21 March, 2018
SINGAPORE — With the identity of Singapore’s next Prime Minister still up in the air, several past and present Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) – who were speaking on Tuesday (March 20) at a forum on the political succession – noted that there is no standout candidate from the fourth-generation leadership.
Nevertheless, regardless of who Mr Lee Hsien Loong’s successor will be, some of the speakers felt that in general, it will be more of the same, with the new leader unlikely to veer from the tried and tested ways.
“When we talk about the fourth-generation leadership, part of the difficulty (in identifying a successor) is that none of them have really left a deep enough impression,” said former NMP and Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan.
Associate Professor Tan, social entrepreneur Kuik Shiao-Yin and businessman Zulkifli Baharudin were the speakers at the forum – moderated by Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh – held at the National University of Singapore’s Tembusu College, titled Singapore’s Fourth Prime Minister: Aspirations and Expectations.
Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat and Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung have emerged as frontrunners for the top post. Assoc Prof Tan noted: “They all come across fairly similar.”
He argued that the next PM needs to stamp his mark, and show who he is and what defines him, “even as the collective leadership principle is dominant in our system of government”.
[No, he doesn't. YOU need him to "stamp his mark" so you have an obvious horse to bet on.]
“Singaporeans increasingly expect that of their leaders – that they are not mere technocrats but are fully infused with values, principles, and ideals, and will stand up for what they believe in even with their backs against the walls,” Assoc Prof Tan added.
Agreeing, Ms Kuik noted that trust in a leader is cultivated by a combination of the public’s assessment of the person’s care for others, sincerity, competency and reliability. “Competency and reliability are about what you do and how you do it. And Singapore as a country is great at that,” she said.
She added: “The deeper levels of care and sincerity are grounded in whether people can sense: Do I know who you are? Do I know why you are here?”
Mr Zulkifli, executive chairman of logistics and supply chain company Indo-Trans Corporation, felt that Singaporeans are “likely to get the status quo” no matter which fourth-generation leader is picked.
“(Like it or not,) you have already decided who the Prime Minister is going to be,” said Mr Zulkifli, referring to the mould of the country’s next leader.
Mr Zulkifli, who is also Singapore’s non-resident ambassador to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, noted how political leadership in the Republic has been “defined in a certain way” over the past five decades since independence – individuals with stellar academic qualifications, good career track records in government-linked corporations and bureaucracy, and a moderate personality.
While people want a leader who is daring and transformative, “my own humble opinion is that we have inputted our own conservative attitudes in choosing the next generation leader”, he said.
“So we are not going to get it… It is a dilemma we all face,” he added.
[SOME people want a daring and transformative leader. The rest of us are fine with incremental progress. So no dilemma.]
At the event, Mr Tan Yang Long, 23, a second-year sociology undergraduate, read out a letter to the future PM.
Noting his cohort’s wish that the PM would champion “more real, open and civil interactions” about topics surrounding sexuality and religion, among others, he said: “Your appointment is the time for us to stop being cautious around diversity, to begin to embrace it courageously, and to trust us that we can handle this conversation.”
He added: “We hope that when you say, ‘for the people’, ‘for Singapore’, or ‘for us’, you include those among us who are trapped in the cracks we create, silenced by the lines we draw, or rendered invisible by the walls we build. After all, what is the city, but the people?”
In response to a question from a fourth-year political science student on whether it matters who is chosen as the country’s next PM, Professor Koh – who had worked under all three PMs – stressed how the top leader “very much sets the agenda, the tone, the direction of the Government”.
Referring to Singapore’s second and first PMs, Prof Koh noted how Mr Goh Chok Tong’s administration was “kinder, gentler” than during Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s time.
After Mr Goh took over the mantle in 1990, Prof Koh was appointed to chair a censorship review committee to incrementally liberalise Singapore’s censorship regime. Prof Koh recounted how he asked to meet Mr Lee to find out what he thought of the initiative.
“Mr Lee invited me to lunch and (told me) it is important for the new PM to set his own direction and his policies... Mr Lee told me that I should help PM Goh, and what I was about to do (would) have his full support,” he said.
[Comment on FB:
The comments of the NMPs/Panel members show that they are completely divorced from the political reality of Singapore. The question of political succession is not answered by political drama - at least not in Singapore. If they expect the next PM to "stand-out" or "leave a deep impression" they are seriously deluded or pathologically scarred by the political drama that passes for "government" in other countries. Or perversely entertained by what passes for politics and government elsewhere.My understanding is the the PM is chosen by the cabinet. The ministers decide amongst themselves who is the most worthy to lead them... or who they are most willing to follow. Thus it does not matter who is publicly impressive, or stands out or has the most likes on FaceBook. The PM of SG is a working PM and needs to be effective and to lead effectively and therefore he needs to have the endorsement of the other Ministers. Not the public.
There have been two transitions of leadership in SG.
The simple fact is that if LKY wanted to hang onto power, he would have no trouble doing so in 1991. But he handed over power. Not to his choice, but the choice of his Cabinet Ministers. Did GCT stand out? Did he leave a deep impression prior to taking over from LKY? The problem of course is that LKY was incomparable. No one could measure up. Or make a greater impression.
Did LHL stand-out or make an impression? The problem was that he was always seen as the heir apparent. Just as insinuations that GCT was just a "seat warmer" will never die. The PM in SG is not directly elected to PMship by the voters. He is the choice of the cabinet members. E Pluribus Unum - "out of many, one". Or maybe Primus Inter Pares might be better. The cabinet ministers must be willing to take leadership from the PM. Thus they choose who they will follow, or who they believe can lead them, or who they believe will promote the best interests of Singapore. (Or the PAP, if you prefer to be pretentiously/superficially cynical.)
In any case, if "people want a leader who is daring and transformative," there is always Donald Trump, or someone like him. Not "individuals with stellar academic qualifications, good career track records in government-linked corporations and bureaucracy, and a moderate personality."
The question is whether you want evolution or revolution. If on the whole SG is working relatively well (and the comments from the panel members suggest that: “Competency and reliability are about what you do and how you do it. And Singapore as a country is great at that."), then evolution is the way to go, and that requires stability, and continuity.
If on the other hand SG has been a mess of contradictions and the system as a whole is rotten to the core, and the people are suffering, then what you want is a REVOLUTION.
And you expect that from the PAP?
At the very least, you would need to vote the PAP out of government to get a "daring and transformative" leadership. And the PAP got 70% of the votes in 2015. So hard to see that happening in the next GE.
Voting for the PAP and expecting a "daring and transformative" revolution, is like expecting your prudent, rational wife who is a great mother to your children to suddenly engage in BDSM, and menage a trois.
Not impossible, you say? Of course. Impossible is nothing.
So we are not a democracy?
Of course we are!
We are a Westminister Parliamentary System.
Most people are only vaguely aware of the US system, and poorly at that, and irrelevantly, and incorrectly assume certain practices there are applicable here.
Like electing our President and expecting him or her to have the same broad powers as POTUS, or directly electing our PM.
What will happen is that sometime in the near future, before the next GE, the new PM will take over. After settling in, there will be a GE. And if he loses his seat, he cannot be the PM anymore.
The people have spoken!]