PM Lee on new PAP candidates, succession planning and the quality of the opposition

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (front row, centre) at a dinner and awards ceremony to mark the People’s Action Party's (PAP) 60th anniversary held at Expo Hall 7 on Nov 22, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (front row, centre) at a dinner and awards ceremony to mark the People’s Action Party's (PAP) 60th anniversary held at Expo Hall 7 on Nov 22, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Translated by Lim Ruey Yan And Fiona Chan

SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong dropped some hints about the upcoming General Election (GE) in an interview this week.

Speaking in Mandarin, he fielded a series of questions ranging from the number of new faces expected from the People's Action Party in the next GE to whether his future successor is already in the Cabinet.

Below is an excerpt of the interview:

Q: I would like to ask a question which is of interest to everyone. The Government has been taking steps to deal with some of the people's unhappiness since the last General Election (GE). Do you think these steps have been effective? For the PAP, do you have more confidence in the next GE?

PM: We have done the things we need to do. On the issue of housing, HDB has put in a lot of effort and built 28,000 units last year, with 26,000 units likely to be completed this year. 26,000 families getting the keys is actually a large number, exceeding our annual fertility rate.

The Ministry of Transport has also done what they need to do. Bus and MRT services have improved, but there is some more work to be done, and there will be more significant improvements this year and next. I have seen from surveys that the people are more satisfied with the public transport.

In education, it is a work in progress, because expectations will increase. As polytechnic results get better, more polytechnic graduates will want to go to university. That is why we talk about SkillsFuture - people continuing to upgrade themselves after formal education, while working.

If we are able to convey the message to the people that as long as you keep trying, there are always opportunities to upgrade and there are no dead-ends - we will face the next elections with more confidence. But it's for Singaporeans to judge, not for us to score ourselves well.

Q: But PM, many people still think that it is best to have the opposition to check on the government. What are your views about the atmosphere in Parliament, as well as the performance of the opposition?

PM: I think it is reasonable to have a check, but the question is what type of check and the standard of the check. Because you cannot say "I label myself as the most senior official to check the government". What ability do you have to check the government? So it should be quality and not quantity - having the best and not the most. It does not matter how many MPs you have. The issue is whether these MPs - the opposition MPs - can perform in Parliament, raise crucial questions, and ask the Government necessary questions so that the Government can explain clearly and clarify. This is the most important. You can do a lot of work if you are a good opposition MP. The PAP was formed in 1954 and took part in the first election in 1955. Only three people were elected to the Legislative Assembly - Lee Kuan Yew, Lim Chin Siong, and Goh Chew Chua. Three of them were sufficient to be a force. So it is about having the best and not the most.

Q: Does the PAP face more challenges in recruiting candidates? Because we have seen from the last SMC by-election that even though the PAP nominated a so-called best candidate, it was not a sure-win situation. So are you experiencing some problems in recruiting candidates this time round? What can we expect from the PAP's candidate line-up in the next GE?

PM: It is not always easy to find a candidate, and it has become even more difficult under present circumstances. Because it is not only the issue of sure-win, but also the whole environment, the whole political atmosphere. If you ask an ordinary Singaporean whether he is willing to join politics, he may say, this is so troublesome, as it involves not only me, but also my family and my children. Do I really need to do this? They may not tell me directly and give me this answer, but I think this consideration is clearly in their minds. So they will tell me, "Oh, how about next time, or I think I do not have the political cells; I do not have the natural oratorical ability; So it is better for you to find another person more suited for this responsibility." I can find some candidates, but it is much more difficult than before to find a complete line-up. This is not just a problem for the PAP, but it is a problem for Singapore.

Q: What is the estimated number of new (PAP) candidates in the next batch?

PM: Well, I think there will be several, you have seen some of them, so you can do your own estimates.

Q: Will it be 24 each like the last two GEs, or will it be more?

PM: I think it is around that figure, but it is not confirmed yet. The election has not arrived, so we have not determined the final line-up we will field.

Q: PM, the election is yet to come, but many people believe that it is near. Many people are interested in whether the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee has begun meeting?

PM: It has not yet been set up.

Q: Can we expect to see more SMCs? About how many? Will it be more than double compared to the last election? How many GRCs will there be?

PM: I think the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee will decide. But during the last General Election, the average number of MPs in each GRC was reduced, and there were more SMCs, and I was satisfied with the results (of that decision).

Q: PM, can I continue to ask when the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee will be set up?

PM: We will let everyone know when it is set up. We are now busy with the SG50 celebrations, so there is no time to think about when it will be set up.

Q: PM, you mentioned earlier that there may be more SMCs...

PM: I did not say so. I said there were more last time, and I was satisfied with the outcome.

Q: But will we be seeing more MPs who can work independently, and whose wards may be carved out of the GRCs? You mentioned just now the challenges in looking for a candidate. How can we ensure that he meets the PAP's requirements, including meeting the requirements for moral character, because few years ago there were instances of candidates switched at the last minute on Nomination Day?

PM: Every MP should be able to work independently, and in principle defend his SMC. Every MP must make this consideration because they cannot be sure that the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee will not carve out his ward and turn it into a SMC. The main purpose of our GRCs is to ensure minority representation in our parliament. I think this is still necessary and we will not change the GRC system.

As to how to ensure that our candidates meet our requirements, we will do this job to the best of our ability, and check behind the scenes. However, no one can be certain 100 per cent that it will not go wrong.

Even if a candidate has no problems in the past, once he becomes a candidate and then a MP, whether he can do his job well or not depends on his personal performance. Just like any other job, you can look at his resume, but can he perform after you choose him? He may be more than competent, or he may show you a side of his character which you have not seen previously. This is how society works.

Q: You mentioned just now that it is difficult to find a candidate, but it is even more difficult to find your successor? And you have said that the next successor will face greater challenges, so what qualities do you think your successor should have?

PM: In principle it will be ideal if our successors are better than us, because every generation should be better than the previous generation, so Singapore achieves prosperity and progress. The work will become harder, because the problems become more complex than before, and the challenges will not be lessened.

So we hope to have an experienced leader - someone who can withstand the test and be able to secure the support of the people; someone who will stand out from our team.

This takes time, but my successor will not have as long a time to prepare as I did. I had 20 years to prepare. Twenty years later, I will be very old if I am still around, so he does not have such a long time. So this is a different situation, and we need to find an able leader.

Q: Is your future successor currently in the Cabinet? Because you have said you want to hand over before you are 70 years old, so is it also likely that you hand over to your successor mid-way in the next term, so you have to give him a little time to prepare?

PM: Yes, he may already be in the Cabinet, but it is not entirely certain, because I will bring in some MPs and some new people with leadership calibre in the next General Election. Therefore, we should be able to find a successor between this election, the previous election and the next election.

Q: You said your successor could be someone only coming in at the next GE. This person will not have much time to work with the Cabinet.

PM: It need not be a stranger.

Q: So it will be someone we know?

PM:That's possible.

Q: If the time in politics is short, what other challenges do you foresee he will face? You said you had 20 years to prepare.

PM: Whether he is from the previous or the next GE, his leadership style will be different from me, SM Goh and Mr Lee, because the times have changed. His background will be different and he needs to build his own reputation. He must let the people know his personality, how he works, his leadership ability.

If you look at other countries, very few leaders had much experience. Perhaps the longest would be that of China because there is a system in place. But in other developed countries, like US, UK or Australia, leaders came in without any experience in leading the country - They became leaders overnight.

President Barack Obama was a former Senator - he did not run a department, a state or a city before becoming president. (British Prime Minister) David Cameron was not a minister before he became PM. We have no choice but to accept this model.

Q: There is talk on the ground that Ministers of State or other officeholders may be leading GRCs in the next election (instead of Cabinet ministers). Are there such arrangements?

PM: If the situation calls for it, we might make such movements.

Q: You're not ruling out this possibility?

PM: We definitely should not rule it out. Everyone should also be prepared for this possibility.