Room to speculate over succession - for once

After the new Cabinet line-up was announced last Monday, a friend messaged me with the question: Any surprises for you?

That was a surprising question in itself.

The Singapore Government operates on the principle that predictability is a good thing and surprises are to be avoided like the haze.

In the many years that its Cabinet has been refreshed, reshuffled or just plain reappointed, surprise was never part of the vocabulary.

But this one, with more moving pieces than before, had some elements that made the question quite understandable.

In the Singapore succession system, the ideal process is one where a leader naturally emerges and is seen and acknowledged by his peers to be the chosen one. You won't find anyone here saying publicly he wants to be the next PM.

Two ministers for Education, and Trade and Industry?

Three coordinating ministers? (Reminder: This isn't the Indonesian Cabinet.)

A record 37 office-holders in an 89-member Parliament?

These are unconventional changes, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself put it: "The task is urgent and we do not have the luxury of time. Therefore, I am making a decisive move in my new Cabinet, and not just an incremental change."

Though Mr Lee explained the rationale for some of the moves (Education and Trade and Industry had become big and complex, he said), the nature of the exercise is such that he is unlikely to reveal his innermost thoughts.

That leaves plenty of room for speculation.

So, here goes.

One speculative thought: Having two ministers at Education had probably less to do with the ministry's enlarged work than it had with exposing and testing two up and coming leaders in a challenging job.

Indeed, the Education Ministry has always been one for the heavyweights: Goh Keng Swee, Tony Tan, Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

It was where Mr Heng Swee Keat did his first term, showing how highly the PM must have rated him.

Now, with two rookie ministers, Mr Ng Chee Meng and Mr Ong Ye Kung, being thrown into the deep end of the same pool, it's fair to say that they are being similarly earmarked.

The hot-housing makes sense because they are already one term behind the other members of the fourth-generation leadership comprising Mr Heng, Mr Chan Chun Sing, Mr Tan Chuan-Jin and Mr Lawrence Wong.

Exposing and testing them in double quick time in a heavyweight ministry should hasten the catching up they need to do if they are to be eventually considered for the top job.

It will widen the available pool, always a good thing when the going is uncertain.

So who's in front of this pack?

Going by what's happened in the past, it looks like Mr Heng is in pole position.

Someone going from Education to Finance has the makings of someone heading for the top job.

More so now that it has been announced that he will head the committee to look into how to grow the stalling economy.

This is a critical challenge and a must-pass test for any future prime minister.

In Singapore, the top man should ideally have helmed an economics ministry, given how important the economy is to the country's future.

That's been the case with Mr Goh Chok Tong, who was Trade and Industry minister, and PM Lee, who has been in Finance.

Of course, the past is never a perfect predictor of the future and there may be more than one dark horse in this race.

But remember what I said earlier about being predictable.

In the Singapore succession system, the ideal process is one where a leader naturally emerges and is seen and acknowledged by his peers to be the chosen one.

You won't find anyone here saying publicly he wants to be the next PM.

Neither will it do for the incumbent PM to appoint his successor, which can be a risky business fraught with many problems.

But when there is relative peace and stability, this emergence of the leader has to take place, not in the heat of battle fighting a crisis, but in the more mundane day-to-day interactions, as ministers debate, work together and resolve the issues of the day.

Hence the importance of exposing them to difficult problems in which they have to work with one another.

In doing this, the PM has one other advantage.

Although he does not have the luxury of time, he does have three senior mentors with large overseeing duties.

Mr Lee, Mr Teo, Mr Tharman and Mr Khaw Boon Wan have between them 82 years in government, an abundance of experience very few administrations elsewhere can even dream of having.

Their tutorship and assessments should prove invaluable to their eager charges.

One caveat though: While they have many insights to share, one hopes that the weight of their seniority and experience will not bear too heavily and suppress their younger colleagues' willingness to explore new ideas and thinking.

Already there has been criticism that the Singapore Government suffers from group-think with the majority of ministers, young and old, drawn from the civil service and armed forces.

It won't do to reinforce this perception further if ministers have another layer of bosses to deal with.

The ideal scenario is one where younger ministers know they can be more innovative because there is solid back-up to prevent serious slip-ups.

The least desirable is for them to be more cautious than necessary because someone is looking over their shoulders.

Either can happen, and much depends on the individual concerned and the management culture set at the top.

It was encouraging to hear PM Lee say at the swearing-in ceremony last Thursday that the challenges Singapore faces "require fresh and bold ideas".

Whatever happens, this term will be defined, not so much by new policy initiatives, but how the fourth-generation leadership shapes up, in particular how it decides who will be the next PM.

For once, the outcome is not completely predictable but it also won't be wholly surprising.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 04, 2015, with the headline 'Room to speculate over succession - for once'. Print Edition | Subscribe