SINGAPORE: The transition to Singapore’s next leadership had seemed largely settled at the beginning of 2020.
The wheels had been set in motion long before, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong saying as early as 2012 that he aimed to hand over the reins of power by the age of 70 in 2022.
There was some uncertainty about the process when a PM-designate had failed to emerge by the end of 2017, prompting Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong to "nudge" the process along with a Facebook post that said: "One urgent challenge I would like to see settled is our fourth generation leadership."
The younger political office holders, dubbed the fourth generation – or 4G – leaders, chose current Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat as "first among equals" by early 2018.
Then COVID-19 struck, the economy tanked and the transition, like almost everything else in the midst of this pandemic, was facing potential issues.
The transfer of power to a fourth prime minister, which was expected by 2022, is now contingent on the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic.
READ: Not the time to 'talk of succession': Former DPM S Jayakumar on Singapore's leadership transition
As it became clear what havoc the COVID-19 pandemic would wreak around the world, Mr Lee pledged at his Fullerton rally during July’s General Election that he and his peers would see Singapore through this crisis.
Last month, former Deputy Prime Minister S Jayakumar and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong used the same idiom to underline this message: That Singapore should not “change horses in midstream”.
Mr Lee reiterated his commitment to stay in the leadership post at the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) conference on Nov 8, saying to party activists: “Leadership renewal remains one of my top priorities. But as I have explained, because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact, it is my duty to see our nation through the crisis, before I hand over responsibility for Singapore in good shape to the next team and into safe hands.”
When this happens depends on how soon the threat of COVID-19 and its fallout abates, but Professor Jayakumar has said it could even extend to the next election, due in 2025.
"What if Singapore is still in dire straits in four to five years’ time closer to the next General Election?" Prof Jayakumar asked in his book Governing: A Singapore Perspective, which was published last month. Views that Mr Lee should "remain longer at the helm have intensified", he said.
"Of course, if 'normalcy' has been restored before the next GE, I think the public will support his desire to step down as PM. However, if the crisis persists, I believe many Singaporeans will want him to reconsider that aspect of his timeline as well, and hand over only after Singapore has turned the dangerous corner," he said.
BENEFITS OF A “LONG RUNWAY”
Analysts CNA spoke to had differing views on what the revised timeline for the transition might look like, but had no doubt of the need for all hands to be on deck at this time.
There are advantages to having a longer runway for the next generation of leaders before they take over the reins, if it was “only for as long as it is needed”, said political observer and Associate Professor of Law Eugene Tan from the Singapore Management University.
For Mr Lee to hand over to his successor a "clean slate", with the pandemic under control and Singapore on the path to economic recovery, would be in keeping with the practice of previous prime ministers, he said.
When Mr Goh handed over the reins to Mr Lee on Aug 11, 2004, it was after the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, crisis had been dealt with. Mr Lee Kuan Yew did so on Nov 28, 1990, a day after securing points of agreement with his Malaysian counterpart, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, on Malayan Railway land in Singapore – a long-time bugbear in bilateral relations, Assoc Prof Tan wrote in a commentary.
He and other analysts said that the 4G leadership will also benefit from having more time to hone their skills with the mentorship of the 3G leaders.
READ: GE2020: PAP to do more to win back support from middle-aged voters feeling economic pain, says Lawrence Wong
“This enables the people's trust and confidence in the government to remain strong, sustainable and secure which would ultimately benefit the 4G leadership,” said Assoc Prof Tan. “Third, a delay also enables the Government to focus on the pandemic crisis without being unnecessarily distracted.”
Mr Leonard Lim, country director for Singapore for government affairs consultancy Vriens & Partners, pointed out that the 4G leaders have had a comparatively shorter runway in politics compared to their predecessors.
“The bulk of them entered politics in the 2011 GE and have only spent a decade in a much rougher environment in local politics, as well as a much more unpredictable geopolitical and economic environment. Mr Goh Chok Tong spent 14 years in politics before becoming PM, Mr Lee Hsien Loong 20 years,” he said.
Mr Lee spent 14 years as Deputy Prime Minister, while Mr Goh was PM-in-waiting for six years, after being chosen by his peers, before taking on the top job.
Among the 4G leaders elected in 2011 was Mr Heng, 59, who has been Deputy Prime Minister since May last year. He is also the Finance Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies.
READ: A leadership team with complementary strengths: Goh Chok Tong on Heng Swee Keat and Chan Chun Sing
The younger ministers in 2018 issued a statement in support of his leadership, and recognising Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing as his second-in-command.
After Mr Heng was appointed first assistant secretary-general of the PAP, usually the precursor to being anointed prime minister, Mr Lee said in a Facebook post on Nov 23, 2018: "I support the decision of the younger team, and am happy with this outcome.
"I have known and worked with Swee Keat and Chun Sing for some years now, and watched them grow in their different responsibilities. They have complementary strengths, and make a strong pairing."
In a 2019 Cabinet reshuffle, Mr Heng was made Deputy Prime Minister – another sign that he would be the next prime minister. Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said then that it was a "major step in leadership succession".
"Swee Keat is the best person to move up to become DPM and take over as PM during the next term of government. He has exceptional ability, mettle and the confidence of the 4G team," he wrote in a Facebook post.
The ministers who signed the 2018 statement endorsing Mr Heng included Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Indranee Rajah, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo, Education Minister Lawrence Wong, National Development Minister Desmond Lee, Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli and Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong.
CNA contacted the offices of Mr Heng and Mr Chan, inviting them to comment on the transition timeline, as well as the eight other 4G leaders mentioned above.
All declined to comment or did not respond.
DELAY SHOULD NOT BE “INORDINATE”
Still, while there are benefits to a longer transition, observers warned that the delay should not be “inordinate”.
“Questions will invariably be raised in the event of an inordinate delay over whether the 4G leadership is equal to the task of leading Singapore in the post-COVID era,” Assoc Prof Tan said.
Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser from the National University of Singapore's Department of Sociology said the costs of having a transition that is much longer than expected outweigh the benefits, and would not give citizens much confidence in the 4G leaders.
“If PM Lee stays on till 2025 or even beyond, it’d likely convey a negative impression that the key 4G ministers, despite being in their late 50s and mid-60s, having gone through a fairly long runway in leadership positions, and probably having PM Lee and the Senior Ministers around as advisers, are still not ready to fly solo,” he said.
When then, might the transition be?
Assoc Prof Tan Ern Ser thought it could take place as early as a year after Phase 3 of Singapore's reopening kicks in. This is assuming the pandemic does not resurge, and the economy and the job situation are on “an upward trajectory”.
SMU’s Assoc Prof Eugene Tan said that to enable the new prime minister to make his mark before leading the ruling party in the next General Election, the handover may take place sometime between January 2023 and mid-2024.
“But much will depend on how the COVID-19 pandemic evolves and the pace at which the Singapore economy recovers,” he said.
But what if the transition happens after GE2025? That is a possibility raised by Vriens & Partners' Mr Lim, who said there are a few considerations complicating the timeline.
“I see the handover taking place at the earliest in 2023, in the second half of the Government’s term. But that is also complicated by the Presidential Election needing to be held that year,” he said.
The latest the handover might happen is a year or two after the next General Election, he estimated, which is likely to take place around 2024-25. If the transition happens in 2026 then, depending on precisely when the reins of power are handed over, Mr Lee would be 73 or 74 while Mr Heng would be 64 or 65.
“Considering the vastly increased contestation in local politics today compared to those periods, and that the political temperature rises several notches about 18 months before a GE ... it may make sense not to thrust a new PM into the role in the 2023/2024 window even if the COVID-19 crisis has blown over,” he added.
Assoc Prof Tan Ern Ser said that he believes the changing political landscape and culture is another key consideration.
Mr Lee Hsien Loong has said that Singapore’s population desires more diverse views and representation in its politics, and that it is a trend that is here to stay. Results from a post-election survey by the Institute of Policy Studies also bore that out.
READ: Bread and butter issues, need for different views in Parliament - both mattered to voters in GE2020: IPS survey
It was one possible factor that led to a dip in the ruling PAP’s popular vote share to 61.2 per cent in the 2020 GE and its loss in Sengkang GRC to the Workers’ Party. With the Sengkang defeat, the PAP team, which included NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng and office holders Amrin Amin and Dr Lam Pin Min, had to step down as MPs.
They lost to a Workers' Party team with three members taking part in their first polls –Professor Jamus Lim, Mr Louis Chua and Ms Raeesah Khan, who were led by Ms He Ting Ru – a lawyer on her second electoral outing.
Said Assoc Prof Tan Ern Ser: “Perhaps, the fact that GE2020 saw a 4G minister and two younger office holders losing a GRC to a team of political newbies, and some key 4G ministers facing hard fights in the GRCs they contested – even as PM Lee and SM Tharman remain highly popular – indicates that the key 3G leaders with their vast reserve of political capital still need to stick around a little while more.”
One possible implication of the extended transition timetable is that the leadership changeover could “skip a generation”, analysts said.
“With a delayed transition, it is entirely possible that the baton from PM Lee may skip a generation and be passed to those in their early and mid-50s by 2025, like Chan Chun Sing, Lawrence Wong and Desmond Lee,” said Assoc Prof Tan Ern Ser.
It raises questions over whether Mr Heng will succeed Mr Lee “in the fullness of time”, said Assoc Prof Eugene Tan. Depending on when the Prime Minister steps down, Mr Heng will be in his early- to mid-60s. Mr Lee Hsien Loong was 52 and Mr Goh was 49 when they became prime minister. Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Goh both stepped down before they turned 70.
“A 'transition' PM may not be the best arrangement for Singapore,” Assoc Prof Eugene Tan said. “I don't foresee a generational skip in leadership from 3G to 5G; instead, perhaps, from 3G to '4.5G'. However, this could be politically unsettling even if we came out well from the COVID-19 crisis.”
Mr Lim said that given the PAP’s penchant for long-term stability, a prime minister probably should serve at least two five-year electoral terms.
“Heng Swee Keat’s age may thus be working against him the longer the succession is delayed … But I don’t think it will skip a generation. The handover will likely still be to a fourth-generation leader who is currently in the Cabinet.
“It will be interesting to watch the dynamics in the 4G the longer the handover is pushed back, because going by the PAP’s longstanding practice, the 4G themselves will have to decide if the identity of the successor should be revisited.”