SINGAPORE – Seventeen days after the People’s Action Party (PAP) was returned to power with 69.9 per cent of the vote in the Sept 11, 2015 General Election, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong chaired a press conference to announce his new Cabinet.
Political succession was at the top of his mind. “I have a deadline to meet. I want to have a team ready to take over, soon after the next election,” Mr Lee said.
“I want people tested; I want people developed; I want people exposed and known to the public; their confidence built up and the team shaken down. So that within the team, they know who can do what, how they can work together, who can emerge as the leader of the team,” he added.
On Friday (Nov 23) evening, the chosen leader of Singapore’s fourth-generation team, and the man likely to be the next prime minister – Mr Heng Swee Keat – is set to be named as the party’s first assistant secretary-general, at a press conference at the PAP headquarters, setting the succession process in motion.
Mr Heng, 57, who is Finance Minister, is expected to be named deputy prime minister at some point next year.
Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, 49, is set to be second assistant secretary-general and Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, 59, the party chairman.
They, too, will play a key role in the team as Singapore ushers in its third leadership transition since independence, and as the general election – which some expect could be called next year – draws closer.
PM Lee, who has constantly been concerned about succession, has said he hopes to hand over the reins by the time he is 70 – in February 2022.
This leaves a little over three years for the next PM to step up, help lead the party into the next election and more importantly, win the confidence of Singaporeans.
The selection of Mr Heng by his peers should not come as a surprise. His career experience and exposure since he entered politics in 2011 put him well ahead of the other 4G leaders.
In September 2015, when he was named Finance Minister, PM Lee noted Mr Heng had proven himself in the demanding education portfolio, which he was appointed to in May 2011, just two weeks after being elected.
He has also helmed key initiatives: Our Singapore Conversation to engage citizens, the SG50 Steering Committee to mark the golden jubilee, and the Future Economy Council, which builds on the work of a committee to drive the economy’s ongoing transformation.
While there was a question mark about his health after he had a brain aneurysm during a Cabinet meeting in May 2016, he has since fully recovered.
Some felt at the time that his prospects of recovery, and return to office, were dim, let alone that he could become PM after such a major health setback. But when he came out of a coma six days after his stroke, the first words he scribbled on paper were: “Is there a Cabinet meeting today? Where are the papers?”
He went on to make a miraculous turnaround and pulled through, assisted, he said later, by the support and good wishes from Singaporeans from all walks of life while he was hospitalised and convalescing.
He has been back in full swing, and is set to accompany PM Lee to Buenos Aires, Argentina, for the Group of 20 Summit next week. He will also deliver his fourth Budget statement next February.
While Mr Heng has emerged as the clear leader, a first among equals, PM Lee and other ministers have been mindful to speak of the importance of the team – not just the leader – when addressing the issue of succession.
Mr Chan, too, has been exposed to a range of posts since the former army chief entered politics in 2011.
He has helmed the crucial Ministry of Social and Family Development, the National Trades Union Congress, and, in 2015, became deputy chairman of the People’s Association and Party Whip. He was made Minister for Trade and Industry in May this year.
There are still three years to go in PM Lee’s succession timeline, and there is no certainty how this transition might pan out.
But some things are certain: PM Lee wants a handover; the new team will take on greater roles; the 4G leaders will rally around their choice; and they will develop their own style, as their predecessors did.
TWO TRANSITIONS, TWO STYLES
Parallels can be drawn to how Singapore’s first political handover began almost 34 years ago.
Then Defence Minister Goh Chok Tong was made chairman of the PAP’s election committee for the 1984 General Election. The party saw its sharpest dip in votes – 12.7 percentage points – that year.
But Mr Lee Kuan Yew decided to proceed with the task of renewal.
On Dec 31, 1984, Mr Goh helmed a press conference at the Istana to announce the new Cabinet line-up. He was to be First Deputy PM.
Mr Ong Teng Cheong would be Second DPM. Mr Ong said that barring any unforeseen circumstances, Mr Goh would be the next PM.
Mr Ong and fellow minister Tony Tan Keng Yam made clear that the decision had the “full support” of the other ministers and PAP MPs.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew was not present at the press conference, but Mr Goh said that Mr Lee remained in charge of the country.
“He has planned for this,” Mr Goh added. “My colleagues and I will play a prominent role. The Prime Minister will take a back seat but he will not play the role of a back-seat driver. He will play the role of goalkeeper,” Mr Goh said.
It later emerged that the second-generation leaders had met among themselves at Dr Tan’s house and decided – unanimously – on Mr Goh to be their pick for next PM.
Dr Tan also told journalists that Mr Goh would be “the focal point we can rally around and which can act as a focus for public support”.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew had initially wanted to hand over in 1988 – when the founding PM turned 65.
But he told Mr Goh he did not think he was ready yet, and asked if it would be alright if he carried on for two more years, Mr Goh reveals in his new biography, Tall Order.
He took over as prime minister in November 1990.
Mr Goh came to be known for his consensus-building approach, which stood out from the older Mr Lee’s more paternalistic style.
This consultative style continued and was honed by Mr Goh’s successor, PM Lee, when he took over the top post in August 2004.
The Republic’s second political transition – from Mr Goh to PM Lee – was more predictable.
Mr Lee was made second assistant secretary-general of the PAP in 1989, and deputy PM in 1990, posts that gave him a long runway.
But health issues cropped up, with Mr Ong and Mr Lee – then both DPMs – diagnosed with lymphoma at around the same time, in 1992.
Mr Ong did not require treatment then, and Mr Lee had to undergo chemotherapy, which saw him cleared of cancer cells in April 1993.
He remained DPM, but Mr Goh persuaded former minister S. Dhanabalan to return to helm Mr Lee’s trade and industry portfolio briefly.
Mr Goh and Mr Lee continued to build the third-generation team. Mr Teo Chee Hean was elected in 1992, and has held key roles since.
The 2001 General Election also saw what became known as the Super Seven junior ministers join the team. Among them were Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, and Mr Khaw Boon Wan, both key members of the 3G leadership today.
DPMs Teo and Tharman both stepped down from their party posts earlier this month, but may well stay on in government to lend their expertise to the new team.
CONTINUITY, BUT ALSO CHANGE
While questions about the upcoming transition remain, there is a high chance it will be as uneventful as the previous two. As PM Lee noted recently: “There was change, but there was also continuity.”
One thing is certain this round: A link to the first-generation leadership. As a senior civil servant, Mr Heng was Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s Principal Private Secretary (PPS) from 1997 to 2000.
The older Mr Lee had described him as “the best PPS I ever had”, but added: “The only pity is that he is not of a big bulk, which makes a difference in a mass rally.”
Rallies will still be a feature in the next election, and likely the ones after. But social media is set to play a greater role, and face-to-face interactions will remain important.
A younger generation of voters, and a more questioning ageing population, will have new demands of its political leaders.
Mr Heng will have his own leadership style – one many who have worked with him say seeks to build consensus and which, in keeping with his penchant for consultation, was seen in his leadership of the Our Singapore Conversation initiative.
But success for the 4G team will depend on much more than size or the ability to deliver snappy soundbites. The team will have to stay cohesive, while adjusting to suit the political tenor of the times and adapting policies to the challenges of the day.
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