Right - and wrong - ways to evaluate a leader

When evaluating a political leader, people should look at his contributions, strengths and flaws. They should not be asking about where he comes from or who his parents are.

This was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's riposte to veteran Workers' Party MP Low Thia Khiang, who asked yesterday if there is a political elite class in Singapore.

Rising to query the Prime Minister after his hour-long speech that included a warning against closed social networks, Mr Low (Aljunied GRC) observed that many in the fourth-generation leadership team - especially the three men widely viewed as the front runners to become Singapore's next Prime Minister - were from the civil service or the armed forces.

Mr Heng Swee Keat and Mr Ong Ye Kung were formerly from the Administrative Service, while Mr Chan Chun Sing was chief of army before entering politics.

Mr Low asked: "Is it not a sign that there is now a political elite class in Singapore?"

In response, PM Lee said: "This is an example of the way not to think about the problem. When you look at the person, you ask, 'Is he making a contribution? What are his strengths and weaknesses? What are his contributions? Does he or does he not measure up?' You do not ask, 'Where did he come from? Who are his parents?' "

He elaborated: "Is it bad to come from the civil service or the SAF? No. Is it necessary to come from there? No. Is it good to have people from a wide range? Yes, and we do have a wide range."

PM Lee also took issue with Mr Low's characterisation of the leadership transition. "He talked about three front runners. I do not know how many people are running. I just said it is not a horse race, it is a team," he said.

The Prime Minister said that there is already diversity within the 4G team - which includes former doctors, lawyers and those from the private sector and with business experience.

Four backbenchers with private-sector experience were appointed political office holders in the Cabinet reshuffle last month. They are senior counsel Edwin Tong, former Ernst and Young partner Zaqy Mohamad, former Business China chief executive Sun Xueling and former oncologist Tan Wu Meng.

"The stronger this team is, the harder I make Mr Low's job," said PM Lee to laughter from other MPs.

Then, he added: "I cannot help it, it was not my objective. I just want the best team for Singapore."

Ng Jun Sen

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2018, with the headline 'Right - and wrong - ways to evaluate a leader'. Print Edition | Subscribe