SINGAPORE: Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced what was described by many as the biggest shake-up of Cabinet in recent years with nearly two-thirds of ministries now helmed by a fourth-generation (4G) leader.
In terms of renewal, this Cabinet reshuffle had it all. There was the promotion of a female minister, the appointment of four backbenchers from the private sector into political office and the retirement of three veteran ministers, among other rearrangements of the deck chairs.
But there was not to be, as PM Lee had already clarified earlier, any new Deputy Prime Minister.
Nevertheless, the announcement was much anticipated because Singaporeans were hoping to identify who their next Prime Minister might be.
PM Lee offered this soundbite: “The leadership transition taking place in the next few years is well underway.”
So what are we to make of the forthcoming Changing of the Guard 3.0? Does this reshuffle mean that all three apparent contenders – Heng Swee Keat, Chan Chun Sing and Ong Ye Kung – are still in the frame?
The speculation looks likely to continue. To join in the chatter, let us consider the following three scenarios of what could be happening behind the scenes.
SCENARIO 1: OUR NEW PM HAS BEEN DECIDED BUT NO ONE HAS BEEN TOLD YET
In this scenario, it has already been decided who will succeed PM Lee, but no one has been told, not even PM Lee’s successor.
The reason may be that PM Lee and the 3G leaders want to be absolutely certain that the next Prime Minister will not only perform well, but also command the full support of his peers – not just the “group of 16 4G leaders” who responded in a letter to Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, but also the future 5G leaders.
In terms of ministerial experience, with the exception of Ong who was only elected into parliament in 2015, Heng and Chan have already served in senior roles in at least two ministries in earlier Cabinets and already have the necessary kudos.
Yet it appears that the runway has been extended a little more by giving each of them a concentrated ministry to prove their mettle to Singaporeans and the international community.
Chan’s move back into the Government fold as Trade and Industry Minister, a portfolio that has recently grown in global significance, seems to have persuaded some pundits that he is the man. Trade and Industry may well be the economic fix that Chan needs to shore up his resume as it will give him access to the movers and shakers of business and local intelligentsia.
But Heng does not play second fiddle to Chan. He is effectively the Chief Financial Officer of Singapore tasked with ensuring that the nation’s future economy will continue to thrive in an era of multiple disruptions, top of the list being the prospect of a China-US trade war.
Notwithstanding Ong’s elevation to the full education portfolio this round, he remains a political novice and seems unlikely to be in the running to be the next Prime Minister within this parliamentary term.
Crunching the bits of data available to us, it appears Chan has indeed emerged as the frontrunner. The key here is that Chan’s gap in the economic realm, along with a need for international exposure, would be well plugged with his new MTI role.
A second Cabinet reshuffle may not be needed under this scenario, since it will gradually become clearer who the next leader will be. However PM Lee may decide to make a few adjustments – by appointing Chan or Heng as a new Deputy Prime Minister – to end the speculation once and for all.
SCENARIO 2: 4G LEADERS NEED MORE BETA-TESTING TO REMOVE THE ELEMENT OF SURPRISE
This scenario exists because the 4G team has yet to agree on any one candidate.
So what we are witnessing in the recent reshuffle is a different form of “changing of the guards” (“guards” in plural and with a small “g”), where the now-famous “group of 16 4G leaders” are given major duties so that they can prove their ministerial competence while demonstrating that they can work together as a team.
This is akin to doing beta-testing where a product is given another round of practical trial. The three leadership contenders are given deep specialisation in major portfolios, while also broadening them and exposing them to their 4G peers and 5G leaders.
In this way, it becomes clear whom they should elect from among themselves – and with a little luck, a consensus will emerge.
It is here that we may see the original design of a Westminster political system – where the Prime Minister is chosen by his fellow colleagues, and truly becomes the first among equals – come into play.
The problem with this system is that it is very difficult to effect a seamless political transition – as has been done in the past with Goh Chok Tong’s and, indeed, Lee Hsien Loong’s assumption of the top post – because we simply cannot predict who will receive unanimous support.
So a little more beta-testing will help ensure the system remains foolproof, and that there will be no surprises when the final result is announced.
It is likely that scenario 2 will also see a Cabinet reshuffle prior to the next General Election to present Singaporean voters with the full 4G leadership team, with one of the three contenders emerging as a clear candidate for the top post.
SCENARIO 3: PRAGMATISM AND STABILITY DEMANDS PM LEE STAY ON LONGER
The discourse around who would lead Singapore in four years’ time, when PM Lee turns 70, was first raised by PM Lee himself. He had declared his wish to retire after the next General Election on the basis of good governance and succession planning principles.
Indeed, predictable leadership transitions transpired during the first and second changing of the guard, under Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, in 1990 and 2004 respectively. But they took place during an era when Singapore had to present order and stability to both voters and foreign investors via extraordinarily smooth political transitions.
Although we have been told that the group of 16 office holders will select a leader from among themselves, PM Lee is still the “kingmaker” by default as he will have to decide when to step down.
PM Lee will want to ensure the baton is passed on to the next generation in a timely and judicious manner. He will want to shape Singapore’s political and economic environment to handle these leadership changes.
It is often said that politics is “the art of the possible”, which means that it is not about what’s right or what’s ideal, but what is pragmatic and can be carried out smoothly. This is referred to in political science as realpolitik, something Singaporeans should be familiar with as it privileges pragmatism over ideology.
In other words, whilst PM Lee may have an ideal PM-in-waiting in mind, if the person is not able to step up to the plate for personal or structural reasons, or if the climate and timing are not ripe for a political handover, it is not wise to effect change for its own sake.
If the 4G team is not ready, we cannot categorically rule out PM Lee staying on after the next General Election, and then revisiting the transition planning anew.
(In fact, under scenario 3, the plot would thicken as we cannot rule out Ong Ye Kung either, since he would have spent a substantial time as a full Minister.)
WHERE TO NEXT?
Singaporeans have been conditioned to prefer stability rather than change, especially in the political sphere. Voters are hence likely to be supportive if PM Lee stays on for a while more, as long as they can see progress being made to nurture the next generation of leaders, whether they are of the 4G or 5G variety.
This is possibly precisely what PM Lee is doing right now with the mid- term Cabinet reshuffle, and in getting us all to postulate more deeply about Singapore’s political future.
Regardless of which scenario will play out, we know that the forthcoming Changing of the Guard 3.0 will take place in due course. We just have to exercise a little patience, and hope that the next Prime Minister and the entire 4G leadership team will be the best possible one for Singapore.
Terence Lee is Associate Professor of Communication and Media, Murdoch University, Australia. He is co-editor with Professor Kevin Y L Tan of Voting in Change: Politics of Singapore's 2011 General Election and Change in Voting: Singapore's 2015 General Election, both published by Ethos Books.