SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday (May 16) said he was aware of more than one qualified candidate to succeed him - and that he "certainly" expects a clear front-runner to emerge before Singapore’s next general election.
“We are fortunate that this is so, because it provides strength and depth to the team. Now it's about the team coming to a consensus on the best option,” he said, while adding that the fourth-generation (4G) ministers being able to work together was “as important, if not more important, than the question of who will be the next PM”.
"I know everyone is anxious to know who the next PM will be ... These things take time. They cannot be forced," said Mr Lee. "I do not believe we are ready to settle on a choice yet. Nor is it helpful to treat this either as a horse race or a campaign to lobby support for one candidate or the other.
"This is a team game, and we want a strong, cohesive team so Team Singapore is the winner."
Speaking on politics and leadership as part of a wide-ranging speech delivered in Parliament, Mr Lee asked: "Can the next generation of leaders build on our shared experience of 50 years, and maintain the sense of collective mission? Can they work to improve the lives of all Singaporeans, and not the interests of narrow groups, so that they pass on an even stronger and more united Singapore?
“I think they can.”
He praised the 4G ministers as a strong team willing to serve and with their hearts in the right place, while dishing out some advice for them.
“Some hard truths will always remain for Singapore. But even old problems may need new solutions. We must be pragmatic and not ideological in our approach,” said Mr Lee. “Keep an open mind, and make decisions both with the head and the heart. Remember our history but don't be trapped by it.
“That is why leadership renewal is crucial: New ideas, new bonds and new connections are needed with every new generation.”
“IF WE EVER FAIL … WE DESERVE TO LOSE”
Mr Lee also touched on opposition parties and their role in keeping Singapore’s politics “contestable”.
“The ruling PAP (People’s Action Party) does not have a monopoly of power, does not have a right to rule Singapore indefinitely,” he stated. “So long as the PAP government performs, it keeps the voters’ support, and stays in power. The opposition cannot gain ground. But if the PAP government becomes incompetent or corrupt, the opposition will grow.
“So our system gives the PAP government every incentive to perform, and to keep the opposition performing its role where it is, namely in the opposition.”
Added Mr Lee: “The PAP is determined to perform. We treat every election as a serious contest. We take every debate in the House seriously. And that's why we amended the Constitution to ensure that there will always be at least 12 opposition MPs and NCMPs in the House, whatever the outcome of the general election.”
Political parties do not have a fixed lifespan – a time to live and a time to die, he noted.
“How long a political party continues in government – or in opposition for that matter, because parties come and go in opposition too – depends on whether it can renew itself, continue to serve the people, continue to bring progress to the nation,” said Mr Lee.
“If the PAP can keep on successfully doing that, we can stay in Government. But if we ever fail, we deserve to lose. So my message to all PAP MPs is ‘work hard, serve the people, hold the ground, win the elections’.”
“If ministers are not prepared to govern, then give it up,” he added. “Governing means from time to time you have to do difficult things, when they become necessary. Leadership means you've got to explain, persuade, and convince people that you know what you're doing, you're doing it for good reason, you're doing the right thing.
“That is the way to maintain people’s trust, and trust is crucial.”
After Mr Lee's speech, opposition leader and former Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang stepped up to ask if there was "now a political elite class" in Singapore, given the touted three front-runners to be the next prime minister - Chan Chun Sing, Heng Swee Keat and Ong Ye Kung - all hail from military or civil service backgrounds.
"This is an example of the way not to think about the problem," Mr Lee replied. "When you look at the person you ask: 'Is he making a contribution? What are his strengths and weaknesses ... does he or does he not measure up?'
"You don’t ask where did he come from, who his parents are."
He continued: "Is it bad to come from the civil service or the SAF? No. Is it necessary to come from there? No. Is it good to have people from a wide range? Yes, and we do have a wide range.
"He talked about three front-runners. I don’t know how many people are running. I just said it's not a horse race, it is a team," said Mr Lee. "So we are looking for people, wherever we can find them, to bring in to form a Singapore team. And the stronger this team is, the harder I make Mr Low’s job.
"I can't help it. It wasn’t my objective," he said, smiling. "I just want the best team for Singapore."
IMPORTANCE OF TEAMWORK
In closing, Mr Lee returned to stressing the need for Singapore’s political leadership to work together.
“Even in the best of times – and certainly in times of severe crisis – Mr Lee Kuan Yew did not run the country by himself. Neither did Mr Goh Chok Tong, nor myself,” he observed.
“All three of us were not sole leaders, but primus inter pares – that means first among equals – with our colleagues. We were all fortunate – Singapore was fortunate – that the PMs had such stalwart colleagues.
“Mr Lee had a core team, very strong ministers supporting him – Goh Keng Swee, S Rajaratnam, Lim Kim San, Hon Sui Sen, Othman Wok. ESM Goh had a talented team too – Ong Teng Cheong, Tony Tan, Wong Kan Seng, S Jayakumar, S Dhanabalan, Abdullah Tarmugi, George Yeo, just to name a few,” Mr Lee recalled.
“When I took over as Prime Minister, I inherited ESM Goh’s strong team, Mr Goh himself stayed on, and we added talent to his team. Now he's stepped down, I rely on my own core team, which now also includes several of the 4G ministers.
“So the next PM must have, and will have, his own stalwart colleagues too.”
He reiterated that the Government was not the owner of Singapore, nor its manager, but a steward.
“It is responsible for taking good care of the country, holding it in trust, handing it on in due time for future generations,” Mr Lee explained. “The Government must keep faith with past generations who gifted this country to us. It has to be responsible to the present generation who continue to build on what we have inherited.
“But above all, it must consider future generations, whose lives and whose futures depend on us, the present generation - thinking of their interests, acting on their behalf, making wise and far-sighted decisions to cause Singapore to endure and flourish for many more years,” he said.
“I am confident that when the time comes for me to hand over to a new Prime Minister, Singapore will be in the hands of good stewards.”