PM succession doesn’t have to follow old ways

PM Lee with TharmanChan Chun Sing’s promotion to full minister back in August reignited discussion on who is poised to be the next Prime Minister. Succession is expected around the year 2020. Most observers believe Heng Swee Keat and Mr Chan are frontrunners for the job, followed by the likes of Tan Chuan Jin and Lawrence Wong. All four, with Sim Ann, were part of the newly elected “fabulous five” in the 2011 General Election.

Prevalent in the discussion is the legitimate concern that should one of these end up as the next PM, he or she will have less than ten years of political experience on taking over. PM Lee himself lamented recently: “I had twenty years apprenticeship before I took over as PM. I don’t think any other PM in Singapore is ever going to be as lucky as me.”

In that sense, this is a problem the PAP has created for itself. It had two elections — 2001 and 2006 — to produce a successor, but didn’t. For a party that takes pride in its long term planning over short term opportunism, this was a jarring failure.

That is not to say that those elections did not produce any good candidates. In fact, GE 2001 was known for producing the “super seven”, with several holding cabinet positions today. This includes Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Ng Eng Hen, Khaw Boon Wan and the once-promising Vivian Balakrishnan. Outside the seven, Gan Kim Yong from that cohort also became a full minister.

Unfortunately, by the PAP’s own set of rules, they are deemed too old to be taking over as PM. This raises the question of why did the party not introduce younger candidates back then. After all, they would have known all along that PM Lee was sticking around for a good fifteen years.

GE 2006 was more disappointing for the PAP in terms of bringing in future ministers. Only Lui Tuck Yew from that batch is a full minister today, and he has not garnered much confidence in Singaporeans since being made Transport Minister.

As mentioned thus, the PAP can only blame itself for its predicament of having to rush the current new batch of ministers and prepare one of them for the top role. Essentially, it tied its own hands by imposing an unspoken age criterion and then failing to produce members ahead of time to match that criterion.

The political landscape in Singapore is in transition with the opposition gaining stronger and perhaps more permanent ground in parliament. The result is uncertainty for the governing party and a need to display nimbleness in responding to political change. In light of this, it may be a good time to rethink the practice of long tenures for prime ministers that necessitates premature succession when the chosen one may not be ready. The length of service should be reduced from the current norm of about 15 years, to a period more aligned with other democratic nations of no more than 10 years, or 2 election cycles.

Singaporeans have long been taught to associate long tenures with stability and other positive attributes in running a country successfully. Yet this ignores the risk of complacency setting in, the dangers of power build-up and nepotism, and a feeling among disgruntled citizens that leaders are not held accountable when policies go wrong. Unfortunately, whether a result of his own doings or simply bad timing, PM Lee’s reign will be remembered not as an insightful government that pre-empts potential problems, but one belatedly playing catch-up on issues such as overcrowding, unaffordable homes, unfair hiring practices and a widening income gap.

The PAP is going into extra gear to address these issues, such as by accelerating home construction, building more transport links, and clamping down on errant employers. However, it remains to be seen if this is enough to prevent the rising wave of unhappiness from reaching tipping point by the next election.

If not, the best thing the PAP could do to save itself from electoral shock in 2016 may be an earlier-than-expected stepping down by PM Lee. They could play this by announcing in advance a succession plan that will follow soon after polls, say in 2017. While naysayers will put this down as the PM giving way early after an unsatisfactory job, the party could sell the move as planning ahead of expectations and proactive leadership renewal. With fresh hopes for a new man at the helm, undecided voters may be coaxed into staying on course.

This will then narrow the field down to two candidates in particular. Both Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Ng Eng Hen will be around 60 come 2017, boasting about 15 years of ministerial experience each, and ready to lead the country for the next 8 to 10 years. Significantly, they won’t be seen as part of the older generation of leaders such as Teo Chee Hean that an electorate envisioning change might eschew. Assuming the party remains in power, such an arrangement will also give valuable training time to one of the “fabulous five” to take over come 2026, avoiding undue haste.

Between the two, Mr Tharman will be the more popular choice that even the anti-PAP faction finds hard to fault. He also comes with strong credentials and is arguably the only cabinet member with an established international standing, being chairman of the IMF steering committee and a member of the Group of Thirty world leaders in finance. Just last week, he was named Finance Minister of the Year by Euromoney magazine.

While some still believe the country is not ready for a non-Chinese leader, the best way to be ready may well be to let it happen. We don’t know if Mr Tharman was just being politically correct when he supposedly ruled himself out of the job, but a higher calling is always strong persuasion and a real possibility of this happening may be the jolt he needs. The bigger question is if the PAP is bold enough for such a move, or if, as popular perception dictates, it is still too stuck in its old trusted ways.