Let the succession games begin: The tussle for Singapore's leadership
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.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is believed to be looking for a successor.