Singapore’s new leadership team: younger, more diverse, with an eye to the future
- The approach emphasises working together for the greater good rather than having ‘one superstar leader’
- Representation is important, as is crafting a compelling vision of tomorrow for the country’s electorate
On Friday, Singapore’s People’s Action Party formally unveiled a slate of leaders who will drive its campaign for the next general election, to be held before April 2021.
The 35th Central Executive Committee, elected after a biennial party vote on November 11, is younger and more diverse than its previous incarnation.
In line with party secretary general and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s expressed preference for inclusive politics, the line-up represents a variety of ethnic groups.
Most members are Chinese, reflecting Singapore’s ethnic breakdown, with Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli representing the Malay-Muslim community, and Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Indranee Rajah and Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam representing Indians.
The Eurasian community is represented by Christopher de Souza, a 42-year-old lawyer and chairman of a parliamentary committee that scrutinises legislation of the home affairs and law ministries.
In terms of gender representation, there is one more woman than before. Right after the party polls, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo was co-opted into the committee, joining Rajah as well as Culture, Community and Youth Minister Grace Fu, who were voted in by cadres.
A variety of professional backgrounds are represented. Although a significant number of members served as public officials, there are also those with substantial private sector experience. Backbench MP Sitoh Yih Pin chairs his own accounting firm. Masagos, who also serves as PAP vice-chairman, worked with telecommunications company Singtel for more than 17 years before joining politics. PAP chairman Gan Kim Yong, who is Minister for Health, has more than 15 years of private sector experience.
Both Indranee and Shanmugam were senior counsel in the private sector before becoming ministers. Education Minister and PAP assistant treasurer Ong Ye Kung has diverse public and private sector experience. As chairman of the Chinese Development Assistance Council, Ong has insights and strong connections to the Chinese community.
The person tasked to unite these figures is the new first assistant secretary general, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat. The appointment of the 57-year-old is one of the strongest indications yet that he will become the next prime minister after Lee Hsien Loong, who has indicated he will retire by 2022.
Heng worked as a senior civil servant and was a close aide of prime minister Lee Kuan Yew before he joined politics in 2011. Before joining the civil service, he was in the police force. As the city state’s central banker between 2005 and 2011, Heng was among the key personnel steering Singapore through the 2007-2008 financial crisis. In 2011, British magazine The Banker named him the best central bank governor in the Asia-Pacific.
After his election, he served as education minister before being appointed finance minister in 2015, in which capacity he chaired the Committee on Future Economy.
In May 2016, Heng suffered a stroke – triggering both an outpouring of support and questions over the future of his political career. He recovered, however, resuming his duties in August 2016, and has since been given a clean bill of health.
Heng was Ong’s supervisor when the two worked as officials in the Ministry of Trade and Industry. Ong once described Heng as “a very good boss”, a view held by many of those who have worked with him.
Complementing Heng will be Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing. With his varied experience in the military and various ministries, Chan, 49, is widely seen as a potential deputy prime minister.
While Chan appeared to have been favoured by certain party leaders, the selection of Heng – based on his leadership qualities and appeal among the public – shows that the views of PAP cadres and other committee members were taken into account in the succession planning.
Still, nothing is certain in politics and anything could happen. Heng will be over 60 when he becomes prime minister and there are lingering concerns about his health.
The current line-up reveals a safe and steady approach to succession planning, continuing in the vein of previous leadership transitions.
Like before, the current slate of senior ministers has been closely involved in selecting the new generation of leaders.
And while a consensus has been reached on who will be first among equals, the individual identified for the top post has made clear that the leadership of Singapore is not dependent on one prime minister but the strength of the whole team.
At Friday’s press briefing, Heng stressed the importance of teamwork and collaboration. Former PAP MP Inderjit Singh echoed the sentiment, saying the ability to work together was more important than “having one superstar leader”.
“It is important they can collectively garner the support and confidence of Singaporeans, as a team,” he said about the fourth-generation leaders, adding that he hoped they would deliver “game-changing policies that would positively impact Singaporeans”.
The new team must connect with the ground and craft a compelling vision of the future for the increasingly diverse Singaporean electorate, so as to offer a clear course of action to win their hearts and minds.
Edmund Lim, who taught social studies at Nanyang Technological University, is an academic director and district councillor