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Ong Ye Kung out of PM race, say PAP cadres

SINGAPORE — The field of frontrunners to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has narrowed, after People's Action Party (PAP) cadres told TODAY that Education Minister Ong Ye Kung is out of the running as he is not deemed to be a core leader within the ruling party.

SINGAPORE  The field of frontrunners to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has narrowed, after People's Action Party (PAP) cadres told TODAY that Education Minister Ong Ye Kung is out of the running as he is not deemed to be a core leader within the ruling party.

Mr Ong was not among the names recommended by the PAP’s outgoing Central Executive Committee (CEC) to be voted into the party’s highest decision-making body, prior to the internal elections on Sunday (Nov 11).

It is a traditional practice for the outgoing CEC to inform party cadres of their recommendations in order to try and ensure that the core leaders get voted in, said the party cadres interviewed. While the list seeks to ensure wide representation — in terms of ethnicity and gender, for example — it also signals the individuals' standing within the party, they added.

Leading up to the biennial internal elections, various groups such as the outgoing CEC, branch chairmen and secretaries will nominate up to 20 individuals in total. This year’s elections saw 19 people nominated.

Speaking to TODAY, four party cadres, including two former Members of Parliament (MPs), said the outgoing CEC typically recommends between six and seven people whom they want inside the party’s highest decision-making body. This group will make up at least half of the 12 people elected into the CEC, which can co-opt up to six more individuals.

The party cadres interviewed spoke on condition of anonymity as they are not authorised to speak to the media.

A former MP said: “This is to ensure key leaders are in the highest decision-making body and also to facilitate leadership transition in a controlled manner.

“If they open up the process, then cadres might not elect a certain key leader into the CEC.”

He reiterated that the individuals nominated by the outgoing CEC were seen as part of an “inner core group” within the party. He added: “You can say it is an exclusive group.”

Agreeing, another former MP said that by recommending these individuals, the CEC gives the “signal of who are important to them”.

“Cadres will get the message — who are the important fellows to vote for. And it is an unwritten rule to vote those nominated by the CEC,” he said. “By that virtue, Mr Ong is not part of the inner core group of key leaders.”


THE INNER CORE GROUP

Before this year’s elections were underway at 9am on Sunday, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan — who chaired the outgoing CEC — had announced the names of seven people that it has nominated, among the entire list of 19 nominees.

Their names and photos were also shown first on a screen, followed by those of the other nominees. This was in line with usual practice, the cadres told TODAY.

“We were told the first seven in the ballot paper were those nominated by the CEC,” said a cadre from a constituency in the east.

The list nominated by the CEC — which was first reported by The Straits Times — was in this order: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, Culture, Community and Youth Minister Grace Fu, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, and Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli.

A cadre from East Coast Group Representation Constituency (GRC), who has been with the party for close to three decades, said that the names put forth by the CEC tend to reflect a mix of experienced core leaders, while also taking into account factors such as ethnicity and gender.

“That is why you have Mr Masagos and Ms Fu in there. It is to ensure the top decision-making body is also representative of the party,” he added.


ONG’S OMISSION ‘STRIKING’

Previously, Mr Ong, Mr Chan and Mr Heng were touted as frontrunners to succeed Mr Lee as prime minister.

The cadres interviewed said it was striking that Mr Ong was not nominated by the outgoing CEC.

One of the former MPs noted: “If you read between the lines, it means he is out of the race, to put it simply. So, it is down to two men  Mr Chan Chun Sing and Mr Heng Swee Keat.”

The East Coast GRC cadre added: “People might think that the race is still between three people. But you need to be perceptive. The list of seven didn’t include Mr Ong, and that means he is out.”

The cadres interviewed said Mr Ong’s exclusion boils down to one factor — his limited political experience, having entered politics in 2015. In comparison, Mr Chan and Mr Heng entered Parliament in 2011.

Mr Ong had contested in Aljunied GRC in 2011, but his team — led by former Cabinet Minister George Yeo — lost to the Workers’ Party. He was later elected as part of the PAP’s Sembawang GRC team in the 2015 General Election.

“Mr Ong actually has more experience compared to Mr Heng, because he was in the labour movement and private sector, too,” said one of the former MPs.

“But in terms of political experience, he is behind the other two. You want someone who has more Cabinet experience (as prime minister).”

The East Coast GRC cadre also noted: “It is not Mr Ong’s fault he came into politics later as he had lost a tough fight in Aljunied. But there is a need to quicken the pace of political succession.”

Political analysts were split on whether Mr Ong’s omission was a surprise.

Singapore Management University law lecturer Eugene Tan noted that Mr Ong was all along regarded as a “dark horse”, given his later entry into politics.

He said: “It would appear that Mr Ong is not quite in the frame for now (to become prime minister) given that the previous CEC did not nominate him.”

Nevertheless, his election to the CEC means that he has “good support within the party” and he will “continue to make significant contributions as he has in the education portfolio”, Assoc Prof Tan pointed out.

Assistant Professor Woo Jun Jie from the Nanyang Technological University’s School of Social Sciences said the outgoing CEC’s nominations reflected party cadres' wishes of who they expect to see leading the party and the country.

“It is important to note that this current group of seven includes a mix of 3G (third-generation) and 4G leaders,” he added. “It is almost certain that these seven individuals will take on key party and Cabinet positions.”

Still, he was surprised that Mr Ong did not make the list. It could be because he is “relatively new in politics” and the party cadres might not be as familiar with him compared to the others in the list, he added.

Despite the latest developments, Asst Prof Woo said that there could be more twists and turns in the leadership succession. “While it is tempting to extrapolate from past leadership renewal processes, it is also entirely possible for the PAP to rewrite its own playbook. Given the high level of policy complexity and the short runway for the next PM, the transition process may deviate from our expected norms,” he added.

When contacted, Mr Ong referred TODAY to his earlier public statements on the succession race — the latest in an August interview with Channel NewsAsia where he stressed that he was focused on doing his job.

He had said: “I really don’t want to think about that. If you’re an MP, be a good MP and if you're entrusted with a ministry, be a good minister. And that is where I am now. That should be my focus. I just want to be a good education minister, and there are so many things we need to do. So let's just focus on that.”

Earlier, at the start of this year, Mr Ong said he has someone in mind for the job, and suggested that it was not himself. "I am shaping up in my mind someone who can be the leader among us,” he said in an interview with The Straits Times. 

Back in January last year, he told the newspaper that he would “support the person who emerges” as the next prime minister when the time comes for the team to select a leader. He added: “We walk into a culture, a Cabinet culture, where all of us work together. There are precedents — when the time is right, the team will select among them a leader.”

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