For several hours last Monday, the digital coffee shop conversations of Singaporeans were animated by news that a member of the government had put up his hand to say he was willing and able to be prime minister.
Chan Chun Sing, a 48-year-old minister, was quoted by Reuters as saying he was “prepared to become next PM if called upon”.
The report on Chan’s remarks at the Foreign Correspondents Association lunch was immediately refuted by the government, which accused the wire agency of publishing a “fabricated” headline. Although Chan was responding to a direct question about his own desire for the top job, his answer referred to all members of the government needing to be prepared for the role.
The next day Reuters amended its headline to say “Singapore minister says he, and his colleagues, all prepared to become next PM if called upon”.
The headline brouhaha has since subsided. But it underlines both how curious Singaporeans and observers are to know who will take over as the next prime minister, as well as how anxious the government is to keep the succession question open until a binding decision is made on the matter.
Any impression that a minister is jockeying for the position is frowned upon in the Singaporean system, where “naked political ambition” is anathema, according to Eugene Tan, a Singapore Management University law professor.
The anxiety, if not impatience, to know who will take over is because of a long-established precedent. The conventional wisdom has been that for the sake of stability and foreign investor confidence, a successor must be made known early and the actual succession must be an uneventful exercise. Hence, the “absence of an anointed successor seems particularly alien to many, if not most, Singaporeans”, said Chong Ja Ian, a political science researcher.
Going by that precedent, the selection is overdue. The current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, has set 2022 as the year he will retire. Lee, 65 and in power since 2004, has for some years voiced his wish to stand down before he turns 70. He repeated that hope in a CNBC interview last month, and further raised eyebrows among the chattering classes because of a suggestion that he might even bring forward the handover date.
Asked by CNBC whether he was ready to step down in the next couple of years, Lee replied in the affirmative but added the caveat he needed to make sure “somebody is ready to take over from me”. However, he has given away few clues about whom that might be.
As the deadline draws closer, the Lion City is finding itself in the unfamiliar position of not knowing just who will be its next leader. Singapore has gone through only two leadership successions since 1959, and in both cases little room was given for speculation.
The current premier, Lee Kuan Yew’s eldest son, was elevated to deputy prime minister 14 years before becoming the country’s third premier. In his unique case, Lee Hsien Loong was an heir apparent the moment he entered politics. That assumption was so strong that Lee Kuan Yew’s immediate successor, Goh Chok Tong, had to contend with the widespread assumption that he was only a seat-warmer for the younger Lee, though Goh eventually served an impressive 14 years.
Goh was also anointed as the chosen one long before taking office. He was named Lee Kuan Yew’s deputy five years before the late political patriarch handed over the baton in 1990, after having been selected by his peers the year before.
In sharp contrast, none of the members of the so-called fourth generation, or “4G”, leadership team has yet been made deputy prime minister. That title is held by two ministers who are just between two and five years younger than the prime minister.
One of them is Tharman Shanmugaratnam, 60, whose rare mix of technocratic brilliance and empathy has made him a favourite of many Singaporeans. However, Tharman has been discounted as a potential successor because of his age and race: the ruling party is operating under the assumption that majority Chinese Singapore is not ready for a non-Chinese premier.
Lee has acknowledged that the run-up period for succession has shrunk significantly, but insists he will not jump the gun and handpick his successor. He has maintained that the fourth prime minister will be picked the same way he and Goh were selected: the sitting premier stays out of the succession process, and gives that responsibility to younger ministers who choose one among themselves as the first among equals.
The most that can be said is that the field may have narrowed. The Straits Times, which rarely strays from the official narrative, last week ran a picture of three ministers with the label “front runners”: Chan Chun Sing, Heng Swee Keat and Ong Ye Kung.
Two others appear to have fallen out of the race. Tan Chuan Jin, 48, was moved out of the cabinet in September to become speaker of the parliament. Another newcomer, Ng Chee Meng, 49, and of the same generation, does not appear to have made it to the top league.
Chan’s remarks to foreign journalists this week are not the only reason eyes are on him. A former army chief, he is the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) whip, and leads the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the government’s grass roots network known as the People’s Association (PA) – organisations with immense mobilising clout in the city state.
The PAP-aligned NTUC is the only body of its kind in the country, and has some 900,000 members – about a quarter of the citizen population.
Coy and cautious as his remarks may have been, they are the fullest about succession made by a “4G” minister to date. His high profile in domestic politics as well as a rising involvement in foreign affairs have given rise to speculation that he could be a front runner to succeed Lee.
Lee’s decision to move him out of the social and family development ministry and into the NTUC in 2015 was hailed at the time by the former premier Goh as a sign that Chan was “poised to play a bigger role in politics”.
In external affairs, Chan’s solo trip to the Chinese cities of Chongqing, Nanning and Guiyang just weeks ahead of Lee’s official visit to Beijing in September showcased the premier’s high level of trust in the young minister. Chan met Chongqing communist party boss Chen Miner, a key protégé of President Xi Jinping, in that visit, and was also part of the prime minister’s delegation for the Beijing visit.
Heng Swee Keat, 56, is the finance minister. He has headed high-level committees, including one tasked with restructuring the country’s economy. He suffered a stroke last year which temporarily halted his quick political rise, but has since returned to the political front lines. He is regarded as a safe choice because of his proven ability in economic management.
Ong Ye Kung, 47, is currently education minister. Like Chan and Heng, he was fielded as a candidate for the first time in the 2011 elections, but was among the PAP’s losers in that contest. He won in 2015 and was immediately installed as one of two education ministers.
Asked by The Straits Times in January about talk that he was “PM material”, Ong, the son of a 1960s MP who defected to a camp opposed to the elder Lee, said: “When the time comes for the team to select a leader, I will support the person who emerges.”
In the meantime, Chong thinks there has also been too much attention focused on the first among equals, rather than on the team.
“Individuals, even if they form a team, are susceptible to various human weaknesses especially given the pressures and temptations [that come with] holding authority,” Chong said.
But Singapore Management University’s Tan said the “4G” leaders themselves are trying to forge a “collective mindset” with their cautious statements about sharing an equal sense of responsibility.
Meanwhile, with a dearth of clues on the succession in the public domain, Singaporean palace politics watchers have little choice but to wait for the next milestone in the process – the elevation of a minister to the post of deputy prime minister.
Lee Hsien Loong has said he would carry out a major cabinet shake up some time next year, likely after the budget debate wraps up in March. In the CNBC interview, Lee said the “4G” team was likely to come to a consensus on their new leader “in time”.
But “it cannot be a very long time because the clock ticks and waits for no man,” he said. ■