SINGAPORE - Education Minister Lawrence Wong and National Development Minister Desmond Lee have been elected to the People's Action Party's top decision-making body for the first time, reflecting the acknowledgement by party cadres of their prominence on the national stage.
Both men, who are seen as key members of the PAP's fourth-generation leadership team, were co-opted into the central executive committee (CEC) at the last biennial party conference in 2018.
Observers and party cadres say the results of the CEC election on Sunday (Nov 8) signal continuity and stability in the PAP's leadership ranks amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, with younger 4G leaders such as Mr Wong, 47, and Mr Lee, 44, gaining a firmer foothold within the party hierarchy.
In particular, the work that both men have been doing in tackling the Covid-19 crisis in recent months has helped them win the confidence of party cadres.
Mr Wong has won plaudits in handling the Republic's response to the pandemic, as co-chair of the multi-ministry taskforce on Covid-19. Mr Lee is co-chairing a separate taskforce to help Singapore's economy emerge stronger from the crisis.
More than 2,000 party cadres voted on Sunday (Nov 8) at the PAP's biennial party conference, with the top 12 nominees elected to the CEC for a two-year term.
The other CEC members, in no particular order of the votes they received, are Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 68; Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, 59; Mr Chan Chun Sing, 51; Mr K. Shanmugam, 61; Mr Ong Ye Kung, 50; Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, 51; Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, 59; Ms Grace Fu, 56; Mr Masagos Zulkifli, 57; and Mr Gan Kim Yong, 61.
PM Lee is the PAP's secretary-general, while Mr Heng and Mr Chan are the first and second assistant secretaries-general respectively.
In the 35th CEC, Mr Shanmugam was treasurer; Mr Ong, assistant treasurer; Ms Fu and Mr Desmond Lee, organising secretaries; Mr Masagos, vice-chairman and Mr Gan the chairman.
The 12 CEC members were elected by secret ballot from a list of 19 nominees.
Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Indranee Rajah, 57 - who was among the top 12 in 2018 - and Manpower Minister Josephine Teo, 52, were co-opted into the CEC as they got the 13th and 14th highest votes.
The PAP did not disclose the number of votes each received.
The Straits Times understands that the other names on the ballot were labour chief Ng Chee Meng, 52, newly-promoted ministers Maliki Osman, 55 and Edwin Tong, 51; Senior Minister of State Janil Puthucheary, 48 and North West District mayor Alex Yam, 39.
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, 61, who was co-opted in 2018, was dropped from the list of nominees this time round, signalling the 3G leadership making way for younger leaders.
Mr Ng Chee Meng, who lost the contest for Sengkang GRC in the July general election, had been elected into the top 12 in 2018. He was previously Minister in the Prime Minister's Office.
The exact roles of the new CEC will be determined when they hold their first meeting soon.
The committee is also likely to co-opt up to four more members later.
Associate Professor Eugene Tan from Singapore Management University's law school said the omission of Mr Ng Chee Meng from the top 12 came as a surprise, adding a possible reason could be that he was not re-elected as an MP in GE2020.
Another possible reason, said a PAP cadre who declined to be named, could be that Mr Ng was not viewed in the same light as others with ministerial portfolios, as younger cadres might not think the party's ties with the unions is a significant factor when it comes to electing the CEC.
Another cadre who requested anonymity said the public should not read too much into whether the labour chief was not elected because he lost in the general election, adding: "We still respect his knowledge and expertise."
Prof Tan and other observers believe Mr Ng would be co-opted into the CEC, so that the unions are represented in the PAP's CEC amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
In his speech on Sunday (Nov 8), PM Lee had also stressed the importance of the need for the labour movement to strengthen its ties with the PAP, especially at the ground level, Prof Tan pointed out.
A third cadre agreed that Mr Ng will likely be co-opted. "It is important for the unions to be present in the top decision-making body," he said.
Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a senior international affairs analyst at management consultancy firm Solaris Strategies Singapore, said Mr Wong and Mr Lee's election into the CEC reaffirms their importance in the 4G team.
"We can expect both Lawrence Wong and Desmond Lee to be accorded heavier responsibilities in both party and government as they have proven themselves with their current track record," he said.
Associate Professor Bilveer Singh, deputy head at the National University of Singapore's department of political science, added that both men, as key members of the 4G leadership team, are future Prime Minister candidates.
Prof Tan noted that Mr Lee, who at 44 is the youngest of all 14 in the 36th CEC - has the longest runway among his CEC colleagues. "He may well be a stalwart of the 5G leadership," he said.
On why newer or potential ministers like Mr Tong, Dr Maliki and Dr Janil did not make the cut, former PAP MP Inderjit Singh said cadres want to see a slower transition to the 4G at this stage.
"Cadres have yet to gain confidence that the 4G can lead the PAP forward on their own. The biggest test is not the pandemic but the economy and jobs."
But Dr Mustafa does not read too much into this. "Being elected into the CEC is deeply competitive so it would be expected that some really excellent candidates with stellar credentials on the ballot are bound to be left out."
Added Prof Bilveer Singh: "Other younger ministers will have to bide their time until the other members of the 3G leadership move out."