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Strong party support for Lawrence Wong as 4G leader even without unanimous vote: Political analysts

Strong party support for Lawrence Wong as 4G leader even without unanimous vote: Political analysts

Prime Minister and PAP Secretary-General Lee Hsien Loong and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong at a press conference at the Istana on Apr 16, 2022. (Photo: Ministry of Communications and Information)

SINGAPORE: While the vote to select Finance Minister Lawrence Wong as the leader of the fourth-generation (4G) People’s Action Party (PAP) team was not unanimous, he has very strong party support, political analysts told CNA.

Their comments came after a press conference held on Saturday (Apr 16), which revealed that Mr Wong had received the nod from 15 out of 19 “stakeholders” consulted by retired minister Khaw Boon Wan.

Mr Khaw, who was tasked to facilitate the process of choosing the next 4G leader, had spoken to these individuals separately. The stakeholders – made up of Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin, labour chief Ng Chee Meng and all Cabinet ministers with the exception of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the two Senior Ministers – were asked about their preferred choice and told to rank potential candidates in order of their preference.

With candidates unable to vote for themselves, this means that three people did not cast their vote for Mr Wong.

Associate Professor Eugene Tan from Singapore Management University (SMU) said: “I won’t attach too much significance to the ‘vote’ not being unanimous for Mr Wong. Seeking unanimity is unrealistic.”

The political commentator and law professor added that the outcome shows the “very strong consensus” on Mr Wong being the 4G’s first among equals.

“The challenge now is for the ruling party to close ranks now that the consensus is known and made public,” said Assoc Prof Tan.

Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) political analyst Felix Tan echoed that.

The non-unanimous vote provides “a sense of the reality within the party”, according to Dr Tan.

Ms Nydia Ngiow, managing director at strategic advisory firm BowerGroupAsia Singapore, said the vote only goes to show “the quality of the contenders” within the PAP.

She added that what is important is how both Health Minister Ong Ye Kung and Education Minister Chan Chun Sing congratulated him and highlighted the importance of working together for a strong Singapore.

Both Mr Ong and Mr Chan, alongside Mr Wong, were widely regarded as leading contenders to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Ms Ngiow foresees the two ministers to be picked as Mr Wong’s right-hand men in leading Singapore, adding that “a modern style of collegial leadership and partnership” is to be expected moving forward.

Meanwhile, the decision to consult a smaller group – compared to how other political officeholders like Senior Ministers of State and the Ministers of State were drawn into the process when Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat was previously chosen to lead the PAP’s 4G team – also does not change the significance of the vote for Mr Wong, analysts said.

NTU’s Dr Tan said those consulted this time were individuals who have worked closely with Mr Wong over a significant period of time. These are also 4G leaders that will potentially form part of the new Cabinet should Mr Wong become the next Prime Minister.

“Hence, there is a need to ensure that Mr Wong gets support from this group,” he added.

SMU’s Assoc Prof Tan said that given the PAP’s “internal structure and the predominance of the Cabinet on key matters”, seeking the consensus of the Cabinet first “was highly significant and influential”.

“Even if the views of a larger group were sought, I suspect the consensus would still be strong for Mr Wong to be the 4G leader of leaders,” he added, noting that the political leadership was also mindful to secure the endorsement of non-Cabinet political office holders and the PAP Members of Parliament (MPs).

Mr Lee, who chaired the press conference held at the Istana on Saturday, had said that the MPs, including the other political officeholders, were approached after the ministers had decided on Mr Wong. The MPs, as well as the Prime Minister and the two Senior Ministers, supported the choice.

Assoc Prof Tan suggested that one should look at the announcement of Mr Wong being named as the 4G leader “as an internal decision-making” among the PAP top leaders.

“In that sense, they are entitled to devise their own process so long as it is seen as sufficiently transparent, accountable, and enables the anointing process to be clothed with legitimacy,” he said.

WHO WILL LEAD PAP INTO THE NEXT GENERAL ELECTION?

At the press conference on Saturday, Mr Lee said that whether he or Mr Wong will lead the ruling party in the next general election is a decision to be made later.

“I will discuss with Lawrence, and we will decide later what the best strategy is for us to fight the next general election,” the Prime Minister told reporters, adding that it will depend on “how things evolve”. The next general election must be held by 2025.

Mr Lee, who turned 70 in February this year, had previously said he wanted to step down by the age of 70. He later said he would stay on to see Singapore through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The eyes of Singapore will be on whether it is Lee Hsien Loong or Lawrence Wong who would lead the party in the next election as it would indicate whether the baton of political leadership has truly been passed from the 3G to 4G team," said Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, senior international affairs analyst at Solaris Strategies Singapore.

But the decision to pass the baton to Mr Wong before or after the next polls will hinge on a variety of factors, he added. This includes ground sentiment, readiness of the less-experienced PAP candidates, strength of the opposition, the COVID-19 situation and the state of the economy.

Ms Ngiow said not committing to a specific timeline when it comes to leadership transition will provide Mr Wong with “the space needed and a sufficiently long enough runway … to build public confidence in the 4G leadership”.

NTU’s Dr Tan said there are advantages in having political succession prior to the next general election, such as how the 3G leaders can focus on galvanising support for Mr Wong’s team and sussing out the political reaction to the 4G leaders.

The next election will also become a measure of how much support Mr Wong and his team can receive from the electorate.

On the flip side, the disadvantages would include the possibility of an unfavourable response from the electorate, which would not bode well for Mr Wong’s leadership beyond 2025.

“Hence, there needs to be a balance and PM Lee would need to take into consideration these factors before coming to a decision,” said Dr Tan. “It won't be an easy one.”

SMU’s Assoc Prof Tan reckoned while much will depend on how well-received Mr Wong will be, it is likely that Mr Lee will lead the PAP for one last general election given the relatively short runway to the next polls.

“On the campaign trail, we can expect the ruling party to portray Mr Wong as the worthy successor to Mr Lee,” he said.

Assoc Prof Tan also expects that if the handover does not happen before the next election, it can then be expected to take place within 12 to 18 months after the polls.

“Now that the succession issue is settled, there would be no inordinate delay in the transfer of power if the handover takes place during this period,” he said.

Ms Ngiow noted that regardless of when the transition occurs, both Mr Lee and Mr Wong “will be seen as responsible for improving the PAP’s performance ahead of the next general election". 

“With PAP’s less than ideal performance in 2020, Mr Wong and Mr Lee will likely focus on initiatives and policies targeted at securing better social outcomes for Singaporeans and help the PAP gain more public support,” she said.

Source: CNA/sk

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