Have you opened your Cabinet lately?

By Gwen Lee


If you have, you will see that the stuff inside has been re-arranged. Older trinkets have been moved to the back and new ones to the front. This re-shuffling is a reflection of the way Singapore’s political leadership succession is managed - the old makes way for the new. This happened when the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew handed the baton over to Mr Goh Chok Tong in 1990, and when Mr Goh handed it to Mr Lee Hsien Loong in 2004. Now the stage seems set for another changing of the guard, with Mr Heng Swee Keat, now Deputy Prime Minister, taking over as the leader of the fourth generation. 

This isn’t usually the way political succession is managed elsewhere. Singapore’s orderly system is by virtue of the People’s Action Party’s dominant presence in Parliament, which guarantees that the next Prime Minister will be drawn from its ranks, usually the party chief or secretary-general. Mr Heng is now the PAP’s first assistant secretary-general.

This is the parliamentary system at work - not to be confused with the presidential system like that in the United States where the chief executive of the country is the result of a national poll. 

So when will this changeover happen? PM Lee has said it would happen by his 70th birthday in 2022. Chances are it will take place only after the general election, which is due by April 2021. Mr Lee has been in the job for 19 years, but he has clearly been mulling over the issue of succession for some time. 

He said in June 2006: "If you don't have new faces and it's the same face, the same team, after one or two elections, people will get tired of you. They'll want a change to a new team. So if we want to continue to move forward, then our team has to change, even though the logo is the same. That is critical.”

A fresh team would signal a change in the style of governance. But not before learning the ropes from their seniors. The Singapore way is to put potential PMs through their paces, by having them take charge of different ministries to beef up their portfolios.

Before Mr Goh became Prime Minister in 1990 at the age of 49, he had served 14 years as an office holder, with portfolios in Health, Defence as well as Trade and Industry. PM Lee was immediately designated DPM when Mr Goh became PM, but he continued to serve for 20 years in the Cabinet before becoming prime minister in 2004. He was 52 years old. If PM Lee were to retire in 2022, Mr Heng would be 61.

Mr Heng has the shortest runway as compared to his predecessors.He had a later start in politics, winning his first election in 2011 at the age of 50. The former Principal Private Secretary to Mr Lee Kuan Yew and managing director of MAS was appointed Education Minister the moment he entered politics, a testimony ofthe high regard his seniors had of him. More notably, he was given the job of helming the Our Singapore Conversation in 2013, a citizen engagement exercise, and was tasked to head the 2016 Committee on the Future Economy to develop economic strategies for the next decade. He has been Finance Minister since Sept 2015 and was made DPM in May 2019.

Dusting the Cabinet 

For a while, there seemed to be no clear front-runner in the 4G pack. Various names were put up by political observers - and then quietly discarded. Reading tea leaves and crystal ball gazing became a past-time as early as after the 2011 general election which had surfaced several luminaries from the public sector. 

This was unlike previous successions when it was clear that Mr Goh would take over as PM despite reservations on the part of the elder Mr Lee who preferred Dr Tony Tan. But Mr Goh was the unanimous choice of his generation and their decision — over coffee, orange juice and chocolate cake after dinner at Dr  Tan’s home in Bukit Timah — was final.

As for PM Lee, it was no secret that he was being groomed for the top job. In 2003, the third generation leaders confirmed that he was their choice at a lunch hosted by then Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng at the Istana

The choice of Mr Lee, the eldest son of the founding Prime Minister, was controversial to some. But the elder Mr Lee, who was then in Cabinet as Senior Minister addressed the issue this way in an interview in 2003

“The point is he's not taking over as my son, and I am not the one choosing or appointing him. He's been DPM for 13 years, time enough for everyone to get the measure of him. If he hasn't proved himself, then he should not be PM. My concern is not whether he's the PM, but whether he's the best man for the job. I could have arranged to pass the baton directly to him instead of Mr Goh Chok Tong.  But then I'd have done Singaporeans a disservice, I would do him harm, and blot my copy-book. I held him back for a purpose, for him to prove himself and for people to judge his worth. He was only 38 years old in 1990 and had time on his side.”
“He can succeed as Prime Minister only if he establishes rapport with Singaporeans, if people have confidence in him and will follow him. The acid test is: Is he the best person to be PM?”

Singaporeans were impatient for a front-runner to emerge. A spanner was thrown in the works when Mr Heng collapsed during a Cabinet meeting on May 12, 2016. He spent six weeks in the hospital and was back to work by August that year.

Among those who couldn’t wait was Mr Goh, now Emeritus Senior Minister. In an uncharacteristic departure from the norm where party matters are usually discussed behind closed doors, he posted his views on political succession in a Facebook post on 31 Dec 2017

He said the issue of the fourth-generation leadership is "one urgent challenge I would like to see settled" before 2018 is over.  This prompted a statement signed by 16 4G ministers to assure people that they will pick a 4G leader “in good time’’.

Polishing the Cabinet 

In the meantime, people totted up the pluses and minuses of each character and picked “favorites’’.  

Before the PAP’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) election on Nov 11, 2018, the “list’’ had been trimmed to three: Finance Minister Mr Heng, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, and Education Minister Ong Ye Kung. It is a PAP tradition for outgoing members of the CEC to give party cadres a list of recommendees before the internal election. They nominated Mr Heng and Mr Chan. Mr Ong’s name was thrown out by the cadres. To many political observers, Mr Ong not making that list was a hint that he was out of the PM race.  All three got elected into the CEC, the party's highest decision-making body, which is almost a mirror of the Cabinet.

Later that month, the PAP announced that Mr Heng would be the first assistant secretary-general, a position previously held by Mr Teo Chee Hean.  Mr Chan was selected as second assistant secretary-general, which was held by Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

Following this announcement, PM Lee said on 23 Nov 2018: "I have known and worked with Swee Keat and Chun Sing for some years now, and watched them grow in their different responsibilities. They have complementary strengths, and make a strong pairing."

Whether by design or not, Mr Goh’s “end of the year’’ deadline was met. The next step in the succession process would be Cabinet appointments. 

That came on April 23, 2019.

As expected, Mr Heng was promoted to Deputy Prime Minister.  Unlike the previous Cabinet where there were two DPMs — Mr Teo Chee Hean and Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam — Mr Heng was appointed the sole DPM with effect from May 2019. The message that he would succeed Mr Lee as Prime Minister could not have been louder. 

Mr Heng said in his first speech as DPM: “Today is the first time I’m speaking to you as leader of the next generation of PAP leaders.” 

Opening up the Cabinet

The 4G team is made up of politicians in their 40s to 50s. How different are they from the 3G crew?  

Mr Heng said during the wrap up of the President's Address debate in 2018 that 4G ministers will work more closely with Singaporeans in time to come.  

“First, how will we continue bringing out the best in our people? This is the central question that should occupy each generation of leaders. Because Singaporeans are at the heart of everything this Government does. This stays constant, whichever the generation of leadership – 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G or 10G,” said Mr Heng.

So far, the 4G’s vision of the future seems to revolve around several common keywords:  consultative approach, listen with humility and respect, consider all views with an open mind… A glance over the ‘report card’ of the 4G leaders so far points towards a greater attempt at forging a more inclusive society.  

We have Education Minister Ong Ye Kung’s announcement to abolish streaming in schools and move away from grade-based admissions in local universities. The raising of GST, (delayed till after 2022) to pay for social spending so that it will not dig into reserves to pay for the future, while also using it as a mechanism of social redistribution is a sign of a move towards a more welfarist approach. The Singapore Together Movement announced by Mr Heng in June last year, for Singaporeans to work with 4G leaders to design and implement public policies appears to be the 4G’s main platform for citizen-government collaboration.

The Covid-19 virus outbreak has spurred the old to make way for the new.  Among the ten-member inter-ministerial task force, all of them are 4G ministers except Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.  They include Mr Lawrence Wong, Mr S. Iswaran, Mr Chan Chun Sing, Mr Masagos Zulkifli, Mr Ng Chee Meng, Mr Ong Ye Kung, Mrs Josephine Teo, Mr Desmond Lee and Dr Janil Puthucheary. DPM Mr Heng is the advisor of the task force.  

The 4G leaders are being tested on all fronts during the pandemic – in terms of medical preparedness, the supply of essential items and providing support for workers and employers in distress. PM Lee has spoken to the nation twice on video, to assuage fears and provide a calm, clear voice in the midst of panic buying in supermarkets. If the virus had happened after the next general election, the person in the video might well be Mr Heng. 

Just like Sars in 2003 was a test for the earlier generation of leaders, the Covid-19 virus outbreak is like a performance appraisal, to be made public when the election is held.

By NUS Communications and New Media

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