The Big Read: Singapore’s political succession goes beyond finding the next Prime Minister

The Big Read: Singapore’s political succession goes beyond finding the next Prime Minister

Observers say the public should not base the country's current leadership transition on past precedents — be it in terms of the timeline or the succession pathway.

Lee Hsien Loong Cabinet reshuffle Facebook photo
Mr Lee Hsien Loong shared on Facebook a photo of a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday (Apr 24) before changes for a Cabinet reshuffle take place on May 1. (Photo: MCI)

SINGAPORE: Political junkies eagerly awaiting the latest Cabinet line-up, which was announced earlier this week, were left with not much to chew on, as far as reading the tea leaves on who the next Prime Minister could be was concerned.

Majority of the changes involved the less senior political officeholders — with Senior Ministers of State and Parliamentary Secretaries swopping portfolios or getting promoted for example — with all but one government ministry involved in the reshuffle, as the ranks of the fourth-generation leadership were boosted.

PM Lee Hsien Loong, 66, has said he would not wish to be Prime Minister beyond 70 years old. With just four years to go before PM Lee turns 70, there is some public anxiety over the uncertainty of the identity of his successor.

Three frontrunners have emerged: Mr Chan Chun Sing, 48, Mr Heng Swee Keat, 57 and Mr Ong Ye Kung, 48.

READA commentary on the race for Singapore’s next Prime Minister narrowing with the Cabinet reshuffle.

Following the Cabinet reshuffle which takes effect on May 1, Mr Chan will leave the labour movement and helm the Ministry of Trade and Industry. He will also become Minister-in-charge of the Civil Service, replacing Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.

Mr Ong — who is currently the Education Minister for Higher Education and Skills — will take over the entire education portfolio while Mr Heng will continue leading the Finance Ministry and take up the chairmanship of the National Research Foundation.

Unlike his predecessors, Singapore's next Prime Minister, who will be the country's fourth since independence, will have a shorter runway — a point made on several occasions by PM Lee himself.

Political analysts and observers — including past and present People's Action Party (PAP) Members of Parliament who had a ringside seat to the previous leadership transition when Mr Goh Chok Tong handed over the baton to PM Lee — believe the succession blueprint this time could be different from the beaten path where a minister helms key portfolios such as defence, finance, and trade and industry for several years to get a better feel of the important issues, before ascending to the top post.

Chan Chun Sing, Heng Swee Keat, Ong Ye Kung collage
Chan Chun Sing, Heng Swee Keat and Ong Ye Kung. (Photo: MCI)

For this round, the focus appears to be on something different — in part due to the compressed timeline but also in recognition of the growing policy complexities: Building the breadth and depth of the fourth-generation leadership team, and honing its collective competencies.

While there is no doubt that the Prime Minister will remain the "first among equals", there is an added emphasis on collective leadership which PM Lee had alluded to earlier, political watchers noted.

READA commentary on the new consensus the fourth-generation leadership team needs to forge.


Given the larger-than-life presence and aura of Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew — which were to a large extent carried over by Mr Goh and PM Lee themselves — there is high public interest and expectation surrounding the identity of the next Prime Minister.

For now, the big question on who the next Prime Minister is has been put on the backburner, but observers believe that, on the surface, Mr Chan has the inside track.

Still, Mr Heng and Mr Ong remain very much in the running, they pointed out — especially if the succession pathway this time is different. Any one of the three could become Prime Minister, supported by the other two and the rest of the 4G leadership.

While the current timeline could be too short when viewed through conventional lenses, there is ample time to prepare a team to steer the country forward, led by a Prime Minister who is able to get the best out of it, observers said.

National University of Singapore political scientist Bilveer Singh noted that it is "important but not sufficient" for the next Prime Minister to have led key ministries well:

Even more important is his ability to work with and gain the respect of his peers, and for them to gel together as team," he said. "This is the PAP's DNA and political culture … Hence, it does not really matter who is the number one as long as all work for the same team.

PAP cadre Eric Low added:

A strong leader is always necessary to steer the team… in the right direction and implement well-suited policies … A leader who is able to win the respect of his team mates would naturally be treated as a 'first among equals' by his teammates.

The 4G collective leadership will "play an important role in the era to come", said Mr Low, who had previously contested under the PAP banner in the 2001 and 2006 General Elections.

PM Lee said as much himself in January: "Maybe it's the way that the media and public politics is played in many countries nowadays, it's personalised as one person. And the face becomes familiar. And you think that everything is done by that person. Actually it's not … there's a team."

PM Lee and Modi
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is received by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit at the Taj Diplomatic Enclave Hotel on Jan 25. (Photo: Ministry of Communications and Information)

Speaking to Singapore reporters at the end of his trip to New Delhi for the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit, he added: "The team works together and they have one, as Mr Lee Kuan Yew said, striker. Now you have to strike from time to time, but you're really also sometimes spokesman on behalf of the team, bringing together a collective wisdom and giving voice to that. And I think in the next team, that aspect of it will have to be even more important."

Two weeks ago, PM Lee again stressed that the issue of political succession goes beyond finding the person most suited for the top post. 

Speaking at a conference in Shanghai, he pointed out that many qualities are needed for national leadership and it would be unrealistic and impossible to find a single candidate with the qualities and able to "do it all". He said:

We need to find a capable team who can work closely together, who can inspire the people's confidence and bring the nation forward, carve out a new path and make Singaporeans proud.


Before he succeeded Mr Lee Kuan Yew in November 1990, Mr Goh, who is now 76, served in the Cabinet for more than 11 years leading the MTI, the Health Ministry and the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) at various points. He was also Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) for six years.

PM Lee similarly enjoyed a long runway: Before he became Prime Minister, he was in the Cabinet for more than 17 years — handling portfolios in trade and industry, finance and defence. While in the Cabinet, PM Lee also served as Mr Goh's understudy, as DPM, for more than 13 years.

Political analysts and observers noted that there is no hard-and-fast rule that a Prime Minister for Singapore must check off the right boxes, in terms of having led certain key ministries.

Nevertheless, they agreed that it is important for the next Prime Minister to be exposed to multiple portfolios in order to gain a broad overview of different policy areas.

"This is especially important since political leadership is becoming increasingly coordinative in nature, rather than top-down managerial," said Nanyang Technological University political scientist Woo Jun Jie.

"This means that the next Prime Minister will need to know a little bit about every portfolio, in order to work with his cabinet colleagues to coordinate their policy efforts. Certainly, with a shorter runway, there will be areas in which the next Prime Minister may not have had time to build up."

Former Minister of State Teo Ser Luck, who is a Member of Parliament (MP) for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, as well as ex-PAP MP Inderjit Singh likened governance to running a firm.

"The leader needs to know what is happening in the different parts of the organisation if he wants to do a good job. Also, in times of crisis, a minister and his ministry may need more guidance. If the boss does not understand enough, the whole organisation, or the Government in this case, will be weaker," said Mr Singh.

Both Mr Singh and Mr Teo singled out defence and economic-related portfolios such as finance, or trade and industry, as among the "heavyweight" portfolios that a potential Prime Minister should get his feet wet in. The ideal candidate would also need to have foreign policy acumen, they said.

Goh Chok Tong Jan 6, 2018
ESM Goh Chok Tong speaking at a dialogue session on Saturday (Jan 6).

Institute of Policy Studies deputy director for research Gillian Koh reiterated that the right leader for Singapore must be able to find the balance between domestic and international affairs, as well as social and economic concerns.

For now, the three frontrunners combined have some experience spanning these key areas. Individually, however, there are gaps, the observers pointed out.


Mr Chan, a former Chief of Army who attained the rank of Major-General, joined the Cabinet following the 2011 GE as Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports.

He was also Minister of State at the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA). About a year later, he relinquished his appointment in MICA and was appointed Senior Minister of State in MINDEF. Following a restructuring of government ministries in November 2012, Mr Chan helmed the Ministry of Social and Family Development as Acting Minister.

He was promoted to full Minister in September 2013, and concurrently served as Second Minister for Defence. In 2015, Mr Chan left his portfolios at the ministries and became labour chief. The latest Cabinet reshuffle will see Mr Chan moving on to lead MTI. He will also look after the Civil Service and continue to serve as deputy chairman of the People's Association (PA).

While Mr Chan's appointment as labour chief raised a few eyebrows at the time — given that the labour movement was not seen as a traditional post for political high-fliers — political watchers said that on hindsight, the stint could prove to be particularly important.

Political scientist Lam Peng Er from the NUS East Asian Institute said the experience would have exposed Mr Chan to a wide network of businesses and workers across various sectors. At the same time, Mr Chan will continue to have access to the grassroots in his capacity at the PA, said Singapore Management University Associate Professor Eugene Tan.

Chan Chun Sing and MWC Chairman Yeo Guat Kwang (second from left) with tripartite partners. (Photo credit: NTUC)

Being in charge of the Public Service Division will also "give him another pathway to a significant stakeholder group", added Assoc Prof Tan.

Apart from domestic portfolios, Mr Chan also leads the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative, the third and most recent government-level project between Singapore and China.

Political observers thus believe Mr Chan currently has an edge over the other two frontrunners, as he may have "checked off more boxes", given the varied portfolios he has taken on since entering politics.

However, Mr Inderjit Singh and Dr Bilveer Singh both felt that education — which is not traditionally seen as a portfolio that a potential Prime Minister has to cut his teeth in — has become another important policy area in today's circumstances, in light of the critical role it plays in ensuring Singaporeans have the right skills for the future economy.

"Education is the superstructure the society is premised on … It is also a politically-sensitive one as many Singaporeans have a child in (school)," said Dr Bilveer Singh, who noted that both Deputy Prime Ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam had helmed the Ministry of Education (MOE).

In this regard, it would be ideal for Mr Chan to gain some exposure in the MOE — something which Mr Heng and Mr Ong already have.

Mr Heng led the MOE from 2011 to 2015, before becoming Finance Minister. During his tenure as Education Minister, he was credited with several bold moves — such as doing away with rankings for secondary schools — in an effort to shift emphasis away from academic grades. He also scrapped the practice of announcing the top scorers in the Primary School Leaving Examination.

Away from ministerial portfolios, Mr Heng has also been tasked with several high-profile national projects, such as the Our Singapore Conversation initiative. He also oversaw the Republic's jubilee celebrations in 2015, and currently leads the Future Economy Council tasked to drive the Republic's economic transformation.

Externally, Mr Heng co-chairs the Sino-Singapore collaboration council in the China's Jiangsu province.

Assoc Prof Tan said Mr Heng's leadership of the Monetary Authority of Singapore — where he was managing director before entering politics — during the global financial crisis in 2007 and 2008 was also "testimony to his ability to handle challenges and not crack under pressure".

Heng Swee Keat at Finance Summit
Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat delivers the keynote address at the 8th World Bank-Singapore Infrastructure Finance Summit on Apr 5, 2018. (Photo: Tang See Kit) 

In May 2016, Mr Heng suffered a stroke during a Cabinet meeting but he made a remarkable recovery and was back in action three months later.

Dr Lam described Mr Heng — a former high-flying civil servant — as a "technocrat" who could make a "fine Prime Minister in times of normalcy". However, he felt that Mr Heng may lack the "killer instinct", which is needed in these uncertain times.

Mr Ong, on the other hand, has been described by people who have worked with him as having fine political acumen and instincts.

Mr Ong, whose father Ong Lian Teng was a Barisan Sosialis politician, had also tasted electoral defeat at the GE, when he was part of the PAP Aljunied GRC team which lost in the 2011 GE. Undeterred by the setback, Mr Ong was elected into Parliament four years later.

Compared to Mr Chan and Mr Heng who have been in the Cabinet for almost seven years, Mr Ong's later entry into Government meant he has had only 2.5 years of experience under his belt so far.

Mr Ong was appointed Acting Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) and Senior Minister of State for Defence in 2015. Thirteen months later, he was promoted to full Minister in MOE and concurrently held the post of Second Minister for Defence. He was also subsequently tasked to drive innovation in the Public Service.

Following the latest reshuffle, Mr Ong will helm the entire education portfolio. He will relinquish his appointment as Second Minister for Defence and his responsibilities in the Public Service.

Prior to joining politics, Mr Ong was heavily involved in the labour movement, apart from having experience in both the public and private sectors.

His career began in the Civil Service where he rose to become Director of Trade. He was also Principal Private Secretary to PM Lee, when the latter was DPM.

Mr Ong was also the chief executive of the then-Singapore Workforce Development Agency from 2005 to 2008, before joining the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) where he became deputy secretary-general. During his stint with the labour movement, he chaired the Employment and Employability Institute. Mr Ong subsequently left NTUC and joined Keppel Corporation.

Despite his varied stints prior to joining politics, the observers noted that Mr Ong has had limited experience so far in political office.

Nevertheless, Assoc Prof Tan noted that Mr Ong has been put in charge of leading the SkillsFuture Initiative, which is a vital national effort towards lifelong learning and an "economic imperative" for Singapore.

Ong Ye Kung on education planning (1)
Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung.

Going forward, given the broad spectrum of the education portfolio, Mr Ong will have the opportunities to build up his networks including among workers across various sectors, said Dr Koh.

In terms of foreign relations, Mr Ong currently co-chairs the Singapore-Guangdong collaboration council.

Assoc Prof Tan said it is tough to pit the three frontrunners against one another. He said:

It's like comparing apples and oranges and pears.

Dr Bilveer Singh reiterated that all three are still in contention:

There is no law that the next Prime Minister has to clear all the hurdles, but the more you test (the potential candidates) the better.


Given the different circumstance and the needs of the country, it would seem that the templates for choosing the Prime Minister used for the second- and third-generation leaders "may not be applicable" this time, said Assoc Prof Tan.

"Putting the fourth-generation leaders through the paces is more about deepening and developing specific competencies (for each of them)," he added.

Former PAP MP Irene Ng noted that PM Lee is holding his cards close to his chest to ensure that his successor can "have a smooth transition and enjoy the best chance of success".

"The political climate can be harsh and unforgiving … However well-planned the succession and transition may be, it will not be an easy ride for the new Prime Minister," she said.

Noting that Mr Goh and PM Lee gained popularity over the years with their unique leadership styles, she added: "It is understandable that people are keen to identify the new Prime Minister-to-be and pin down a timeline. But the more important thing is to ensure that not only is he the best person to become the Prime Minister, but he has the best chance of success, for the sake of Singapore's future. For this, the timing of the transition counts."

Ultimately, it is very much PM Lee's call as to "whether there is enough or not enough time, and the urgency of (succession)", Mr Teo Ser Luck pointed out. He said:

A competent fourth-generation team has been emerging slowly … And if PM or the more senior ministers believe they need more time, they will be able to manage this transition.

Most observers also felt that PM Lee's wish to hand over the reins before he turns 70 should not be seen as a "hard deadline".

In fact, PM Lee's stance has not been rigid over the years. During a press conference held at the Istana following the 2011 GE, he told the media that he was aiming to hand over the mantle to the 4G leadership by 2020 (when he would be 68 years old).

Later in 2013, while fielding questions on the Ask the Prime Minister programme on Channel NewsAsia, he said that he did not have a specific date in mind for stepping down, but a successor should "ideally" be well in place before he turns 70.

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong: speculation about a successor
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong discusses speculation about finding a successor. (Photo: AFP/SAUL LOEB)

Mr Lee Kuan Yew handed over the baton to Mr Goh when he was 67, while Mr Goh retired as Prime Minister when he was 63. After stepping down, both had remained in the Cabinet as Senior Ministers.

Provided he remains in good health, there was no reason why Mr Lee cannot lead beyond the age of 70, the observers noted.

"These things are not cast in steel, and changes can take place, and are easily justifiable," said Dr Bilveer Singh.

Murdoch University Associate Professor Terence Lee, who studies Singapore and Malaysia politics, added: "Singaporeans typically prefer continuity more so than change, so voters are not likely to criticise his decision to stay on as long as they can see progress being made to nurture the next group of leaders, as is being done right now."

All things considered, the observers said that the public should not base the country's current leadership transition on past precedents — be it in terms of the timeline or the succession pathway.

"The current political and policy landscape is very different from Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Goh Chok Tong's time," Asst Prof Woo said.

Source: TODAY/sl