Tham Yuen-C

Next-gen leaders: Who's in the frame?

Cabinet members, led by DPM Teo Chee Hean, greeting PM Lee Hsien Loong, who had undergone prostate cancer surgery, via a video-link from the Cabinet room at the Istana on Feb 17. PM Lee’s health scare, and that of then Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-J
Cabinet members, led by DPM Teo Chee Hean, greeting PM Lee Hsien Loong, who had undergone prostate cancer surgery, via a video-link from the Cabinet room at the Istana on Feb 17. PM Lee’s health scare, and that of then Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin, further strengthened the renewal focus. -- PHOTO: MCI

The latest Cabinet changes are likely to be the last before the next general election. How is Singapore's political succession plan progressing? Insight finds out.

There were not many major changes in the Cabinet reshuffle announced earlier this month - the fifth since the 2011 General Election (GE).

Three ministers were moved around, one got added responsibilities, and another was promoted.

But with the next general election having to be held by January 2017, the spotlight falls on this current slate of ministers as they are likely to be the ones going into electoral battle alongside Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

And it is not just the impending GE that gives the latest moves extra significance. Taken as one of a series since 2011 to prepare for a leadership transition, this reshuffle also incorporates those who are likely to take Singapore into 2020 - the deadline that PM Lee, the country's third holder of the office, has set for stepping down - and beyond.

A key tenet of governance here has always been to build up a good team in the wings to pass on the baton to. Succession planning has long been part of the Government's DNA, and PM Lee embarked on the task from the moment he took office in 2004.

But with four out of 19 current office-holders already 60 and older, and five more joining those ranks by 2020, the job of grooming people to take over from them has become more pressing.

While senior-level ministers typically remain in power even into their 60s and 70s in other countries, in Singapore's context of renewal, it is not unusual for them to step aside for a younger team which could be more in tune with the changing hopes and aspirations of voters as fresh issues arise.

The two deputy prime ministers, Mr Teo Chee Hean, 60, and Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, 58, are among those who will be above 60 by 2020.

Singapore's first prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who died on March 23 aged 91 of severe pneumonia, warned back in 2008 that the country would be in deep trouble if it did not find its fourth-generation political leadership by the next two elections.

Health scares earlier this year involving PM Lee and then Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin further strengthened the renewal focus.

In February, the Prime Minister's Office announced that PM Lee had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He underwent surgery and was given a clean bill of health. The same month, Mr Tan was diagnosed with pleural effusion, where fluid builds up in the space between the lungs and rib cage.

The news of PM Lee's illness sparked a warning from the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy in its risk update in February, that "the Government still needs to bring in new blood in order to create confidence that the system has the capability of grooming generations of leaders, going forward".

Amid these concerns, Emeritus Senior Minister and former prime minister Goh Chok Tong, who also had surgery for prostate cancer last November, said that the fourth-generation leadership team was taking shape.

The team

Since they were brought into the Cabinet after the 2011 General Election, Mr Tan, 46; Mr Chan Chun Sing, 45; Mr Heng Swee Keat, 54; and Mr Lawrence Wong, 42, have been touted as key members of the fourth-generation team.

The latest reshuffle seems to suggest their testing is complete, say political watchers.

Mr Tan, who had helmed the Manpower Ministry since 2012 and also had a stint in the National Development Ministry, was moved to another ministry, and has taken over the Social and Family Development portfolio from Mr Chan.

Mr Chan, who has moved to the Prime Minister's Office, will also hold the key post of labour chief from May 4.

PM Lee said that the reshuffle was "part of continuing leadership renewal, to build a strong 'A' team for Singapore".

Some ministers not among the batch of "young blood" were also moved around: Mr Masagos Zulkifli, 52, was promoted to a full minister in the Prime Minister's Office, and also moved up in the Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs ministries, to Second Minister. Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew, 53, took over Mr Chan's post as Second Minister for Defence, and Mr Lim Swee Say, 60, the outgoing labour chief, will take over the Manpower Ministry on May 4.

While Mr Heng and Mr Wong were not moved this time round, they have both been given an array of big projects over the years. This year, both are involved in planning the SG50 celebrations.

Singapore Management University law professor Eugene Tan, a former Nominated Member of Parliament, says: "The fourth-generation leaders' suitability as ministers is not in doubt where PM Lee is concerned."

Another former NMP, Singapore Business Federation chairman Teo Siong Seng, sees these rotations as a sign that the core four are here to stay, since the current leadership clearly wants them to gain all-round experience quickly.

Still, there is no let-up for them even after coming so far - waiting in the wings are other young members from the same 2011 batch, who now hold junior positions in Government.

Minister of State for Education, and Communications and Information Sim Ann, 40, was appointed Senior Parliamentary Secretary right after the 2011 General Election and promoted to Minister of State about two years later.

She is the poster-girl for bilingualism, and while at the Law Ministry was instrumental in tightening the licensed moneylending regime to protect borrowers.

Others whose names are mentioned as potential fourth-generation leaders are Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee, 39, and Parliamentary Secretary for Social and Family Development and Culture, Community and Youth Low Yen Ling, 40.

Both had been described as "outstanding backbenchers" by PM Lee.

Since moving to the front bench in 2013, Mr Desmond Lee has been tasked with the project to preserve Pulau Ubin, and has also dealt with a political hot potato, the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council controversy over finances. Ms Low, meanwhile, was made Mayor of South West Community Development Council last year.

As well as the newbies, there are others who entered politics earlier, and can add depth to the bench, say observers.

With Singapore's multi-layered Cabinet system, potential candidates are sometimes tried in office for a longer time and given an array of tasks, before they rise through the ranks.

Mr Masagos, for instance, entered politics in 2006, along with Minister in the PMO, Ms Grace Fu, and Mr Lui, among others.

With his promotion, the Cabinet now has two Malay full ministers for the first time, "which reflects the progress of the Malay community", PM Lee had said.

National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser cites Senior Minister of State for Law and Education Indranee Rajah and Senior Minister of State for Transport and Finance Josephine Teo as names to watch as well.

Ms Indranee, elected in 2001, was a lawyer for 25 years before making it to the upper echelons of public office as Senior Minister of State, while Mrs Teo, elected in 2006, had been at the labour movement.

The NUS' Prof Tan cites their "higher-profile roles" over the years as a sign they could be part of the fourth-generation team.

Ms Indranee, for example, had most recently led the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (Aspire) committee, which made recommendations aimed at enhancing opportunities for graduates of these institutions.

He reckons, also, that there will be several female members in the fourth-generation team, as there is a "need for greater diversity in the Cabinet".

Ms Indranee, 52, and Mrs Teo, 46, are also the youngest among the current crop of five Senior Ministers of State.

Among the Ministers of State, too, are quite a number still in their 40s, such as Dr Lam Pin Min, 45, and Dr Maliki Osman, 49.

Those already in Parliament now, though, will make up only part of the ensemble of leaders, says Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Inderjit Singh.

"We can see a few more coming in, in the next election, who will complete the team," he says.

Prospective People's Action Party candidate Ong Ye Kung, 45, who was part of the defeated Aljunied GRC team, had been described as being of ministerial calibre during the 2011 polls. A group strategy and development director at Keppel Corporation, he has said he would contest the next election if given the opportunity to do so.

Ready, set, go?

With the fourth-generation team set to be dominated by relative newbies, one concern is whether they will have enough time to master politics and policies before taking over.

The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew said in 2001 that it takes at least five years for Cabinet members to get an "understanding of the style, the people, what has to be done, how the Government works, our relations with our neighbours".

Mr Goh, for example, had been in Cabinet 13 years before becoming prime minister in 1990, while PM Lee had an even longer apprenticeship period of 20 years before taking the helm in 2004.

The class of "super seven" ministers who entered politics in 2001, including Mr Tharman, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan, 62, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, 56, and Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, 54, were first appointed junior ministers and tested in different ministries as they came into their roles.

But SMU's Prof Tan says: "The long gestation period is a political relic in today's political context."

Before 2011, Cabinet reshuffles typically happened about two years after a GE, but there has been one almost every year since the 2011 election.

With the ministries of Information, Communications and the Arts, and Community Development, Youth and Sports restructured in 2012 to form three ministries - the ministries of Social and Family Development, Communications and Information, and Culture, Community and Youth - more positions were created in which younger ministers could be tested.

Prof Tan notes: "In more placid political times, the learning curve could not be steep. It is very different today, with ministers having to develop their political quotient in a much more compressed time."

Others suggest that senior members of Cabinet can stay on as Senior Ministers, to guide the younger team.

"I would expect that if we have a new leadership team that comes in, PM and the current DPMs can play the role of senior ministers," says Mr Singh.

Unlike their predecessors, the foursome identified as the core of the team have been moved around mostly to non-traditional portfolios not usually regarded as part of the key leadership path.

They all helm social ministries, instead of the more "heavyweight" economics or security portfolios.

However, this time around, new challenges lie ahead for Singapore over the next 30 years, with globalisation changing workforce patterns, a rapidly ageing electorate and newly-minted citizens making for a more diverse society.

Hence, the postings to social ministries reflect the Government's focus on these issues. Says NUS' Prof Tan: "Indeed, in the new political landscape, with new issues, most of the portfolios can be deemed to be hard."

As well, it is part of a much-honed process to stretch office holders to see how they perform out of their comfort zone, all part of forging a strong leadership collective.

Mr Tharman was put in the Education Ministry for a start, despite having been chief executive at the Monetary Authority of Singapore, for example.

Former NMP Zulkifli Baharuddin says that the "focus is to strengthen the Government as a group, collectively".

NUS political scientist Reuben Wong says it is essential the next generation of leaders are flexible and have different strengths they can bring to the table, amid the new landscape ahead.

These social portfolios also allow the newer ministers to engage and connect with ordinary citizens more, providing a way to hone their political instincts without the benefit of time.

Besides, says Mr Singh, they still have the next three to four years - in terms of the 2020 timeframe - to go and serve in the "heavyweight ministries".

What has raised eyebrows for some is how a clear front runner for the post of prime minister has not emerged.

But Mr Zulkifli says it is less about finding the next "great man", than creating the right team for the different challenges ahead.

Even then, even the best-laid plans can be scuttled at the polls.

At the last election, the Cabinet lost two ministers - then Foreign Minister George Yeo and then Minister in the PMO Lim Hwee Hua - as well as new candidate Mr Ong, when the Workers' Party took Aljunied GRC.

In the new normal since then, there is little doubt, even for those identified as top guns, that technocratic skills alone are not enough.

"You still have to win elections, no matter how strong your credentials are," says Mr Zulkifli.

yuenc@sph.com.sg