Let the suc­ces­sion games be­gin: The tus­sle for Sin­ga­pore's lead­er­ship

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - ROGER MIT­TON roger­mit­ton@gmail.com

BOL­STERED by the su­per­fi­cial re­portage of many in­ter­na­tional news out­lets, there is an ab­surd myth that Sin­ga­porean pol­i­tics is bor­ing. In re­al­ity, few coun­tries have a more fas­ci­nat­ing, more in­trigu­ing, more con­trolled and yet more mis­un­der­stood polity than does the Lit­tle Red Dot.

Noth­ing re­con­firms this more than when there are lead­er­ship is­sues in the long-rul­ing Peo­ple’s Ac­tion Party (PAP), ei­ther in the cabi­net, in the pres­i­dency or, as now, in the search for a fu­ture prime min­is­ter.

Be­fore delv­ing into that high­stakes head­hunt, it is worth re­call­ing a favourite anec­dote of In­done­sia’s late for­mer pres­i­dent Ab­dur­rah­man Wahid.

Ac­cord­ing to Wahid, when Sin­ga­pore’s found­ing father and vet­eran pre­mier Lee Kuan Yew went for a hair­cut after win­ning yet an­other elec­tion, his bar­ber asked, “When are you go­ing to step down, Mr Lee?”

The PM growled, “In three years!” But some years later, when Lee was still in of­fice, the bar­ber asked him again and Lee an­swered in the same abrupt way.

More time passed and the bar­ber tried again, but this time Lee barked, “I told you three years, why do you keep ask­ing?” The bar­ber replied, “Be­cause when I do, your hair stands on end and it’s eas­ier to cut.”

Wahid would cackle at the punch line. In his view, Lee, who spent 31 years as prime min­is­ter, never wanted to step down and if peo­ple ever asked when he might go, it spooked the old ras­cal.

One could ar­gue that the same sen­ti­ment was em­braced by Lee’s even­tual suc­ces­sor, Goh Chok Tong, and by Goh’s own re­place­ment, the cur­rent PM Lee Hsien Loong, who is Lee Kuan Yew’s son.

After all, when Goh took over in 1990, he was viewed as a mere “seat-warmer” for Lee’s son – widely known as BG Lee, since he is a for­mer brigadier gen­eral – and yet Goh hung on for 14 years.

Like­wise, after BG was stricken with lym­phoma, a type of blood can­cer, in 1992 and then had surgery for prostate can­cer last year, many felt that his shot at PM, if it came off, would be short-lived.

In fact, he has been in the job since 2004 and vows to stay un­til after the next elec­tion, which does not need to be held un­til 2021. So BG, now 64, could be prime min­is­ter for at least 17 years.

Or per­haps not. On Au­gust 21, Sin­ga­porean pol­i­tics sud­denly be­came more ex­cit­ing and even a lit­tle macabre when, as view­ers watched Prime Min­is­ter Lee de­liver his Na­tional Day ad­dress, he ap­peared about to col­lapse.

His head slumped for­ward and he grasped the podium for sup­port. Aides rushed to help, while the TV cam­eras panned away and left view­ers in the dark about the fate of their prime min­is­ter.

Ac­cord­ing to a later state­ment, he had not had a stroke or a heart at­tack, but had merely been af­fected by pro­longed stand­ing, heat and de­hy­dra­tion.

Per­haps. But with the lead­er­ship is­sue in mind, even Lee ad­mit­ted, “What hap­pened makes it even more im­por­tant that I talk about it now. Soon after the next gen­eral elec­tion, my suc­ces­sor must be ready to take over.”

Frankly, it could be even ear­lier, and right now, no­body has a clue who his re­place­ment might be and peo­ple are be­gin­ning to fret.

There are two deputy PMs, but nei­ther has any charisma, one is non-Chi­nese and both are al­most Lee’s age; so, ex­cept as brief standins, they are deemed un­likely to take over in the long term.

Con­se­quently, the PAP hi­er­ar­chy is now hur­riedly re-eval­u­at­ing the lead­er­ship po­ten­tial of sev­eral min­is­ters in a se­cre­tive back­room man­ner which even the Straits Times has called bi­ased and opaque.

The news­pa­per’s ed­i­tor-at-large Han Fook Kwang wrote, “The ap­pointed suc­ces­sor will break away from the field and be pro­moted to a se­nior po­si­tion to sig­nal his anoint­ment. Who makes the de­ci­sion, apart from the PM, though isn’t clear.”

Cer­tainly the gen­eral pub­lic have ab­so­lutely no say in who their next leader will be, although that has not stopped them from gos­sip­ing about the half-dozen names that have al­ready been semi-of­fi­cially re­leased.

Six months ago, the clear favourite among the con­tenders was Fi­nance Min­is­ter Heng Swee Keat, 54, who, as the Straits Times noted, “stands head and shoul­ders above his col­leagues”.

In May, how­ever, Heng had a stroke and only re­sumed light work last month. After the tra­vails of Prime Min­is­ter Lee, few be­lieve the PAP will pick a re­place­ment whose own health is sus­pect.

The sec­ond favourite tipped for the job is Chan Chun Sing, 46, the baby-faced head of the trade union congress. Most im­por­tantly, given a strong de­sire for some­one with mil­i­tary ex­pe­ri­ence, he is the for­mer chief of the army.

Among the other “young guns”

The gen­eral pub­lic have no say in who their next leader will be, but that has not stopped them from gos­sip­ing about who that might be.

un­der con­sid­er­a­tion, Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Ng Chee Meng, 48, is a strong con­tender given that he is a for­mer head of the Sin­ga­pore Armed Forces.

And qui­etly join­ing this pri­mary tus­sle is Na­tional De­vel­op­ment Min­is­ter Lawrence Wong, 43, a dis­tinct dark horse with per­haps the most ami­able per­son­al­ity of all the con­tenders.

All of these men are largely un­known to non-Sin­ga­pore­ans, but one will soon be­come a house­hold name and per­haps even a pow­er­house fig­ure in a re­gion where there is a dearth of vi­sion­ary, in­tel­lec­tual lead­ers.

Yet many Sin­ga­pore­ans are frus­trated by the ar­chaic, al­most papal se­crecy of the se­lec­tion process and there is a grow­ing push to al­low some day­light into the back­room party con­claves.

As the ed­i­tor Han wrote, “Be­ing more open and trans­par­ent would help Sin­ga­pore­ans un­der­stand bet­ter why a par­tic­u­lar per­son was cho­sen and how the as­sess­ment was made. It should make for good pol­i­tics.”

He is right. In­deed, it would make for even more ex­cit­ing and fas­ci­nat­ing pol­i­tics in ever-in­trigu­ing Sin­ga­pore.

Photo: AFP

Sin­ga­pore Prime Min­is­ter Lee Hsien Loong is be­lieved to be look­ing for a suc­ces­sor.

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