Suddenly, the Singapore government has begun to look vulnerable as it realizes that all the micromanaging it has done to make the island nation a predictable haven, and thus a chart-topper in living standards rankings, can be thwarted by trends beyond its control. Nowhere is this clearer than in its plans for succession.
It is a country that since its modern founding has only known three leaders, two of them Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of the modern nation and his son and another, Goh Chok Tong,
Throughout the decades since Singapore became a separate country in 1965, the government has operated on the premise that it cannot show uncertainty in its policies and succession planning as investors will think twice about putting their money here. But then fate can intervene in the most unexpected of ways. Singaporeans saw this happening before their eyes when Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Loong nearly collapsed while giving his yearly state of the nation address live on TV on Aug 21. He was exhausted and suffered from dehydration, suddenly appearing fragile, his physicians said. The rally was suspended for more than an hour as doctors checked on Lee's condition. He was ordered to rest and took seven days off, returning to office looking physically sound.
Now looking picture-perfect healthy, the bounce in the prime minister’s step masks two previous health scares he has had, one in February last year when he underwent an operation for prostate cancer and another 24 years ago when he was stricken with lymphoma, which went into permanent remission. But the episode during the state of the nation address kicked off questions over who could take over, especially if something more ominous were to happen to him. And fate also intervened in February this year to take the Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, the most likely minister to succeed him, out of the equation after he suffered a stroke and collapsed during a Cabinet meeting. This throws up a never-before experienced predicament: It is not anymore about who – but where – is the next Prime Minister?
Years before Lee Kuan Yew stepped aside in 1990, Singaporeans knew that Goh Chok Tong would take over. And even before Goh became PM, Singaporeans knew that Lee Hsien Loong would follow him. In fact, the popular belief then was that a decent interval was needed for the son to become PM and Goh became the seat warmer. But Singapore’s political succession has fallen into disarray long before the health scares. Despite years of theoretically preparing for new leadership, the new team of political leaders from the PAP is relatively inexperienced as they appeared on the horizon only five years ago. Goh and Lee Hsien Long had longer periods of induction – the former for 14 years and the latter 20 years. And with the Prime Minister sticking to his guns that he will step aside soon after the next general election, which has to be held by January 2021, the succession timeline has been compressed greatly. There is no one in sight to take over. Two military officers who were inducted into politics – Chan Chung Sing and Tan Chuan Jin – are possibilities. But Chan hasn’t displayed the charisma needed to mobilize a nation and Tan has not made much of an impact in roles in the very important Ministries of Manpower and Family and Social Development. Then there is the dark horse, Ong Ye Kung, formerly the Director of Group Strategy at Keppel Corporation, former Assistant Secretary-General of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), formerly the Chief Executive Officer of the Singapore Workforce Development Agency, but most important probably, Hsien Loong’s principal private secretary.
Ong, however, lost his first electoral test in 2011 and was persuaded by the PM to fight in the next election four years later. Ong fought in a very safe constituency and sailed through with hardly a battle. The smart money is on him for the prime ministership. He presents himself cogently in front of an audience. He articulates issues and policies that are a little left of center and comes across as a thinker. As some would say, he is in the mould of George Yeo, the affable, intellectual and visionary former Foreign Minister.
Even if none of these young ministers are ready for the job by early 2021, the PM has an option. The two Deputy Prime Ministers, Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, can easily step in as interim PM. Shanmugaratnam is the obvious and popular choice as his credentials, both in Singapore and elsewhere, are unquestionable. But he is ruled out because despite Singapore’s loudly expressed egalitarianism, he is an ethnic Indian and archaic thinking in the establishment has it that the majority Chinese won’t accept him. In matters like race, Singapore is still predictable.