Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Picking the next Prime Minister

Who will lead Singapore next? 

Sep 4, 2016,

The best-laid plans for succession planning can go awry, as two Cabinet members' health scares this year showed
Charissa Yong

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.

Announcing Mr Heng's return, and talking about leadership succession, he quipped: "After what happened, I think it's even more important that we talk about it now."

These episodes are reminders of the urgency of succession planning in Singapore.

Singapore is famous for its political model of identifying potential prime ministerial material far in advance. But even the best of plans can go awry, says law don and former Nominated MP Eugene Tan.

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.

Countdown to next PM picks up speed
Sep 4, 2016

Young ministers tipped for the top job have shorter 'runway', with less time than previous PMs to earn their stripes
Charissa Yong

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 Jan 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.

Says former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin, a businessman: "If anything happens, either of the two DPMs is perfectly able to run the country, to win an election and to be recognised globally."

In fact, both instantly swung into action at the National Day Rally on Aug 21. Even as Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, a trained surgical oncologist, rushed on stage to attend to PM Lee when he took ill during his speech, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean was not far behind.

Later, Mr Teo announced that PM Lee was well and would return to resume his speech, while Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam fielded questions from the media and guests and reassured them that all was well.

When PM Lee is on leave or overseas, Mr Teo is acting PM, and when both are away, Mr Tharman steps in.

Political watcher and Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan says: "If there is a need for either DPM Teo or DPM Tharman to step up as a transitional prime minister, it will not be regarded as a risky proposition.

"Singaporeans have come to know who they are and what they stand for. We will be in good hands."

But even if either DPM takes on the top job in the next five years or so, he is unlikely to stay on for a decade or more, say the experts.

They point out that Mr Lee Kuan Yew stepped down as prime minister at the age of 67, and Mr Goh did so at 63. As Dr Wong puts it: "Is that renewal when your DPMs are barely five years younger than your PM? Will the next PM take over, for example, at the age of 64?"

Mr Teo is 61 years old and Mr Tharman is 59.

However, it is not unusual for politicians elsewhere to be in this age range. Both Britain's newest PM Theresa May and China's President Xi Jinping assumed the top job at 59. As for America's two presidential hopefuls, Mrs Hillary Clinton is 68 while Mr Donald Trump is 70.

In contrast, former British PM David Cameron took on the job in 2010 when he was 43, the same age at which former PM Tony Blair entered 10 Downing Street.

US President Barack Obama took on the top job in 2009 at age 47.

Some 50 years earlier, in 1959, Mr Lee Kuan Yew became prime minister of self-governing Singapore at the age of 35, and was 41 at independence in 1965. His successors took on the role at a later age: Mr Goh was 49 and PM Lee was 52.

While a "stop-gap" sort of prime minister who holds the post for under a decade is an option, Institute of Policy Studies deputy director of research Gillian Koh favours someone who can run the country with an eye on the long term.

"It probably should be someone younger than today's two DPMs," says Dr Koh.

She adds: "The country cannot be in succession planning mode every day, wondering who the next prime minister is. Imagine us talking like this for the next 20 years!"


As for the potential successors themselves, like their predecessors, they are going through a regime of learning the business of government.

Newly elected MPs are rarely catapulted straight to the post of full minister, unless they have held high-ranking positions in the civil service or private sector.

Those that have since Singapore became independent are Mr Heng, who became full education minister fresh from his entry into politics at the 2011 General Election; and former finance minister Richard Hu in 1984. Both were managing directors of the Monetary Authority of Singapore - though Mr Heng was a career public servant and Dr Hu had been in the private sector, where he was chairman and chief executive of Shell Group in Singapore.

Most of the time, potential ministers are first appointed minister of state, senior minister of state or acting minister. They learn the ropes and are promoted during Cabinet reshuffles only upon showing proficiency and a grasp of their portfolio. Not all of them make full minister.

This ensures that by the time a candidate becomes prime minister, he has learnt the business of government thoroughly. Mr Zulkifli describes it as a long culture of succession planning that provides stability.

This infrastructure of leadership has worked for Singapore so far and is unlikely to be drastically overhauled in the future, even given the recent health episodes and looming post-2021 deadline.

Instead, to make up for the shorter runway, younger leaders are likely to hold multiple portfolios and rotate among ministries more quickly. Says Dr Gillian Koh: "The top tier of young guns have some experience of public service, so they are not starting from scratch."

She points out that Singapore has it good as most countries do not have the luxury of spending years getting prime-ministers-to- be ready for the job.

To most Singaporeans, the burning question is: Who is the chosen one?

But the challenges of the 21st century require a different mindset of governance, beyond the 19th century "great man" theory of leadership.

PM Lee himself, in a press conference after last year's general election where he unveiled his new Cabinet, emphasised not individual successors, but the team. He said: "One important goal of my new Cabinet is to prepare the next team to take over from me and my colleagues."

He added: "They have to prove themselves and gel together as a team. And soon after the end of this term, we must have a new team ready to take over from me."

That emphasis on team hints that the decision lies less with the current prime minister, and more with the fourth prime minister's peers - his fellow ministers who will make up his Cabinet.

This was how Mr Goh and PM Lee had been chosen, by consensus, and by their peers.

Perhaps then, one measure of successful succession planning is not whether it throws up a capable individual, but a whole team of them who can work together to take Singapore forward.

The next Prime Minister: 6 men to watch
Sep 4, 2016

Insight takes a look - in alphabetical order - at the six men tipped to be in the running to be the next prime minister
Charissa Yong


Since his entry to politics in 2011, Mr Chan has developed a reputation for quickly mastering his portfolios and his ability to connect with people on the ground.

Mr Chan's portfolios are significant ones, and complement his time in the Singapore Armed Forces, where he rose to the rank of major-general and was Chief of Army.

He became Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports in May 2011, a politically important appointment then, given the concerns over rising inequality that the People's Action Party (PAP) had to contend with in that year's general election .

Two years and three months later, he was made full minister, the fastest of his batch to achieve the promotion.

Former Nominated MP Eugene Tan recalls watching Mr Chan in Parliament during the Committee of Supply (COS) debates, the annual Parliament debate over each ministry's Budget. Says Dr Tan: "After one year, he was able to go to COS without referring to his file. That was very impressive."

Mr Chan now holds two important positions: secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress - that is, labour chief - and People's Association deputy chair.

This means that he has links to two key groups: the trade unions and grassroots organisations.

Within the PAP, he has also been given heavy responsibilities.

Soon after the 2015 general election, he was tapped to head the executive committee of the party's headquarters (HQ), which oversees the administration and coordination of the PAP's activities across its 89 branches. He is also party whip, ensuring the MPs all vote according to the party line so the Government can pass the laws it proposes.

Topping it off, impressively, not to mention important politically, Mr Chan is fluent in three of the four official languages: English, Malay and Mandarin.


To see how far Mr Heng may go, you only have to look at his curriculum vitae (CV) since he entered politics in 2011: In terms of helming heavyweight ministries and national committees, he stands head and shoulders above his colleagues.

He has been the Minister for Education and is now in charge of the Finance Ministry, critical ministries traditionally on the CVs of current and former deputy prime ministers and prime ministers.

In addition, Mr Heng chaired the Our Singapore Conversation national feedback drive in 2013, and the SG50 Jubilee celebrations last year.

He now heads the Committee on the Future Economy, billed as having the key task of transforming Singapore's economy to ready it for the future. PM Lee headed a similar economic committee in 1985.

Mr Heng has some exposure to world leaders and statecraft, having received Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit here and accompanied PM Lee to the Group of 20 summit in Turkey last November.

And in a sure sign of the Cabinet's confidence in his potential, Mr Heng achieved the rare feat of being made a full minister immediately after being elected as a new MP.

Such a promotion has happened only once before, to former finance minister Richard Hu. Even PM Lee, who entered politics at age 32 in the same 1984 election as Dr Hu, was first appointed as a minister of state.

Before entering politics, Mr Heng started his public service career in the police force and held posts including principal private secretary to then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, and permanent secretary for trade and industry - the highest-ranking civil servant in the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

But a big question mark hangs over his health, given the stroke he suffered in May, says NUS political scientist Reuben Wong. He is said to have recovered well and remains in the running. PM Lee himself had lymphoma - a cancer of the white blood cells - in 1992. It went into remission after chemotherapy, and he became Prime Minister in 2004, 12 years later.


A newcomer to politics, Mr Ng was given roles in the important ministries of education and transport from the get-go.

A few weeks after both were elected last September, Mr Ng and Mr Ong Ye Kung were both made Acting Minister for Education, splitting the heavyweight ministry between higher education and skills, which went to Mr Ong, and schools, which went to Mr Ng.

The Education Ministry is a closely watched one where future deputy prime ministers or ministers can make their mark.

At the same time, he was also appointed Senior Minister of State for Transport, a hot-button ministry given the high-profile public transport breakdowns in recent years.

The appointments may be PM Lee's way of rounding out Mr Ng's strong military experience, giving him more and deeper exposure to the business of government. After all, before Mr Ng entered politics last year, he had risen to the apex of the armed forces as lieutenant-general and Singapore's Chief of Defence Force.

Rounding out his military experience, he was also on the boards of several public organisations such as the Defence Science and Technology Agency and JTC Corporation.


Mr Ong joined the Cabinet one electoral cycle later than intended, having been part of the defeated People's Action Party team in Aljunied GRC in 2011.

But he seems to have turned that defeat into resilience, returning to politics at the general election last year. His strength vis-a-vis the others is his diverse range of experiences, given his years in the labour movement and the civil service.

Furthermore, between 2013 and last year, he worked in Keppel Corporation as director of group strategy, making him the only contender with corporate experience - a valuable different perspective.

But first, he earned his stripes in the civil service. Mr Ong worked closely with PM Lee as his press secretary and then principal private secretary, was the deputy chief negotiator for the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, and was chief executive of the Singapore Workforce Development Agency. He then joined the labour movement, rising to be deputy secretary-general.

Now the Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), Mr Ong is in charge of universities, polytechnics, the Institute of Technical Education and SkillsFuture, all at the forefront of the Government's drive to get Singaporeans to upgrade themselves with relevant job skills.

He is also Senior Minister of State for Defence, and was recently appointed to the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) board of directors, rounding out his experience in finance. Whether he can make up for lost time should be clearer come a mid-term Cabinet reshuffle.


Touted as a part of the core of the fourth-generation Cabinet, Mr Tan had a bit of a rocky start but has since settled well into his current role as Social and Family Development Minister.

He was appointed the Acting Manpower Minister in August 2012 and made full minister two years later.

However, in August 2013, Mr Tan was asked to relinquish his second portfolio as Senior Minister of State for National Development, which raised questions at the time about his prospects. PM Lee said he wanted Mr Tan to drop his Ministry of National Development role so he could concentrate on helming the Manpower Ministry.

He proved himself, and a year later at the August 2014 Cabinet reshuffle, PM Lee said Mr Tan had performed well since taking office and had mastered his portfolio.

Mr Tan then succeeded Mr Chan as Minister for Social and Family Development in the April Cabinet changes last year. He was also the anchor minister for the PAP's team in Marine Parade GRC.

However, in February last year, he was diagnosed with pleural tuberculosis, a rare form of the disease which infected the area between his lungs and rib cage. He made a full recovery last October.

As a brigadier-general in the Singapore Armed Forces, Mr Tan led humanitarian relief efforts in Aceh after the 2004 tsunami, Singapore's largest military operation to date.


Mr Wong, the Cabinet's youngest minister at 43, has stepped up to bigger roles recently, having been assigned roles in two challenging ministries.

He was initially made Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth in November 2012, and was promoted to full minister later in May 2014. He was also Second Minister for Communications and Information from May 2014 up till October last year, when he was appointed National Development Minister.

He oversees much of the national infrastructure, including the important matter of public housing, which more than four in five Singaporeans live in.

He was previously a high flier in the civil service, having worked closely with PM Lee as his principal private secretary before moving on to head the Energy Market Authority. Mr Wong also has experience in finance matters, having sat on the board of the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

He was appointed Second Minister for Finance to assist Mr Heng last month, on top of his National Development portfolio.

Charissa Yong

How the 2nd and 3rd PMs were chosen
Sep 4, 2016

Both prime ministers after Mr Lee Kuan Yew - Mr Goh Chok Tong and current PM Lee Hsien Loong - had long run-ups in politics before they took on the premier's role. Mr Goh had 14 years, while Mr Lee had 20. Their ascension came amid the support of their peers, and the PAP's emphasis on leadership renewal. Insight retraces their routes.
Rachel Au-Yong


Mr Goh was not his predecessor's first choice. The late Mr Lee had felt that Mr Goh had a tendency to try to please everybody, and could be awkward when addressing a crowd. But he refrained from naming a successor, citing the need for the next generation to choose their own man.

Besides, in his peers' eyes, Mr Goh was the man for the job. They had already decided this in 1984, and reaffirmed their choice in 1988, despite Mr Lee making his analysis of Mr Goh public in his National Day Rally speech that year.

The Prime Minister had ranked five younger Cabinet ministers - Mr Goh, Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam, Mr Ong Teng Cheong, Mr S. Dhanabalan and Mr Lim Chee Onn - according to their leadership potential. He revealed that he preferred Dr Tan, then the finance minister, but the latter did not want the job.

Regardless, the next generation had already made its decision after the 1984 General Election, when support for the People's Action Party (PAP) plunged more than 10 percentage points to 64.8 per cent - at the time, the lowest percentage since 1963, when Singapore was a state of Malaysia.

In the seat of Anson, the party lost again to the Workers' Party's J.B. Jeyaretnam, who retained it with a bigger majority. Potong Pasir went to Singapore Democratic Party leader Chiam See Tong.

It was a setback. Some among the party's second-generation leaders were not sure if leadership renewal should go on as planned.

But Dr Tan felt strongly that it had to, or risk Singaporeans losing confidence in the PAP. So on Dec 30, less than a week after the results were announced, he had key second-generation leaders go to his Bukit Timah house.

There, they chose Mr Goh as the first deputy prime minister - essentially the man to succeed Mr Lee when the time came. Mr Ong would be second deputy prime minister.

On Jan 1, 1985, Mr Goh held a press conference at the Istana to unveil the new Cabinet line-up. He likened his position to that of a centre-forward and striker - a dominant role in running the country's affairs - and that of Mr Lee, who was still the prime minister, to a goalkeeper.

Over the next five years, Mr Goh's team was tasked with the day-to-day running of the state even though the official handover took place only in November 1990.

Even then, it was not until 1992 that Mr Lee gave up the position of PAP's secretary-general to Mr Goh.


When current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong entered politics in 1984, many Singaporeans assumed he might one day become prime minister. This belief was bolstered by Mr Goh's selection of the younger Lee to be his second-in-command over Mr Ong when he assumed the top post in 1990.

Mr Goh later said he had canvassed the views of his team, and added that it would not reflect well on the PAP's self-renewal drive if he picked someone older than he.

"That might mean I was protecting my position," he said. Mr Lee is 11 years younger than him, while Mr Ong was five years older.

But in 1992, Mr Goh was hit by the double whammy of both his deputy prime ministers getting cancer. Both later recovered.

Adhering to the PAP's principle of self-renewal, he continued to bring in MPs of high calibre, including newcomer Teo Chee Hean in a by-election in his own Marine Parade GRC a month later. Today, Mr Teo is Acting Prime Minister whenever Mr Lee is away.

In his 2003 National Day Rally speech, Mr Goh announced that Mr Lee would take over as prime minister. "The clear consensus is Hsien Loong. He is also my choice," he said then. Mr Lee was sworn in as prime minister a year later.

One difference between the two men's transitions was Mr Lee's swift assumption of the role of PAP chief. Just four months after he became prime minister, he was elected secretary-general at a party conference.


What about Prime Minister No. 4? Similar to how Prime Ministers No. 2 and No. 3 were chosen, Mr Lee Hsien Loong said in 2007 - just three years after he took the top post - and he would not anoint his successor but leave the decision to the next generation.

Like his father, he believed the leadership had to gel, and that could happen only if the leader were to emerge naturally from the group who supported him.

He said: "Ultimately, it's really the PAP MPs who must have confidence in him because, constitutionally, the prime minister is the person who commands the confidence of the majority of the MPs in Parliament."

Next PM will be picked by the young ministers

Sep 4, 2016,

In a commentary last week, Editor-At-Large Han Fook Kwang wrote about the process by which Singapore's next prime minister will be chosen, and suggested that it could be relooked. The People's Action Party (PAP) chairman responds to the piece in this letter.
Khaw Boon Wan

I am surprised by Mr Han Fook Kwang's article ("Relooking leadership renewal in Singapore", Aug 28).

He, of all people, should know that the process by which we choose prime ministers is anything but "opaque". He has worked on many books with Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and heard Mr Lee describe in detail leadership succession in the People's Action Party (PAP).

We scour the country to find able, honest and committed people to field in elections. Possible candidates go through a rigorous vetting process. This begins the day after every general election.

The most promising among every cohort of MPs are then brought into government. They work with senior ministers, and are tested and stretched in a range of portfolios. In the process, they become confident in their roles and gain the trust of the people.

As with both ESM Goh Chok Tong and PM Lee Hsien Loong, the next prime minister will be chosen by the next generation of leaders from among themselves. If all goes well, they will make this choice by consensus. Older ministers, including the current PM, will stay out of the deliberations. This is as it should be, for it is the younger ministers who will have to work with the new PM and help him succeed.

The new leader will also have to be elected into the PAP's Central Executive Committee, and become the party's secretary-general. And constitutionally, the Prime Minister must enjoy the confidence of the majority of Members of Parliament. This means he must have support of the party cadres as well as the parliamentary party. And he will not have either if he fails to unite Singaporeans and win elections.

Australia has had five prime ministers in five years, with three of the four switches due to intra-party feuds. In the United States, the major parties choose their presidential nominees through a prolonged, prodigiously expensive and deeply divisive process. And in Britain, the Conservative Party has just had a brutal contest for a new leader, while the Labour Party is in the throes of yet another internecine struggle to determine the fate of its current leader.

We are lucky to have had leadership cohesion over five decades, across three generations. The shared sense of purpose among ministers, and the consciousness that becoming PM is a responsibility to be borne and not an ambition to be sought, means the ruling party is not riven by factions.

Why would we want to exchange this calm and rational process for periodic political bloodlettings that leave deep and lasting wounds, both within the party and the body politic?

Mr Khaw is chairman of the People's Action Party. He is Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure and Minister for Transport.

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