The core team of Singapore’s new generation of leaders will become evident next Sunday at the ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP) internal elections, with the identity of the country’s fourth prime minister emerging soon after.
The city state’s former prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, said the election of new leaders from the PAP’s fourth-generation (4G) to its central executive committee (CEC) on November 11 meant the issue of succession would be addressed by the end of the year as he had hoped.
“They are going to elect new leaders for the party at the coming CEC election. So it’s still 2018,” said Goh to This Week in Asia. “But they will still have to march to their own political rhythm. I don’t know when the CEC would meet, maybe in December or maybe early next year and then they will decide on the position of the new 4G leaders.
“At that point in time, you will know who will be No 1, who will be No 2 or rather, who will be the team for the next round,” Goh said.
PAP cadres meet every two years to elect members to the party’s highest decision-making body. There are currently 18 members in the CEC, six of whom were co-opted after the last election.
Sources told This Week in Asia to expect a “dramatic” break from the current line-up, hinting that nearly all the older CEC members could bow out. There are at least seven members from the third-generation leadership in key positions, while other roles are filled by those from the fourth-generation batch.
The highest-ranked 4G member after this election would be seen as the most likely successor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Apart from Lee, who is the secretary-general, both the two assistant-secretary generals –Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam – are also from the third generation. The bet is on the assistant-secretary generals standing aside.
Goh became the PAP’s assistant secretary-general in 1984, six years before he took over from founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. He ran the country till 2004.
The question of political succession has surfaced as Lee Hsien Loong marks his 14th year in the top post. He has said he will step down by 2022 when he turns 70.
On New Year’s Eve last year, Goh, 77, called on the current crop of 4G leaders to pick a successor to Lee in six to nine months, describing this as an “urgent challenge”.
But Lee’s response was that the selection process would take slightly longer. The Emeritus Senior Minister, he said, was “speaking with the privilege of watching things rather than being responsible to make it happen”.
“Successor designation – that will depend on the dynamics and I would not say that that is imminent,” Lee added.
In September, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, a senior member of the 3G team, said the slate of candidates elected to the CEC and the positions they took up would indicate how the transition was shaping up.
Goh, in an interview for a new book on his life and political career, said he spoke up as he wanted “a clear signal early”, so Singaporeans could rally behind the 4G team and its leader.
Looking back on his 42 years in politics, he said he believed in the importance of planned political succession more than ever.
But this meant bringing in able people willing to make sacrifices for the country as early as possible, he said, adding the cabinet must be diverse with ministers able to provide the “view from outside”, and not all coming from the public service.
On how the 4G leaders could make their mark on policies and with the people, he suggested they find a catchphrase that would resonate, such as “Fairer Meritocracy”, while offering clear solutions to bridge the widening class and income divide.
“I used the term ‘compassionate meritocracy’. I think Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam used ‘continuous meritocracy’.
“I think they will set their own imprimatur if they can galvanise the people to bring about a ‘fairer meritocracy’.”
Even as the spotlight falls on the 4G leaders, political watchers also wonder whether old hands like Goh himself will be around at the next general election, which is expected to be held by January 2021 at the latest. Goh, the heavyweight anchor man for the five-member Marine Parade Group Representation Constituency says he has not made up his mind whether to carry on for an 11th term.
He said he would not feel good if he was asked to stay because the PAP was at risk of losing the constituency. Nor would it be good if he was asked to continue because there was no other candidate.
He quipped: “I want to go riding into the west on my horse.”
Look out for Goh Chok Tong’s interview with This Week in Asia and excerpts from the book Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story on Saturday.