Coming of age: 3 ways Singapore's 4G leadership transition may be different from the past

Clockwise from top left: Chan Chun Sing, Grace Fu, Heng Swee Keat, S. Iswaran, Desmond Lee, Lawrence Wong, Josephine Teo, Ong Ye Kung, Ng Chee Meng and Masagos Zulkifli.

SINGAPORE - When the second session of Parliament begins in May after a mid-term break, all eyes will be on the younger ministers as they enter a new phase of leadership transition - and prepare to take over the reins from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

The President's Address, which will set the agenda for the rest of the term, will be drafted by the fourth-generation ministers, for the first time.

They will also take on heftier responsibilities after a Cabinet reshuffle due before the Parliament's reopening.

In this new phase, the 4G leaders will need to convince Singaporeans that their ideas and policies can take the country forward. They will also need to get to know one another better as a working team - and decide on a leader among themselves who can become the next prime minister.

This is ahead of the the formal handover from PM Lee to one among them, expected to take place after the next general election, which due by 2021.

Singapore saw another period of leadership transition between 1985 and 1990, before Mr Goh Chok Tong took over as PM. Mr Goh was deputy prime minister and, with his team of 2G ministers, ran the government day-to-day.

During this time, Mr Goh described himself as a striker in the football team and Mr Lee as the goalkeeper. At other times, he saw himself as a corporate chief executive officer, reporting to Mr Lee, the company chairman .

Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong taking his oath as he was sworn in as Singapore's second Prime Minister on Nov 28, 1990.

This week's Insight looks at how the new set of dynamics between PM Lee and his younger guard of leaders could play out in this upcoming session of Parliament.

It also examines three ways in which this transition may be different from the one leading up to 1990.

1. Greater involvement of the Prime Minister

By the late 1980s, Mr Goh and his younger team of ministers had been increasingly left on their own to sort out problems and chart the nation's direction - and only informed Mr Lee of decisions if these were "matters of consequence", Mr Lee Kuan Yew said in an interview.

This will unlikely be the situation for the 4G team, at least in the near future, say observers.

PM Lee will likely be more hands-on with his 4G team than the late Mr Lee was with Mr Goh's team of ministers, says Professor Hong Hai, an MP from 1988 to 1991. This is because the 4G ministers are relatively inexperienced compared to Mr Goh's team in the 1985-1990 period.

Institute of Policy Studies deputy director Gillian Koh believes that it is only when the PM-designate is identified and given the role of deputy prime minister that PM Lee will take a further step back, exercising only veto power over an autonomous 4G team that will have near-full control over key decisions.

2. Open disagreements with the 4G team unlikely

There were also situations in the past when Mr Lee Kuan Yew had given feedback publicly about the way his younger ministers handled policy issues. For instance, he would have preferred for a statement they had drafted and sent to the Far Eastern Economic Review magazine to be more succinct, he said in a 1989 interview. The Government had taken issue with the magazine's reportage of the Marxist conspiracy.

"This is a new generation in charge. They want to get the facts across in a different way," he said at that point.

But PM Lee Hsien Loong - who said in January that he will avoid publicly expressing his views of the younger ministers - is unlikely to openly disagree with or criticise the 4G team.

"There may be friction and disagreements behind closed doors, but when a policy is presented in public, what Singaporeans will see will be a united view (between the 4G team and PM)," says comparative politics researcher Felix Tan from SIM Global Education.

3. A greater need to engage with diverse opinions in the electorate

Compared to the 1980s, Singaporeans are more articulate and open-minded, and will not hesitate to air opposing views in public, says Mr Yatiman Yusof, an MP from from 1984 to 2006.

The younger ministers will have a better grasp of their thinking, and will be better-placed to engage them on difficult policy issues, he adds. But he also warns against the danger that they could be too eager to appease the electorate and therefore refrain from taking tough decisions.

Some of the issues that will likely be addressed in the new session of Parliament include the issue of deliberate online falsehoods and changes to the Eldershield scheme, Dr Koh notes.

"Politically speaking, they are challenging to deliver, but are driven by a clear socio-political rationale," she says.

A committee appointed to look into the issue has recommended compulsory enrolment in the ElderShield scheme and a lowering of the registration age by ten years, which will mean people will start contributions earlier. This ensures that annual premiums are kept affordable. But some are still not convinced of the merits of this arrangement.

While many have agreed that regulation against online falsehoods is warranted in clear-cut cases, those in civil society and the media are concerned that this may threaten freedom of expression.

"(The 4G leaders will need to) connect, understand, empathise, adapt to concerns on the ground yet convince the ground that the proposed policy positions are the most sustainable and beneficial in the long term," says Dr Koh.

Read the full Insight feature here.

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