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3 months after future PM thrown into question, where do the contenders stand?

SINGAPORE — At the Istana’s banquet hall three months ago, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, flanked by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat and other fourth-generation People’s Action Party (PAP) leaders, delivered the bombshell news that Mr Heng, 60, would step aside for a younger person to lead the 4G team.

From left: Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong and Education Minister Chan Chun Sing.

From left: Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong and Education Minister Chan Chun Sing.

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  • It has been three months since Mr Heng Swee Keat announced he was stepping aside from becoming the next Prime Minister
  • Early fears of political instability or fractiousness were unfounded — it’s business as usual for Singapore, say party members
  • No clear change as to who is in contention, but political pundits note the rising profiles of Mr Lawrence Wong and Mr Ong Ye Kung
  • Mr Chan Chun Sing has had less prominence than the others recently
  • Experts expect a clearer sign on the next PM-designate to come next year

 

SINGAPORE — At the Istana’s banquet hall three months ago, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, flanked by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat and other fourth-generation People’s Action Party (PAP) leaders, delivered the bombshell news that Mr Heng, 60, would step aside for a younger person to lead the 4G team.

The unprecedented situation on April 8 of the PM-designate unexpectedly bowing out of contention was a “setback” for the party’s succession plans, as the 4G PAP ministers collectively said in a statement then.

To some, the shock announcement raised concerns about political uncertainty, fractiousness, and policy incontinuity. For others, there were worries that it could rattle investor and business confidence in Singapore during a pivotal time of economic recovery.

Three months on, the public may be none the wiser on which PM contender is ahead, said political watchers speaking to TODAY. The trio widely considered to be in the running are Education Minister Chan Chun Sing, 51; Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, 51; and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, 48.

In that time, the party appeared to be burnishing the credentials of the 4G leaders and the PM contenders, doing so by allowing them to articulate the Government’s direction on difficult yet important national issues, or to build up critical experience by dint of their ministerial work, said experts.

Associate Professor Eugene Tan, a Singapore Management University law don, said: “It all stems from the greater consciousness that they cannot get it wrong and because time is a lot more compressed now, since the next person will have an even shorter runway (than Mr Heng) to be recognised and accepted as a worthy successor (to PM Lee).”

Ultimately, it is still business as usual in the Republic, with several of the 4G ministers settling into their new roles after a drastic Cabinet reshuffle as Singapore recovers from a new wave of Covid-19 infections wrought by the Delta variant, political observers and party insiders noted.

One PAP member, corporate lawyer Robson Lee, said: “Singapore is functioning well, to the extent that people often say politics in Singapore is boring. And it continues to be so after the announcement three months ago.

“There’s none of this political cloak and dagger, shifting loyalties, or politicians who strike deals within the same political party that you see in the leadership renewal of some countries,” he added.

WHERE THE CONTENDERS STAND

Political scientist Elvin Ong from the National University of Singapore (NUS) said that Mr Wong and Mr Ong, both co-chairs of the ministerial task force leading Singapore’s pandemic response, are “quite clearly” in line for consideration to be the next PM.

“In my mind, both of them, together with (fellow co-chair) Gan Kim Yong, have done very well to redouble our efforts to clamp down on Covid-19 transmission since the Delta variant emerged in Singapore and have articulated a clear path towards reopening for Singapore’s economy,” said Dr Ong.

Right off the bat, political analyst Felix Tan noted that the dynamics of the Covid-19 press conferences have improved after Mr Ong became the Health Minister.

These public appearances, which are closely watched by political observers as well since at least two of the three PM contenders share the stage, have recently birthed a meme last month after a camera caught Mr Ong and Mr Gan looking to Mr Wong to answer a question from a reporter.

Such a new “energy and vibe” gives the impression that the team is working together well, said Dr Tan. “It’s still a developing pattern to watch, but we are seeing this combination of Mr Wong and Mr Ong function like a tag team.”

In the past month, both ministers had also taken on frontal roles in tackling tricky political matters which were outside of their ministerial portfolios.

Analysts noted that Mr Wong's speech and panel appearance discussing multiracialism in a recent event by the Institute of Policy Studies and S Rajaratnam School of International Studies were widely lauded.

“It was moderate and centrist, accurately justifying to Singaporeans the need for existing policies while understanding and appreciating the calls for policy evolution,” said Dr Ong.

Mr Ong Ye Kung, on the other hand, fronted the issue of globalisation and immigration surrounding the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) in last week’s parliamentary sitting.

Political watchers believed the choice of Mr Ong to give both the opening and closing statements was deliberate — the former trade negotiator was picked over current and former Trade and Industry ministers Mr Gan and Mr Chan, as well as Ceca’s chief negotiator Mr Heng.

Assoc Prof Chong Ja Ian from the NUS’ Department of Political Science said both men were effective in their respective tasks, acknowledging alternative views.

“What they have shown is that it’s possible to have a robust debate based on issues and not personalities, and that is them making a mark that is perhaps different from other generations (of PAP leaders) and that would be a positive for Singapore politics,” said Assoc Prof Chong.

Mr Ong on Sunday said that he accepted a point made by Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh, that the Government could have come out with data and information earlier to correct the falsehoods about Ceca.

“We don’t have to disagree for the sake of disagreeing,” Mr Ong said in a Facebook post. “In fact, between parties, it is very important to achieve common ground on the fundamentals that are vital to Singapore.”

As for Mr Chan, political observers said his public profile has visibly dipped relative to the other two ever since he became the Education Minister.

Assoc Prof Tan observed that prior to that, Mr Chan was “very much in the forefront” of economic issues confronting Singapore during the pandemic.

The law don added that while some people may conclude that Mr Chan is out of contention, the fact is that his Education portfolio requires him to engage a different set of stakeholders — parents and educators.

“Leadership is really about who is best placed to lead a team, who can bring out the best in his team and who can inspire confidence. So I see the lower profile that Mr Chan has (currently) is partly to enable him to refresh his profile,” he said.

In any case, Assoc Prof Chong added that while Mr Chan is not in the public’s eye as often as in the past, it may not be a key factor since it is up to the cabal of 4G Cabinet leaders to choose a leader among them.

“It’s hard for people outside, or even regular PAP members, to tell what is going on,” Assoc Prof Chong said. “And because the decision might not completely depend on public opinion, there is really only so much that observers can read from the outside.”

Among party insiders interviewed by TODAY, some said that Mr Chan, as the second assistant secretary-general, is their favourite to take the reins.

Mr Robson Lee pointed out that Mr Chan has the most “complete” political career among the trio. He was previously Minister for Social and Family Development, as well as the secretary-general of the labour movement, among other roles.

Besides the trio, some noted that in the parliamentary sitting last week, National Development Minister Desmond Lee handled a heavy-hitting topic like the Housing and Development Board’s ethnic integration housing policy with subtlety.

The 44-year-old was seen among some analysts to be a distant contender for PM, given his shorter experience in the Cabinet compared with the others as he became a full minister in 2017.

PANDEMIC TAKES PRECEDENCE

While there appears to be little that has changed from April, party insiders said there is no rush to select the next leader, especially since there are other priorities for Singapore to address.

One party member, who declined to be named, said he believes his party leaders are putting the successor question on the back burner as the challenges and potential faultlines posed by the pandemic span multiple areas — in health, education, finance, social and manpower.

That is not to say that the issue is not an important one, he said. “When the 4G ministers focus their minds on these challenges, it is possible that a leader among them will emerge,” he said.

The selection process is not a “beauty pageant” or a “popularity contest”, another party member said.

Mr Robson Lee added: “The Cabinet has always functioned as a collective, but I believe they are now testing and exposing individual ministers to see how they can coordinate and develop that synergy, govern effectively as a team while being strong ministers in charge of their respective ministries.”

Political analysts said that with PM Lee indicating that he will stay on until his successor is chosen, there is some time for PAP’s internal selection process to pan out, especially since the ruling party cannot afford to have another repeat of a PM-designate stepping aside.

Three months may be too short a time to tell who that might be, but observers expect the picture to be clearer in 2022, at around the mid-point of the current Government’s term. The next general election must be called by 2025.

Assoc Prof Chong said: “(That is the point) when Singapore will be moving towards a possible election again, and more pieces will have to be fixed.”

On the other hand, Dr Elvin Ong hoped that the field could be narrowed down to its top two contenders over the next few months.

“This will give the two people enough time to articulate and begin persuading Singaporeans of their vision of Singapore's future in time for the next general election,” he said.

Related topics

4G leadership Ong Ye Kung Lawrence Wong Chan Chun Sing Heng Swee Keat Lee Hsien Loong

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