speech – moments before he was to announce a recovered Mr Heng’s return to Cabinet – he faltered on stage and had to take a break. PM Lee rested for about an hour before returning to complete his address.
For this reason, Singaporeans should realise how important it is to have “sufficient breadth and depth in the Cabinet”.
It was something PM Lee himself addressed after returning to the podium to complete his speech on the night of Aug 21. “We’ve now got the core team for the next generation in Cabinet. But ministers or not, all of us are mortal.
“Nothing that has happened has changed my timetable, or my resolve to press on with succession,” he said, citing Chinese proverb sui yue bu liu ren, which means “time waits for no man”.
With succession now more urgent than ever, Insight looks at the issues and options.
The plane is not just on the runway, it is picking up speed and getting ready for lift-off. That is the stage Singapore’s fourth-generation political leaders are at now.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has repeatedly said that he plans to step down some time after the next general election, which must be held by January 15, 2021. This means that the next generation of leaders is already in its last full term in office, after which one among them will have to assume the position of Prime Minister.
It was barely a year ago at the general election that PM Lee’s smiling face was prominent on campaign posters for the People’s Action Party (PAP) across the island. He is the party’s Secretary-General.
But in the time since then, there have been two health scares this year – the Prime Minister taking ill during his National Day Rally speech, although he recovered and returned after an hour to complete it; and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat having a stroke in May, from which he has since recovered.
Both incidents have put the spotlight on succession. But to think that this is the chosen young guns’ last term under the long and steady leadership of PM Lee, and that one of them is likely to assume his mantle, heightens how quickly the countdown has begun.
Furthermore, when that person becomes Prime Minister after the next general election, he will have had barely 10 years in politics – about half that of PM Lee when he took on the role.
The country may have around four more years to find out who its next Prime Minister will be. But the front runners will have had far less time than their predecessors to get ready for the job.
Previous Prime Ministers had more experience in politics and running ministries before assuming the top job. Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong had 14 years in politics under his belt before taking over as PM from Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 1990. PM Lee spent 20 years in politics before he assumed the role in 2004.
In contrast, the fourth-generation leaders would have entered politics in 2011 or last year. This gives them, at most, about 10 years in politics before one of them becomes Prime Minister – before PM Lee’s planned “retirement” date of after 2021.
In the first transition from Mr Lee Kuan Yew to Mr Goh, the latter was appointed Deputy Prime Minister in 1985. He spearheaded the PAP’s efforts in the subsequent election in 1988, and became PM in 1990 in a carefully managed process.
Chances are, Singapore will see something similar this time round, with a new deputy prime minister potentially named at the mid-term round of promotions in the Cabinet, after which he will play a prominent role in the next election campaign.
But currently, as National University of Singapore political scientist Reuben Wong notes: “Some of the people viewed as a potential Prime Minister have been in the Cabinet for just a year.”
Retired MP Inderjit Singh says the new team should settle in while PM Lee is in charge, so he can ensure they evolve as a united team. Otherwise, says Mr Singh, there may be a risk of “some leadership challenge among the new ministers”.
Experts also wonder about the lack of a clear heir apparent.Several believe it would be Mr Heng, given the heavyweight portfolios he has held. Before the finance portfolio, he was minister for education. Mr Singh says: “No obvious PM candidate other than Heng Swee Keat has emerged.”
But some wonder if his health scare means that he may not be up to the physically demanding job, which involves overseas diplomatic trips, on top of regular constituency events and other activities. (See story.)
“Mr Heng has been cutting his teeth on multiple issues. But the big thought is, is he up to it with his health?” says Dr Wong. However, Singapore still has some leeway in the form of its two Deputy Prime Ministers.