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What the Cabinet reshuffle and Lawrence Wong’s promotion to DPM mean for political succession

Even as the world grapples with rising geopolitical tensions, a war in Europe, inflationary pressures and a looming recession, to say nothing of the recent pandemic and potential resurgence of Covid-19 and other diseases, Singapore’s political succession has resumed, with an eye to making up for lost time.

What the Cabinet reshuffle and Lawrence Wong’s promotion to DPM mean for political succession
Mr Lawrence Wong was on April 15, 2022, named by Cabinet ministers as the leader of the fourth generation of Singapore's political leadership.

Even as the world grapples with rising geopolitical tensions, a war in Europe, inflationary pressures and a looming recession, to say nothing of the recent pandemic and potential resurgence of Covid-19 and other diseases, Singapore’s political succession has resumed, with an eye to making up for lost time.

The news of the latest Cabinet reshuffle on Monday (June 6) hardly raised eyebrows among the general public, and stock markets barely reacted.

Political watchers hoping for some excitement from the expected reshuffle were also disappointed, given the relative lack of information that might shed more light about the future line-up of office holders under fourth-generation (4G) leader, Mr Lawrence Wong.

But there is some indication that the succession process is likely to pick up pace in the immediate future, after stumbling slightly in the past year.

GREATER RESPONSIBILITY AND VISIBILITY

Monday’s announcement by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that Mr Wong will assume the role as Deputy Prime Minister from next week onwards comes just two months after he was named as the leader of the ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP’s) 4G team by his fellow Cabinet ministers.

In comparison, Mr Heng Swee Keat, who remains DPM alongside Mr Wong, rose to this position six months after he had been named as the previous candidate to succeed PM Lee.

Most of us will remember the start-stop nature of Mr Heng’s identification as the country’s next leader in 2018, before he stepped aside in April last year citing his age and the lack of an adequate runway for future leadership succession.

This relative tumult, by local standards, might be the reason behind Mr Wong’s accelerated path to the number two post, with the PAP potentially eager to catch back up in terms of the succession timetable ahead of the next elections, which must be held by November 2025.

Mr Wong retains the important finance portfolio, while also taking over from Mr Heng the oversight of the critical Strategy Group in the Prime Minister’s Office, which drives whole-of-government strategic planning.

In this role, Mr Wong will focus on key national issues that cut across ministries and agencies, such as population and climate change.

If his status as primus inter pares (the first among equals) was not clear enough, it was also announced that he would assume the role of Acting Prime Minister in PM Lee’s absence.

This will afford Mr Wong more opportunities to helm key government processes and front major policy decisions, while also giving him the chance to interface with counterparts abroad as the presumptive next PM, which will smoothen the path for when he takes over officially from Mr Lee.

At the same time, it will provide Singaporeans with a chance to see Mr Wong in action as leader of the nation, to assess his leadership style, and to build familiarity before he assumes the top job.

While it is not clear yet when the handover will take place, the signs from the latest reshuffle suggest that there will not be any dilly-dallying in terms of the succession process.

MOVEMENT OF TALENT

There were also some hints, typical in any Cabinet reshuffle, of up-and-coming political office holders who are being given exposure to new portfolios and opportunities to shine.

Of the 2020 cohort of parliamentarians, two office holders – Mr Tan Kiat How and Mr Eric Chua – received promotions. At the same time, Ms Rahayu Mahzam, who entered politics at the 2015 general election, will also be promoted. This signals that all three are potentially destined for greater things in the future.

These movements potentially also reflect operational requirements at the various ministries, which are often impacted by the issues, trends and challenges facing the country at different times.

For example, there was an increase in the number of office holders in certain ministries such as health and communications and information during the pandemic, when those ministries would be expected to be front and centre of government efforts to curb the outbreak.

As we move into the next phase of dealing with Covid-19 and preparing Singapore for future growth, these promotions and movements could reflect the Government’s likely emphases going forward.

Of some note is the swapping of Mr Chee Hong Tat for Mr Desmond Tan in the labour movement. Mr Chee joined the National Trades Union Congress as deputy secretary general in May last year, and will be replaced by Mr Tan after just over a year, a relatively short stint.

As with the other movements, Mr Chee’s appointment as Senior Minister of State in the Ministry of Finance while also continuing in the Ministry of Transport could reflect the exigencies and requirements in those areas, especially with Mr Wong now taking on the DPM role.

Political insiders have commented that Mr Tan brings a range of skill sets from his past experience in the Singapore Armed Forces and from previous political appointments that will hold him in good stead in the new role.

TWO OBSERVATIONS ON RESHUFFLE

While the latest announcement of new roles and responsibilities in Cabinet are largely par for the course, there were some subtle hints of things to come.

First, while Mr Wong is clearly the anointed successor to PM Lee, the identity of his deputy, or deputies, has not been made known. This may potentially be due to the fact that they have not been chosen yet, but the retention of Mr Heng as DPM suggests that the playing field is being kept deliberately open, at least for the time being.

There have been some questions about whether identifying a first and second DPM would have been a stronger signal of Mr Wong’s status as the designated heir apparent.

There is some merit to this idea, but it likely would have been viewed internally as an unnecessary slight to Mr Heng, especially when it has been made abundantly clear that Mr Wong will be the next prime minister.

Secondly, there was minimal movement among other heavyweights in the 4G cohort, and even less so for the preceding generations of leaders.

While preserving an element of stability ahead of the full transition, this could also create the opportunity for Mr Wong to choose and build his own team which he will have to lead in the years ahead.

This is critical for any leader to succeed, and as Singapore, and Singaporean politics, enter a new phase in the lead-up to the nation's 60th anniversary in 2025, it will be important for Mr Wong and his team to establish themselves and secure the “full support” of all citizens, as PM Lee said following Monday’s announcement.

WHAT COMES NEXT

The years ahead promise to be interesting from a political standpoint, with the Presidential election slated for next year, and some question marks surrounding the state of the Opposition in Singapore, with investigations looming over the Workers’ Party as a result of the Raeesah Khan affair.

At the same time, the global outlook remains complex and complicated, with potential black swans lurking as a result of climate change and geopolitical threats, among others.

For Mr Wong to succeed, he and his team will need to continue building a strong social compact with Singaporeans, while also ensuring that Singapore continues to demonstrate its value as a small but significant player on the global stage.

Crucially, there is a need to win the confidence, and subsequently the votes, of an evolving electorate, in order to secure the mandate to lead with confidence. As such, policy missteps and political gaffes will be anathema to the next generation of leaders.

Mr Wong said on Monday that he is cognisant that he is taking on the “biggest responsibility” of his life, and that he will need to work with everyone to steer Singapore towards continued success.

Now, more than ever, these words ring true if the country is to ensure that the upcoming leadership transition gets back and remains firmly on track.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Nicholas Fang is a former journalist and Nominated Member of Parliament. He is currently managing director of strategic communications consultancy Black Dot.

Related topics

Lawrence Wong PAP Singapore politics 4G leadership prime minister

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