Picking Singapore’s next Prime Minister: The 4G16 has shown its hand and it is good

"We've got this." That sums up the approach in the two-para statement from the 4G political leaders. It speaks of their decisiveness and collegial approach to leadership

I must confess to feeling rather nonchalant about all the discussion about the future 4G or fourth generation leadership in Singapore.

When friends or work associates want to discuss who's going to be the next Prime Minister in Singapore, I'm sometimes inclined to put on my contrarian hat and say: who cares, or throw a spanner in the works by saying it might be someone from an opposition party.

I mean, current PM Lee Hsien Loong has been talking about the importance of political succession since at least 2005. Every election since Mr Lee took over as PM in 2004 has been fought in part on the urgency of political renewal: vote for this slate of young promising candidates, so the country will have good leaders to choose from.

Fast forward to 2018. We all know Mr Lee, now 65, has said he intends to hand over the reins of Government to a successor by the time he is 70, in 2022. Meanwhile, his two Deputy PMs, Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Teo Chee Hean, are aged 60 and 63.

If there is to be political renewal, a younger set of leaders have to step up. In the PAP style of political succession, not much is said explicitly but much is assumed. Every sentient political creature in Singapore knows that the front runners for PM are Heng Swee Keat, 56, (temporarily disqualified after his stroke in 2016, but back in the game after his remarkable recovery); Chan Chun Sing, 48; and Ong Ye Kung, also 48.

Expectations are for a Cabinet reshuffle after the Budget debate in March, when one or more of them might be promoted to DPM ranks.

As Mr Heng is first among equals, he may become first DPM. Mr Chan might be next in line, as he is considered more experienced than Mr Ong, having entered Parliament one term earlier. Mr Ong was fielded as a candidate in the losing PAP team for Aljunied GRC in 2011 and made a comeback in 2015, under the safe Sembawang GRC seat helmed by Khaw Boon Wan.

 

The two current DPMs may then stay on in advisory capacities, while retaining their coordinating minister functions. So the reasoning goes among the politically attuned.

It is all pretty standard PAP thinking. Reasonable, steady, and a bit predictable.

Until the young ministers broke with tradition by issuing a statement on Thursday, Jan 4. When someone brought my attention to it, I thought it was fake news.

A group of 16 young ministers ganging up to essentially tell their senior colleagues to just leave us alone, we will decide who among us will be the leader, in good time?

But it wasn't fake, it was true.

The statement said: "Political stability has been the hallmark of Singapore and smooth leadership succession has instilled confidence among Singaporeans and our friends around the world.

"The younger ministers are keenly aware that leadership succession is a pressing issue and that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong intends to step down after the next general election. We are conscious of our responsibility, are working closely together as a team, and will settle on a leader from among us in good time."

It was signed by 16 PAP MPs, who included the three front-runners for PM as well as ministers like Lawrence Wong and Ng Chee Meng and ministers of state. Aged 42 to 56, they included four women; four non-Chinese; and Tan Chuan-Jin, who had faced the embarrassment of being considered demoted after he left Cabinet and was appointed Speaker of Parliament.

When I read the statement and glanced at the list of names, I felt cheered.

There's a simple reason.

By issuing that statement, the 16 members, who will likely form the core of the next generation of political leaders, are telling their political elders and Singaporeans: We know what's at stake; we take succession seriously; and we will do things our way, in our time.

Or in three words - the three words counsellors say signify a rock-solid marriage, that partners love to hear even more than "I love you": I've got this.

I liked the way they were essentially telling people like Mr Goh Chok Tong to lay off their case. Former PM Goh had had a clear designated successor from the first day he took up office in Nov 1990, and might have felt the 4G leaders were dragging their feet picking a leader. He had, on Wednesday, asked them to choose a leader among themselves in six to nine months' time - so that PM Lee can formally designate a successor before the year's end.

 

I liked that the statement was issued not by one, or two, or three, of some inner group of future leaders; but by 16 of them. The group is quite diverse; and inclusive, and egalitarian. Names were arranged not in order of seniority, but in strict alphabetical order.

I liked that the statement was issued quite suddenly, without public testing of the ground. It did not come across as orchestrated or premeditated, unlike a lot of PAP-engineered events or pronouncements.

It was, however, responsive to an emerging situation - a sense of greater pressure to name a leader among them. I was glad the 4G16 did not look the other way and pretend there was no issue brewing, as though the controversy could simply be shrugged off or ignored out of existence.

If Singapore is to have a chance in the brave new world of disruption, we will need a political leadership that acts more like this - quick to respond without being defensive, tackling a difficult decision head-on, collegial in nature, while being cool-headed and not panicking into a rushed decision.

I have long thought the focus on who the next PM will be is over-intense. It is human nature to want to rally around a central figure. But no one person will define the fate of Singapore. An increasingly complex society like Singapore requires a group of leaders who are capable, honest and can pull together as a team. As I have argued in the past, Singapore's ability to sustain its success will depend on whether it can foster networks of leaders across sectors, who can come together for the common good. It will be less dependent on its ability to replicate the old PAP-style of dominant leadership coalescing around one central figure (or one political party).

To me, it matters less which individual will become PM, and more how the rest of the team will rally around him or her. The PM can be the captain, but he will need strikers, defenders, goalkeepers, and midfielders - not to say a supportive audience - to nurture a winning team that can bring in the goals.