Politics at 50

Who will be the fourth PM? That's not the right question

ST ILLUSTRATION : MIEL

More crucial is whether the new leadership can become an 'A' team in the next few years

In announcing his new Cabinet earlier this week, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made clear that despite the uncertainty surrounding his successor, there would be no delay in his intended handover of power.

A fourth-generation team, led by a fourth-generation Prime Minister, should be ready to take over soon after the next general election, he emphasised.

PM Lee, 63, has noted before that he would not like to be Prime Minister beyond 70 years old, or continue as the head of the ruling party beyond 2020.

But given that there is no clear successor to the premiership among the fourth-generation leaders at present - and two potential candidates, former defence chief Ng Chee Meng and former top civil servant Ong Ye Kung, were elected into Parliament just weeks ago - some expected that Mr Lee would draw out his tenure for stability's sake.

In announcing that his new Cabinet would be working towards this "next GE" deadline, PM Lee made clear that, in his view, stability would come from having succession play out on schedule.

At this stage, it must be accepted that whoever takes over as PM after the next election will not have the luxury of growing into the stature of the role the way that PM Lee did - nor will he or she be met with the same initial consensus from the electorate.

As established by former prime minister Goh Chok Tong, this is a pattern of baton passing at the top every 15 years or so.

This timeline means that the coming five-year term of Government will be marked by seismic political developments.

Within the next few years, one of the younger ministers will emerge as the heir apparent, picked by his or her political peers, and be anointed by way of appointment as Deputy to PM Lee.

Singaporeans can then expect the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) to fight the next election with the two figures - PM Lee and his successor - at the forefront of the campaign.

The electoral mandate then will be measured not just on the strength of PM Lee and the PAP's track record, but on the faith voters have in his successor.


ST ILLUSTRATION : MIEL

That these developments are on the near horizon when so many of the younger leaders may still seem politically wet-behind-the-ears has given many pause. PM Lee so singularly dominated the ruling party's election campaign this year that it is hard to imagine anyone else being able to speak to the nation as convincingly in just a few years' time.

But as Deputy PM Tharman Shanmugaratnam said at the Cabinet announcement earlier this week, a five-year runway is more than what most politicians in the world have. It is short only by Singapore standards.

Here, it is important to note that the concern over a short runway pertains only to the identity of the fourth PM.

Ministers can, and have, thrived in senior positions without long periods of political training. Taken as a group, the Acting and Full Ministers in the new Cabinet under the age of 55, plus the Senior Ministers of State in the wings, are a solid mix of skill, gender, ethnicity and background, if perhaps a little skewed towards the government scholar profile.

So there should be little concern about the fourth-generation team. In many ways, it is a more diverse, savvy and ground-driven team than ever before.

The lack we are seeing now is of that period of gestation, teamwork and joint trial through which a natural leader organically emerges from, and is endorsed by, his peers.

This is followed by a long runway during which the successor - made known to the public at large - learns from his predecessor and slowly takes over the day-to-day running of government while building a bond on the national stage with the people, all before he is actually sworn in as PM.

The template for this was former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's ascension: In 1984, the group of second-generation leaders, who by then had been working together in Cabinet for several years, picked him to be Mr Lee Kuan Yew's successor.

He was made First Deputy PM that year and began running the day-to-day business of government a few years later, before being sworn in as Prime Minister in 1990.

This process was not repeated exactly when it was time to pick the third Prime Minister, because Mr Lee Hsien Loong had been established as Mr Goh's successor very early on.

He had been included at the historic meeting when the group of second-generation leaders picked Mr Goh as their PM, invited as an "observer", recounted Dr Tony Tan in the book Men In White, as he was "the best man of the 1984 cohort".

When Mr Goh became PM, Mr Lee was appointed Deputy PM, and he remained so as heir apparent for Mr Goh's entire 14 years at the helm.

PM Lee's preponderance on the national stage for such a long period of time, and his natural gifts as a leader, have played a role in Singaporeans' anxiety towards, and wariness of, a time when there is no such singular political figure on the scene.

Hence the yearning for clarity on the identity of his successor, a clarity which, I've sometimes felt, is largely desired so that second-guessing can be lobbed in the accurate direction.

I've argued before that part of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's legacy is a reliance in Singaporean culture - especially its political and public sector culture - on the "Great Man" figure to chart the way and steer the ship.

In my view, this gives rise to a certain lack of resilience, faith, and grit, in the body as a whole, be it a company, a Cabinet, or a country.

Whatever the merits or demerits of Great Man leadership, a reckoning is upon Singaporeans.

At this stage, it must be accepted that whoever takes over as PM after the next election will not have the luxury of growing into the stature of the role the way that PM Lee did - nor will he or she be met with the same initial consensus from the electorate.

It is also likely that the next PM will not be as well-rounded as PM Lee, or Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

Perhaps he or she may be the most technically brilliant of the group, but not the most comfortable or convincing on the ground. Perhaps it might be the other way around.

Or perhaps he or she may not be the choice of the predecessor - as was Mr Goh's cross to bear, which he did with dignity and grace, when Mr Lee Kuan Yew made public the fact that his first choice as successor was Dr Tony Tan.

Whatever unfolds in the next few years, it is an important opportunity for Singaporeans to leave Great Man reliance behind and put their faith in the fact that a team - where excellence is diffused, not concentrated - can also ably steer a ship.

A retired politician, someone formerly at the highest echelons of political power, once told me that when there is an "A" leader, like Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the country can survive with a "B" team.

But a "B" leader can only survive with an "A" team surrounding him or her, he said.

Whether Singapore's fourth Prime Minister will be an "A" or "B" leader is a question for history to decide. What can be guaranteed is that at the moment of his or her ascension, a few years from now, there will be voices deeming unworthiness off the bat.

Who will be Singapore's fourth Prime Minister?

To me, that question is less important than whether or not the ruling party's fourth-generation leadership will coalesce through these crucial next few years as an "A" team through and through.

It is often overlooked that the Prime Minister in a Westminster parliamentary system like ours is known as primus inter pares - First among Equals.

For a while now, Singaporeans have trained their eyes largely on the First. It might be time to keep faith that a group of equals can rise to the challenge.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 04, 2015, with the headline 'Politicsat50 Who will be the fourth PM? That's not the right question'. Print Edition | Subscribe