Not the time to 'talk of succession': Former DPM S Jayakumar on Singapore's leadership transition
SINGAPORE: With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing and set to be a long-drawn-out crisis, it could be better to further delay Singapore's political succession, former Deputy Prime Minister S Jayakumar has said.
"The way I look at the present situation is - that we are in a very perilous and a very dangerous situation in our history as a country," Professor Jayakumar, 81, said in an interview on Oct 30 ahead of the release of his book titled Governing - A Singapore perspective.
"The central point is - that I don't think this is the time, really, to talk of succession."
He wrote in the book that, before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, he had asked Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong about his decision to retire by age 70, and wondered if Mr Lee had announced his intentions prematurely.
Mr Lee, 68, had said earlier that he would step down after the General Election, which was held in July this year. He had also said that GE2020 would be the last election he would lead as PM.
This changed when the pandemic hit, and the Prime Minister said during and after the election campaign that he and the current generation of leaders will see Singapore through the crisis.
"I am glad that PM Lee has given himself some flexibility on the succession timeline. In my view, however capable the 4G leaders, we should not change horses in midstream," Prof Jayakumar wrote in a chapter that discusses recent challenges for Singapore.
The core 4G leaders expected to take over the helm include Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, Education Minister Lawrence Wong, Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung and Minister for National Development Desmond Lee.
Prof Jayakumar had this to say of their handling of the current pandemic: "The 4G leaders have shown a steady hand under very difficult circumstances. I and many other Singaporeans were encouraged by the calm and unruffled manner in which they tackled the many twists and turns of the COVID-19 crisis."
In the book, which was launched on Friday (Nov 6), he raised the possibility that Mr Lee could "revisit his earlier intention not to lead the next general election as PM".
"What if Singapore is still in dire straits in four to five years’ time closer to the next General Election?" Prof Jayakumar asked in the book, saying that views that PM Lee should "remain longer at the helm have intensified".
"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.
"Whether he will want to or be prepared to, I don't know," Prof Jayakumar said in the interview.
HOW HE JOINED POLITICS
The former Cabinet minister and diplomat served as DPM from 2004 to 2009. He was elected as a Member of Parliament in 1980 and has held appointments in various portfolios, most notably as Minister for Law, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Coordinating Minister for National Security
He was appointed a Senior Minister in 2009 and retired from politics in 2011. Before joining politics, he had been the dean of the National University of Singapore's law school.
Recounting how he was recruited by the People's Action Party (PAP) in 1980, Prof Jayakumar said that it was not easy to get people to join politics now, with the additional scrutiny from social media.
He said that Mr Toh Chin Chye, one of Singapore's first generation of leaders, first "popped the question" to him in 1974, but he said that he was not ready.
He was approached a second time in 1979, and was posed this question: “Supposing you are on the top of our list, and if you say no, and we have to go down the list and everybody else keeps saying no. We then go to the bottom of the list and then later, would you regret it if things went awry in Singapore?”
That evening, he discussed it with his wife and they concluded that they could not say no, Prof Jayakumar recalled: "And that’s how I ended up running."
Years later, when he wanted to step down as Law Minister, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong told him that he could not step down until he found a successor.
"So then I looked around who are my best students in law school? Davinder Singh and Shanmugam. So I asked both of them separately to come to my office. And I posed the question and they gave me more or less the same reply that I gave, so I posed the same question that they did, and they both agreed, and that’s how the both ended up as Members of Parliament," he said.
Mr Davinder Singh, a top lawyer, was an MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC from 1988 to 2006. Mr K Shanmugam is the current Law and Home Affairs Minister.
"I think I do know actually that some people have been approached, and their wives and families were reluctant. So I hope they will consider the same question that was put to me and maybe they’ll change their minds," Prof Jayakumar added.
Prof Jayakumar also shared that he was approached by third parties to mediate in the Lee family feud in 2017, but was relieved that he did not have to perform this "Herculean task".
Prime Minister Lee's siblings - Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang - had posted on Facebook allegations that their brother had abused his power in a dispute over their family home at 38 Oxley Road.
He was contacted by the media for his views then, but declined to comment as he felt that airing is views publicly would not have helped.
However, Prof Jayakumar did discuss with ESM Goh and other ministers how he and Mr Goh, who were no longer in the Cabinet, could have helped to protect the Government.
"Subsequently, Chok Tong made helpful comments on his Facebook. Chok Tong and I agreed that we both should keep in close touch and do whatever we could, including mediation, provided all parties were agreeable," he said in his book.
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Prof Jayakumar said that he also wrote to Mr Lee Hsien Loong, suggesting that it was important for him to make a direct address to all Singaporeans, and not just communicate through press releases by the Prime Minister’s Office.
"I was glad that he made a recorded video statement, which was telecast on 19 June 2017. Clearly, he had already thought of this before my suggestion," he wrote.
He added in the book that he was struck by how the Prime Minister "never showed any bitterness or rancour towards his siblings".
"Rather, all that he expressed were feelings of sorrow and sadness that matters had come to such a point," he said.