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What’s at stake in Singapore ruling party’s internal elections?

  • The People’s Action Party will elect its new top decision-making body on Sunday
  • Three ministers are in the running to be the country’s fourth prime minister
PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 November, 2018, 5:35pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 November, 2018, 5:49pm

This Sunday, a highly significant election will take place in Singapore quietly, when about 1,000 key members of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) meet to vote in a new central executive committee (CEC).

The poll, held as part of the party’s biennial conference, comes ahead of an imminent leadership transition. The party’s secretary-general, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, is in his 14th year in the top job and has said he will hand over the reins by 2022.

The person most likely to take over from Lee will probably be voted into the party’s highest decision-making body and appointed as an assistant secretary-general. Currently, Lee is the secretary-general, with deputy prime ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam as assistant secretary-generals of the PAP.

The three contenders to be Singapore’s fourth prime minister all have cabinet positions and roles in the party. Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing and Education Minister Ong Ye Kung are organising secretaries, while Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat is a CEC member.

As Singapore grapples with rising global volatility and disruption, some citizens are starting to feel a sense of an uncertain future, an unclear vision and direction. There is a need for strong and excellent leadership to re-energise Singaporeans, like its pioneer leaders did over 50 years ago in fighting for independence.

The next prime minister and his team will have to tackle a host of challenges. Balancing economic growth with social stability is one of them. In gearing up to meet with the demands of a disruptive and rapidly evolving future economy, there will be job losses and uncomfortable changes. Meanwhile, the widening income gap, rising cost of living and limited social mobility, if not well managed, could bring about rifts and tension within society. And religious extremism continues to be a threat to a multi-racial, relatively harmonious city.

Then, there is also an increasingly vocal, diverse group of voters, who want to see more competition by credible opposition for parliamentary seats.

At the regional and international level, the new prime minister will have to manage the escalating trade war and geopolitical tension between juggernauts like the United States and China, without taking sides. Closer to home, the focus will be on improving cordial relations with Southeast Asian neighbours Malaysia and rapidly rising economic giant Indonesia. In an increasingly competitive world with booming megacities, the new prime minister has to increase the attractiveness and relevance of Singapore, while enhancing its current strengths and reinventing its value proposition to its citizens and the world.

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So, what kind of leader does Singapore need to secure its future? Founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew handed over the leadership to Goh Chok Tong whose successor was Lee Hsien Loong. The three potential successors Ong, Chan and Heng have strong cognitive competencies, integrity and a track record of achievements.

Many Singaporeans we have spoken with have suggested other important qualities. They range from being in touch with the ground to having a good feel of Singaporeans’ problems and aspirations; having the intellectual ability to solve problems and sound political judgment to implement policies effectively; and having the character, capability and charisma to measure up to other leaders on the world stage.


Heng, Chan and Ong are all government scholars who benefited from the Singaporean meritocracy and rose through the system. Interestingly, all three initially took different paths of work in the Public Service: one in the police force, the other in the Singapore Armed Forces and the third, in the elite administrative service. Many would have liked there to be a greater diversity of experience, but they do each bring something different to the core team of fourth-generation (4G) leaders.

The key question is who might be the chosen one for the top position.

Heng was in the police force before he joined the administrative service, where he served as principal private secretary to Lee Kuan Yew. He then became the Trade and Industry Ministry’s top-ranked civil servant. Subsequently, he was the managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore. He also headed the “Our Singapore Conversation” and the Committee on Future Economy, a public engagement exercise and a high-powered collective tasked to chart strategies for Singapore’s future growth respectively.

This should have given him a wide-ranging exposure to issues and concerns of Singaporeans.

Chan’s career was only in the military before he joined politics, making him the one with the least diverse career background. However, Lee Hsien Loong was also a military general before he joined politics. This formula seemed to have worked in the past. Will it work again?

Since entering politics though, Chan has headed more ministries than Heng and Ong. Chan was also the secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) for two years and one can say this would have given him a good feel of the man on the street and what concerns Singaporeans in general. His current portfolio deals with job creation – one of the most pressing tasks for the government.

Education Minister Ong has less political experience compared to Heng and Chan, as he did not win a seat in the 2011 general election and only entered parliament in 2015. He has since served in two ministries but has accumulated a broad experience in public service and the private sector. As a member of the administrative service where he was Lee Hsien Loong’s press secretary and principal private secretary, Ong was exposed to many challenging issues and ways to deal with them. He was also the chief executive of the Workforce Development Agency. In addition, Ong spent some time with NTUC as deputy secretary-general and had a couple of years of exposure working in the corporate sector as the director of group strategy in Keppel Corporation.

PAP cadres will have to decide who has all or most of the qualities needed to steer Singapore confidently into the future.

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One way to assess who their preferred successor might be would be to look at the number of votes they give to each 4G leader elected to the CEC.

CEC voting has been likened to a closed loop system akin to the election of the pope in the Vatican, where cardinals appointed by him elect the next pope.

Only approved cadres are allowed to participate in the CEC vote. To be a cadre, one has to be a Singaporean party branch activist nominated by a member of parliament before going through rounds of panel interviews and a rigorous selection process by ministers and other MPs.

The eventual group of cadres have always been drawn from the country’s various ethnic, religious and social groups.

Their decision this Sunday will have a lasting impact on Singapore. May they choose and vote wisely.

Inderjit Singh is a serial entrepreneur and former PAP Member of Parliament from 1996 to 2015. Edmund Lim taught social studies at the Nanyang Technological University and is now an academic director and district councillor