What's next after GE2015?

The winning PAP team (above) in Marine Parade GRC on a thank-you parade last Sunday. WP’s Ms Lee Li Lian, who lost in Punggol East SMC, thanking supporters in a procession around the area on Sept 12. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
The winning PAP team in Marine Parade GRC on a thank-you parade last Sunday. WP’s Ms Lee Li Lian (above), who lost in Punggol East SMC, thanking supporters in a procession around the area on Sept 12. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

One week on from a General Election result that few predicted, the People's Action Party (PAP) is buckling down to the business of government, and the opposition is licking its wounds. Insight looks at what lies ahead for both camps.

It may seem business as usual for the PAP government but what might its invigorated mandate - a resounding, unexpected 69.9 per cent share of the vote - mean for policy?

And where to now for the Workers' Party (WP) with a contracted power base, and the rest of the opposition without any power base?

Three areas of focus for the PAP have emerged. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong must first form his Cabinet, a process which is a key part of the party's leadership renewal. Junior ministers will be moved into positions of heavier responsibility and newly elected high-fliers given portfolios - all with an eye to consolidating the core of the fourth-generation leadership.

Now that PM Lee has the strong mandate he asked for to tackle tough issues such as a slowing economy and ageing population, he and his Cabinet will have to make decisions on issues like immigration that will shape Singapore's socio-economic future. In coming up with these policies, the party has promised to listen to alternative voices and consult with the public more widely.

As for the WP, while it retained six seats in Parliament, it has some serious soul-searching to do.

Its drubbing at the ballot box - it retained Aljunied GRC with a lower vote share, lost Punggol East SMC, and failed in its other challenges - threw a spanner in its plans to reinforce and renew the party in Parliament. WP leaders will have to look at how it can strengthen its core of future leaders in other ways.

It will also have to embark on a post-mortem examining why it was snubbed by voters.

As for the seven smaller parties, should they exit the political scene, as some watchers have urged?

If they stand fast, then party leaders will have to seriously think about how to rebrand themselves and offer fresh, relevant platforms in line with what voters want.

All players on the political scene will have to transform with the times - or stand still, and risk being out of touch with the ground.

What's next for the PAP: Top task is leadership renewal

PAP: Activists say that the involvement of under-35-year-olds in newer technologies, like social media campaigning, was integral to the party's win. WP: There are rumblings of discontent among some segments of the party over the leadership's apparent

As the dust settles on its election victory, the top task for the People's Action Party (PAP) is to prepare its next generation of leaders and move them into place.

Leadership renewal was a key thrust of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's messages during the nine-day campaign. Now, all eyes are on who will be named when he announces his new Cabinet in the week ahead.

Mr Lee had urged Singaporeans to vote for him and his team. And they did, with the PAP winning an unexpected 69.9 per cent of the vote share.

With the refreshed mandate, PM Lee must firm up the leadership for the next transition by 2020.

So, who is the fourth-generation leadership likely to comprise?

Political observers expect to see several newbies who featured heavily during the campaign. Indeed, at a lunchtime election rally, PM Lee identified Mr Ng Chee Meng, Mr Ong Ye Kung, Mr Chee Hong Tat and Mr Amrin Amin as potential leaders.

As former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin puts it: "If he named them, it is a sure sign that these new MPs will be given portfolios so as to test them. He must have given much thought to even suggest these names during the elections, especially against a background of a tight campaign."

Institute of Policy Studies' Dr Gillian Koh expects at least half to be named acting ministers, with the rest becoming junior ministers.

This would be in line with the Class of 2011 who form the nucleus of the fourth-generation leadership: Following that election, Mr Heng Swee Keat, at age 50, made it to full minister. Mr Chan Chun Sing was appointed an acting minister, while Mr Tan Chuan-Jin and Mr Lawrence Wong became ministers of state, before moving up to be acting ministers a year later. All four are now full-fledged ministers.

History suggests that speed matters. Those who make it to the highest levels of Singapore's political leadership have some things in common: They are identified very early and given a lot to do.

Out of nearly 40 Cabinet ministers since the 1970s, those who rose to the very pinnacle first became full ministers typically in under three years, the fastest among their cohorts, and were given key roles.

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong entered politics in 1976, and was made full minister in 1979. PM Lee entered politics in 1984, was tasked to head an Economic Committee in 1985, and was made full minister in 1987.

Adding to the urgency of renewal is that the next round of leaders must evolve more quickly. PM Lee fought five elections before taking office in 2004, at 52. His successor will not have that benefit. Mr Lee, 63, has said he hoped not to continue as PM beyond the age of 70.

Dr Koh believes his potential successor will become deputy prime minister within this term.


But veteran MP Inderjit Singh, who retired at the latest election, thinks the next generation is already disadvantaged by the shorter run-up.

"It would have been ideal if some of the ministers and potential PM came in during the 2006 elections and spent at least a term as an MP before taking any ministerial position," he tells Insight. "The biggest challenge for all the new ministers and the future leadership is the lack of ground experience as most of the named leaders come from what are considered the 'elites' of society, who had accelerated careers in the civil service or the military."

Among the four names Mr Lee mentioned, only Mr Amrin, a lawyer, bucks the trend. Mr Ng is the highest-ranking military man to enter politics, while Mr Ong and Mr Chee were high-flying civil servants. The challenge is for these potential ministers, especially whoever emerges as likely prime minister, to display "the ability to connect with stakeholders, find the opportunities to stamp their mark and improve areas of public policy", Dr Koh says.

The lack of experience could be tempered by the promotion of second ministers to full-fledged positions in the next reshuffle, points out Mr Zulkifli. With more senior ministers still in Parliament, they can help with the transition, he adds.

Leadership renewal is not just restricted to the highest echelons - it is expected to trickle down to party branches as well. Activists tell Insight that younger branch secretaries and the involvement of those under-35 in newer technologies, like social media campaigning, were integral to the PAP's strong election win.

Still, the main focus is on who will be the next prime minister. Mr Inderjit says: "Now that we don't have Lee Kuan Yew to help the new leader any more, a clear-cut successor is important. But it's also important for the PAP that their choice of successor gets the full support of all the ministers and MPs. And so it is important that he or she stands out very clearly."

What's next for the opposition: Next WP election may see hot contest

It is back to the drawing board for a stunned Workers' Party (WP) after an election result that saw it tread water rather than grow into a more powerful opposition presence.

The ballot box drubbing means it will not be able to fight the next election from a position of strength, and also has wider implications for its leadership renewal.

The WP was counting on getting at least a combined five more MPs elected in East Coast GRC and Fengshan SMC, and party chairman Sylvia Lim told a campaign rally the WP placed its best up-and-coming candidates in these seats "to reinforce and renew the ranks of our party in Parliament".

With party chief Low Thia Khiang having held his post for 14 years, and Ms Lim having held hers for 12 years, there is a growing urgency for the party to renew its leadership ranks.

Ms Lim told The Straits Times last month there was a feeder group of members to choose from, but the WP had "not fixed our mind on any particular person taking over as yet" for its top posts.

While she and Mr Low can indicate their preferred successors, it is up to party cadres to make the decision at a party conference held every two years to elect its central executive council, she added.

Will the change in the party's fortunes hit Mr Low's popularity within the WP? How will this affect those earmarked as potential leaders? The next party election - due next year - will be one to watch.

Since taking over the reins, Mr Low and Ms Lim have not faced any contest during these party elections. But party sources say the disappointing performance at the Sept 11 polls could spark a challenge.

Already, there are rumblings of discontent among some segments of the party over the leadership's apparent preference for newer faces. This election, the party fielded 16 new faces, most of whom joined the party after its electoral victory in Aljunied GRC in 2011.

A party insider, though, said Mr Low still has an edge over his closest competitors - that is, if any

exists. Since becoming party chief in 2001, he has presided over more than a decade of steady progress for the WP and shaped it into Singapore's most credible opposition party today.

Opposition watcher Wong Wee Nam reckons the WP would more likely band together in this "time of crisis". The top two posts aside, the other spots in the party's top decision-making body are typically hotly contested. At the last party conference in July last year, more than 20 vied for the other 12 spots on the central executive council. By all accounts, the WP had been looking to its candidates in East Coast and Fengshan to fill some positions, and eventually key party posts.


Although the WP did not win East Coast and Fengshan constituencies - polling 39.27 per cent of valid votes in the former and 42.48 per cent in the latter - the results were good enough to secure the consolation prize of Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) seats, given to the best-losing candidates.

The seats will go to shipping law firm partner Dennis Tan, who stood in Fengshan, and consultancy firm chief executive Leon Perera, who was nominated by his East Coast teammates. This decision was approved by the party's leadership.

The party is also keen for sociology professor Daniel Goh, who was part of the East Coast slate, to take up the NCMP seat turned down by Punggol East candidate Lee Li Lian, but it is up to Parliament whether to fill the position. Mr Tan has risen quickly through the ranks to a central executive council position since volunteering for the party in 2011. Dr Goh, too, is in the council. The duo, together with Mr Perera, were the key architects of the WP's election manifesto. The fact that they have been picked to fill the NCMP seats is further indication of their party leadership potential.

With only three NCMP seats, leader of the East Coast team Gerald Giam will not be returning to Parliament after serving one term as NCMP. But all signs point to him still being in the running for key party posts. He played a significant role in policy formulation over the years and chaired the presentation of the party manifesto. That he was trusted to front a press conference without either Mr Low or Ms Lim present speaks volumes about his stature in the party.

At his first Meet-the-People session since the elections, Mr Low confirmed the high hopes the party had placed in its East Coast and Fengshan candidates.

"They are the future leadership core of the WP. We very much hoped they could be elected," he said. "Now that they are not elected, the second-best option would be to become NCMPs so more Singaporeans will know them better."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 20, 2015, with the headline What's next after GE2015?. Subscribe