Singapore Next PM?

During Lee Kuna Yew’s reign, there were a few capable PM candidates: Tony Tan, Goh Chok Tong, Ong Teng Cheong

During Goh Chok Tong’s reign, there were a visible PM candidate Lee Hsien Loong waiting at the wings.

Fast forward to today, there is no visible PM candidate in the waiting despite two elections under the current reign of Lee Hsien Loong.

Something is just not right. Despite the Government’s insistence that they need to pay world class salary to pay their ministers (in fact highest in the world), there are just no visible PM talent in the cabinet like in the past. Yet you see many charasmatic leaders in the private organisations, the MNCs and the civil services. This Government really has to do the soul seraching as to what is wrong with our selection process. Few things are crystal clear to me:

  • it is not the lack of money and rewards
  • it is not the lack of talented persons with PM calibre
  • it is the political environment
  • it is the one type of people at the highest echelon consisting of only public servants (mostly from the uniform groups) with esteemed scholarships
  • It is the emerging self-centredness of a younger generation who puts self before state, inadvertantly brought about by this Government who has chosen the path of monetary and materialistic emphasis

The situation seems to be getting from bad to worse with each succesive PMs, the future of Singapore does not look bright indeed if PM Lee can not make right this glaring instability factor.

Related links:

A Singapore observer Seah Cheng Nee’s has a good article on this issue:

Saturday October 6, 2012

Revisiting the succession question

Insight Down South

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong says he intends to stay in office for 10 more years. If he does, it will result in a record father-and-son tenure as prime minister.FACED with a host of tough problems that challenges his government’s ability to resolve, the prime minister has made it clear that he intends to stay in office for 10 more years.

The 60-year-old Lee Hsien Loong told an interviewer that he would prefer not to lead beyond then and “definitely not till 80”.

His comments were, however, made in reply to a specific question rather than as a deliberate statement.

“I do not see myself as prime minister in 20 years’ time,” said Lee to the current affair website Singapolitics. “I think if I am, something has gone seriously wrong.”

If he steps down at 70, he would have outdone his father, Lee Kuan Yew, who quit the post in 1990 at the age of 67.

However, Lee Senior had led for 31 years, a much longer period compared to his 18 years if he lasts that long.

One obstacle could be his party’s declining popularity, and the other his health.

But if he pulls it off, it would result in a combined father-and-son tenure as prime minister for a total of 51 years, a record not matched in any other country.

Singapore would have established a new world leadership record that will not be easily beaten.

By indicating he would step down in 2022 Lee has slightly put it back by two years. In 2011, Lee had said that he hoped a new man could take over in 2020.

Whatever the deadline, the road will be strewn with hidden mines, the biggest of which is a changing electorate with aspirations that his ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) may find hard to meet.

A rising number of Singaporeans have grown discontented during the past six years over the mass influx of foreigners, particularly mid-level and high-wage professionals.

It contributed to a host of problems – rising cost of living, especially in public housing, over-crowdedness and the widening rich-poor gap.

And now adding to these is a dark cloud, a deepening social friction between Singaporeans and foreigners that could worsen into a more serious conflict if it is not resolved.

How much longer can Lee’s party beat back voter unhappiness to retain power is a large crucial question.

He became prime minister eight years ago but the PAP has ruled this city even before independence in 1965.

The possibility of it being defeated in the next election in 2016 is probably minimal, but for the one thereafter anything goes.

A second worry is his health. PM Lee successfully fought off cancer in 1992 after undergoing a three-month chemotherapy treatment, but fear of relapse remains given his high pressure work.

For him to pronounce a long leadership intension could suggest that he believes a relapse is slim.

Of late he appeared very active, being involved in a spurt of activities that belied this faith in his health.

Helped by a pro-government press, Lee has hardly spent a day without hitting the daily headlines.

He initiated a “National Conversation” to discuss the future, addressed two TV forums, paid a hectic visit to China, and spoke on a wide range of subjects from education to public housing, from prices to the plight of the middle class.

“It is good to see him so active and in good health,” said a school teacher, whose profession just received an 8% pay rise.

But for every piece of good news, there were one or two bad ones.

His remarks that Singapore could hold six million people, a hint that the unpopular immigration policy would continue, has gone down badly with Singaporeans who were worried about their future.

Lee’s intended stay-on for 10 more years has come as a surprise to many Singaporeans.

Of late, doubts had been expressed whether the PM’s father, Kuan Yew, would contest in the 2016 election. If he calls it a day, it would be the real end of the Kuan Yew era.

By then, the founding leader, who is suffering from a nerve illness (which makes it difficult to walk), would be 93.

In its wake, some observers had believed, it would not be long before PM Lee would also step down. Such talk recently also turned to who would then succeed PM Lee.

The prime minister’s interview has put paid to this talk – at least for now.

Two years ago, PM Lee said the PAP was looking for suitable people in their 30s for a potential leader – not the easiest of tasks anywhere. Most countries would have allowed for a natural political process to evolve by allowing leaders to be tested by competition that would reveal his capability to survive crises.

However, selecting and grooming a 30-year-old under Singapore’s stable non-confrontational politics so that he could take over from PM Lee in 10 to 20 years’ time sounds more practical in theory than in real life.

The PAP process may have arisen out of fear that unless succession is structured from the top, it could lead to a damaging power struggle. As a result, Singaporeans generally have no knowledge about who will immediately take over if their current leader meets an emergency.

Is it one of the two deputy prime ministers, if so, which one? Or will it be decided by a quick Cabinet meeting?

This perceived uncertainty was not obvious under Lee Senior’s strong rule in the past. He would have made the decision, if necessary single-handedly before persuading his colleagues to accept it.

Today, despite a more consultative prime minister, no one knows for sure.