SINGAPORE: As Singapore prepares for one of the most important political leadership transitions, history is in the making once again.
14 years ago, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took over the reins of leadership from Mr Goh Chok Tong. The third generation (3G) of leaders established themselves, taking Singapore forward and beginning the next chapter of the Singapore story, many have said.
With the recent Cabinet reshuffle, a new chapter has begun. A fourth generation (4G) team now helms two-thirds of all ministries, as PM Lee has noted.
Three senior office holders Mr Yaacob Ibrahim, Mr Lim Swee Say and Mr Lim Hng Kiang, will be stepping down, while younger officer holders such as Ms Indranee Rajah, Mr Baey Yam Keng and Mr Amrin Amin were promoted.
As for the three ministers who have been mentioned as potential prime ministers, Mr Heng Swee Keat and Mr Ong Ye Kung will be staying on in their existing roles but with expanded responsibilities while Mr Chan Chun Sing will return to Government to serve as the Minister for Trade and Industry and take over responsibility for the Public Service Division from Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.
While no obvious successor to PM Lee has yet emerged, it is clear that the transition from 3G to 4G leadership has entered a new phase.
Much of the spotlight has been placed on this reshuffle and the upcoming President’s Address which will be delivered on May 7.
Some have said that the 4G leaders must more actively establish themselves with Singaporeans and convince them of their policies and visions.
But what does this actually mean?
The most obvious expectation is for the 4G team to be more active in fronting and communicating policies, just as, for instance, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat fronted the impending GST hike when he announced plans to implement it sometime between 2021 and 2025 during Budget 2018.
But establishing themselves and winning over Singaporeans’ hearts and minds will require more than just being the face of policy changes. The 4G leaders are not the next generation of public servants – they are the next generation of national leaders, tasked with providing vision and direction.
In the light of this, we should expect the 4G leadership to engage in two other foundational aspects of governance as they establish themselves – building a new narrative and forging a new consensus.
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“From Third World to First”, “Shining Red Dot”, “City in a Garden” – narratives are essentially frames and stories we use to make sense of things, provide direction and anchor ourselves.
Just as we as individuals choose what narrative we wish to employ as we move forward in life, we as a nation must choose the direction for our journey which best takes us forward together.
Although this endeavour involves all Singaporeans, it must be spearheaded by national leaders.
What the next Singapore narrative will be is the most important choice that the 4G leaders will need to make, together with Singaporeans.
The appropriate narrative helps citizens make sense of policy changes and appreciate broader contexts. More importantly, it provides direction for the nation – a narrative after all, must have a beginning, a middle and a conclusion.
Of course, while narratives can be imagined, they must reflect the realities of national life. The beginning, the conclusion and the middle thus essentially become “where we came from”, “where we’re going” and “how we get there” respectively.
The act of charting our way forward needs to be rooted in our shared history and values as well as a common consensus on the paths we will take towards the future.
Furthermore, while fostering national unity, this new narrative, what I would call Narrative 4.0, must also connect emotionally to individual aspirations, for it is ultimately the aspirations of Singaporeans that powers the continued progress of the nation.
Writing the above, my suggestion is for a narrative along the lines of, “A Nation of Pioneers, A World of Opportunities”.
The reference to pioneers simultaneously alludes to the past and the future. It reminds us of the values embodied by the pioneer generation while “a world of opportunities” connects this immediately with how Singaporeans must venture forth into an uncertain world with a pioneering spirit to seek opportunities together.
While narratives serve to communicate policies and guide the nation forward, consensus-building serves to strengthen the link between the Government and the people. It is thus an essential task which the 4G leadership must take on.
Consensus-building by a new generation of leaders in a new age should be seen as a negotiation of the social contract between the Government and the people, in light of new challenges and changing circumstances. Consider the 2013 Our Singapore Conversation exercise, headed by Mr Heng, which sought to build consensus for a new period through more extensive engagements.
Moving forward, where could we most likely see a new consensus being sought? Consider where major shifts are taking place.
On the economic front, consensus must be sought on the need for higher taxes, to ensure fiscal sustainability while having the means to fund rising social and infrastructural expenditure.
In this, trade-offs must be discussed. In the book The Big Ideas of Lee Kuan Yew, Mr Heng himself highlighted:
A society loses its vigour if it eschews excellence and competition; equally a society loses its cohesion if it fails to take care of those who are left behind or disadvantaged.
Another example - regarding Singapore’s drive to be a Smart Nation, consensus would need to be sought on how technology and data are leveraged in everyday life to solve problems and create opportunities, including how much the population will need to build tech and data literacy.
Changing leadership is also a reason for the re-negotiation of the social contact.
Previous social contracts were forged between the people and the 3G leadership, many have pointed out. To lead effectively and establish themselves, new leaders must therefore forge their own consensus, in their own ways.
For example, Mr Chan has strengthened the consensus on the need for the labour movement to be inclusive and relevant, by leading NTUC’s efforts to enhance its reach to also cover PMEs.
In education, Mr Ong has strengthened the consensus that his predecessors built on the importance of lifelong learning. As the key minister fronting higher education and skills, he has moved swiftly to shift Institutes of Higher Learning towards seeing themselves as hubs of lifelong learning.
Both ministers strengthened consensus on those issues in their own ways. We can expect the intensification of such efforts by the 4G team in the years to come.
A NEW GENERATION’S TIME HAS COME
As the leadership transition progresses, we can expect the 4G leaders to more actively establish themselves with Singaporeans in the coming years. Doing so would require more than just fronting policy changes, but also building new narratives and forging new consensus.
14 years ago, the 3G team took over the reins of leadership and led Singapore forward. Come 7 May, when Parliament reconvenes, may we witness a new generation ready do the same.
History is in the making once more.
Ng Chia Wee will begin his undergraduate education at the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences this August.