Is Singapore’s Lee truly poised to step aside?
Despite plans for a ruling People's Action Party leadership succession, it's not clear yet the long-serving premier is prepared to bow out
When Prime Minister’s Office Minister Chan Chun Sing met last month with Singapore’s Foreign Correspondents Association, it was no surprise that the assembled reporters quizzed him on whether he wanted the island state’s top job.
His response that “all of us have to be prepared to do the job when called upon” was expectedly non-committal but was enough to trigger a new mini-frenzy of speculation at a time when Singaporeans have been kept in suspense about the ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP) succession plans.
Party leader and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, son of deceased national founder and long-time premier Lee Kuan Yew, has indicated his intention to make way for a new leader soon after the next general election due to be held by January 2021. Lee, 65, has served consecutively as premier since 2004, leading the PAP to election wins in 2006, 2011 and 2015.
“In the next GE (general election), we will reinforce the team again, and soon after the next GE my successor must be ready to take over,” he said during the 2016 National Day Rally. His point was underscored at the event when he was rushed offstage after taking ill in the middle of his speech.
Although several younger PAP ministers, described as the “fourth generation” or “4G”, have been identified as having the potential to step into the role of Prime Minister, Chan Chun Sing is seen widely as the frontrunner.
A former army chief who left the Singapore Armed Forces months before contesting the 2011 general election under the PAP’s banner, Chan is now the party’s whip and heads both the National Trades Union Congress and the People’s Association – placing him at the top of the two organizations that galvanize the most grassroots support for the party.
Despite widespread speculation, Lee’s successor has still not been confirmed. The previous two transitions, from Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to Goh Chok Tong, and then from Goh to the younger Lee, were smooth and straightforward, and telegraphed well in advance.
It has been a long-held belief in Singapore that such a clean passing of the baton is required to ensure maximum political stability and guard the country’s image as a safe place for business.
Intra-PAP political contestation is rarely visible from the outside; unlike more competitive democracies where the party leadership is actively fought for, identifying the leader of a party like the PAP is more about selection than election.
The process of choosing party leaders is circular: while cadre members of the party vote to elect the Central Executive Committee, one can only become a cadre member if appointed by the Central Executive Committee. Following that, there is, as noted by The Straits Times’ editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang in 2016, “no formal system” by which the PAP chooses its leader.
And not all observers are convinced that Lee is truly about to step down.
“I don’t take at face value Lee’s promise to step down in 2020,” said Michael Barr, associate professor of international relations at Flinders University. “I guess he probably will, but his father promised to step down too, and when the rest of the old guard dutifully made way for younger blood he stayed on—as Prime Minister until 1991, then as Senior Minister and then as Minister Mentor.
“If [the lack of an identified successor] is not an indication of his indecision or the weakness of the gang of five [potential candidates], or Lee’s own insecurity, then it must be deliberate. Is Lee intending to get to 2019 or 2020 and say, ‘ah well, with so much at stake and no clear successor I guess I will have to stay for a while longer’?”
Lee himself has left that possibility open. In an interview with CNBC last month, he said that he was ready to step down, but “[w]hat I need to make sure of is somebody is ready to take over from me.”
There are already younger ministers in place who could take the reins, but questions have been raised about the lack of diversity and the party’s capacity to avoid groupthink in meeting the challenges of a fast-changing world and evolving global economy.
When Singapore’s main broadsheet The Straits Times identified six potential future prime ministers in 2016, people were quick to point out that they all came from very similar backgrounds: all six were Chinese men and had come from either the military or from the civil service. The pool has now dropped to five, after the appointment of former hopeful Tan Chuan-jin as Speaker of Parliament.
Singapore’s current Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, an ethnic Indian who spent most of his civil servant career at the Monetary Authority of Singapore, emerged as a clear first choice for the premiership in a survey of almost 900 Singaporeans but was not listed as one of the six.
“Safe to say that this is an extremely narrow and ‘safe’ pool of candidates that will be lucky to have an original idea between them,” Barr commented.
The next generation of political leadership also lacks the stamp of legitimacy that accompanied previous leaders, associated as they were to the legacy and endorsement of the late Lee Kuan Yew.
“The PAP does not have a clear second tier and none of the younger leaders have their own base of legitimacy,” said Bridget Welsh, senior research associate at the National Taiwan University’s Center for East Asia Democratic Studies. “None of them have the Lee name, so the contestation and uncertainty raise concern for the country as a whole.
“The PAP and Singapore should be nervous. The PAP leaders are not trusted and in their efforts to please Lee Hsien Loong to become the ‘chosen one’ are not adequately building trust with the electorate. They are not their own men, but Lee Hsien Loong’s men.”
On the other side of the political aisle, another leadership renewal exercise is underway. After over a decade-and-a-half in the hot seat, opposition leader Low Thia Khiang announced that he will not be standing for Secretary General in the next Workers’ Party election, due to be held next year.
“Today, the Workers’ Party has a new breed of younger politicians who are well positioned to take over the party leadership,” he said in a recent speech at a dinner celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Workers’ Party.
“It is time for these younger leaders to step up to the steering wheel. Remember that the Workers’ Party is just a vehicle for the voice of the people to be heard,” he said. “This voice is getting more complex and diverse.”
Like the PAP, the Workers’ Party uses a selection system where only cadre members appointed by the executive council have voting powers. But the position of Secretary General is up for grabs at any party election; Low faced down a leadership challenge just last year.
The PAP did not respond to Asia Times’ request for comment; the Workers’ Party suggested Asia Times look at the party’s constitution for information on upcoming party elections.
Academic Barr says Low is plans to get out while still on top and before PAP-driven allegations the Workers’ Party mismanaged a town council drag him down.
“The PAP and its networks set out to get him and it has probably succeeded,” Barr observed. “He is not old—a sprightly 61-year-old—but he has probably judged that he has done all the good he is going to be able to do as leader of the WP.”