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Is GE 2011 about PAP leadership renewal?

Andrew Loh


“Out of this election, we must produce Singapore’s fourth Prime Minister and a core team of younger Ministers who will take over from the present team.”

-       Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, NTU, 29 October 2010. (Source)

As you can see, SM Goh was quite unequivocal about the matter. “We must produce Singapore’s fourth Prime Minister…” in the upcoming election. (Emphasis mine.)

SM Goh’s remarks at NTU were his second which referred to this search for the missing link which will propel Singapore into a glorious future.

In August 2009, at the inaugural Asia-Middle East Media Roundtable, he lamented how the current Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, is finding it tough to look for a successor. Nonetheless, SM Goh expressed hope that “Singapore's fourth Prime Minister could be among the new faces fielded in the next general election.”

It’s a strange thing for the SM to say, really. Why would SM Goh and his party, the People’s Action Party, put pressure on the party’s new candidates and the party itself by turning the spotlight on the new faces in such an explicit manner? I can imagine how each of the new candidates might feel being singled out as Singapore’s potential fourth PM. Indeed, the media and Singaporeans have started to wonder which of the PAP’s new candidates would next occupy the PM’s office at the Istana, after the incumbent steps down.

Perhaps knowing that he has unduly applied pressure on the newbies his party will be fielding in the GE, two ministers have recently played this down.

First there was Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, Mr Teo Chee Hean.

“We can never tell,” Mr Teo said, when asked by reporters if PM Lee’s replacement is among the new batch of PAP candidates. “All we can do is to make sure that we have a system that continues to bring in good people,” he explains. Then he goes on:

“We don’t want a random process where somebody has no experience and is an unknown quantity. It may be nice for a change but he comes in and either runs your GRC and you don’t know whether he’s going to deliver, or more dramatically, if he comes in and runs your country and you don’t know what he is and whether he is going to deliver.” (Yahoo News)

That’s fair enough, I guess. But I wonder if that could be applied to Lee Kuan Yew back in the good old days when he was a rookie lawyer.

But I digress.

Mr Teo was clearly trying to play down what SM Goh had well, decreed – that “we must produce the fourth” PM in the next GE.

Singapore will be selecting its fourth generation leaders in the coming General Election, Channel Newsasia (CNA) reported Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan as having said. He added that “succession planning is one of the strategies of the ruling People's Action Party.” That was about it, as far as the CNA report is concerned.

Notice Mr Khaw didn’t say “fourth Prime Minister” but “fourth generation leaders”.

But one could say this is all semantics, despite the subtleties of politics which any political observer would be able to decipher.

Be that as it may, the question which voters must ask themselves is this: Is this coming elections really about leadership renewal?

PM Lee has been in office hardly 10 years. In fact, only seven. While looking forward is good, one must also not forget the past and the present – and assess the performance of the incumbent. And to me, at least, that is what this (and indeed every General Election) is about.

Leadership renewal is important, of course. But it is not the only issue, which undoubtedly the PAP will be playing up soon, in a General Election.

Singaporeans face many challenges. It has become almost a litany – a list of concerns which has not been adequately addressed by PM Lee’s administration.

The recent Budget has been given the thumbs down for not meeting Singaporeans’ needs. Almost 75 per cent of some 6,000 people in a Straits Times poll said the Budget did not meet their expectations.

The prices of HDB flats continue to rise unabated, despite two “cooling measures” having been introduced to quell it.

Our birth rate is languishing at the bottom of the barrel.

The number of foreigners and foreign workers remain the major concern of workers. Wages have not risen. Inflation is expected to rise to record level this year. Older workers face employment discrimination. So do women who’re pregnant. What about the disabled?

The Finance Minister boasts that the Government will increase workers’ salary by 30 per cent over the next 10 years – but he does not explain exactly how he is going to do this, especially when our GDP growth is expected to slow to 4-6 per cent annually. Forget the anomaly of this year’s 14.5 per cent GDP. We’re not going to have this level of artificial growth, perhaps ever again.

How do we address the low productivity? Just by skills upgrading, which the Government seem to suggest?

Yet, as PAP MP Indranee Rajah herself proudly proclaimed in a Talking Point episode on television, the PAP Government’s productivity drive has been around for “a good 30 or more years”. (See here: at 3:10 mins.)

A “good 30 or more years” of productivity drive and what has been the result? Just last year, the Business Times reported that Singapore’s productivity level “took the biggest dive” among advanced economies. The report also said “Singapore did just as badly in the standard GDP per employed person measure.” (Business Times.)

Mr Tharman also does not say how his drive to up productivity will affect the family life of the average Singaporean. Will they have to work longer hours (even though Singaporeans already put in the most number of work hours per week, in the world) despite skills improvement? Will improved productivity lead to job security, especially for older workers who face discrimination at work – even in Government-linked companies?

Even younger Singaporeans are stressed out.

In a study just last year, conducted by Royal Philips Electronics, young adults aged 18-24 are more stressed than their older counterparts, and are not satisfied with the amount of free time for family and friends.

“Fear of losing jobs, not saving enough money for the future and economic uncertainty are making young Singaporeans worry about suffering from depression, anxiety and cancer.”

These are just some of the real concerns Singaporeans have, going forward.

So, when we go to the polls, we should not be too concerned about the PAP’s leadership renewal. The last five years have shown that the PAP’s policies are hurting, rather than helping, Singaporeans.

Housing policies is one. Healthcare another. The many changes to the CPF yet another. And of course, the PAP’s immigration policy.

Look around you. Has anything really changed as far as the PAP’s immigration policy is concerned, besides the S$100 hike in foreign workers’ levy? You take the trains, so you know. You are the one who go and apply for a job, so you know. You are the one who can’t purchase a HDB flat, so you know. We all eat at the coffeeshops and hawker centres, so we know.

The question therefore is: Do we want more of this kind of leadership? That is what Singaporeans will be voting for if they cast their ballot for the PAP.

Does anyone see any changes to the PAP’s policies in the Budget announcement?

Do we expect them to change when the new Parliament sits after the next elections?

I do not.

Leadership renewal to me means having a different composition of Parliament. That’s where legislation is made. And only when we have enough non-PAP members in there will policy change.

So, lets be clear. The PAP first talked about looking for a fourth Prime Minister. Then it seems they became unclear about this. “Fourth PM” then became “fourth generation leaders”.

It is, to me at least, the PAP’s attempt to sidestep all the issues which Singaporeans are concerned about, and the many failures of their policies under Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

So, what do you do? Throw a smoke bomb, and create a bit of anxiety about the future. It’s an old game which the PAP plays at every election. Holes have appeared in many of its policies which the PAP now hopes to cover up – in the lead-up to the GE – by peddling its “Leadership Renewal” koyok.

But whether it is a fourth Prime Minister or fourth generation leaders, if the PAP is returned to power with an outrageous majority, these will all be wearing white anyway. It’ll be nothing more than a reshuffling of feathers. The chicken remains the same.

At the Ministerial Forum at the Nanyang Technological University last year, 23-year old student, Lim Zi Rui, described how he no longer felt any affiliation for Singapore.

“When I was younger, I was very proud of being a Singaporean. But that was about five, ten years ago. Five years later, with all the changes in policies and the influx of foreign talent, I really don’t know what I’m defending anymore.” (Yahoo News.)

And SM Goh’s comeback?

“If the majority feel they don’t belong here, then we have a fundamental problem. Then I would ask myself: What am I doing here? Why should I be working for people who don’t feel they belong over here?”

Perhaps it is time to add a little different colour to the House – and bring in new alternative leaders.

And who knows, our fourth Prime Minister may indeed emerge from this coming elections – just that he may not be wearing white.

And that is not necessarily a bad thing – given what has happened in the last five years.

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Note:

Here’s a quick look at the ages when our three PMs took office.

Lee Kuan Yew – 35-years old

Goh Chok Tong – 50-years old

Lee Hsien Loong – 52-years old

MM Lee was 67 when he stepped down as PM in 1990. Lee junior’s predecessor, SM Goh, was 63 when he made way for the younger Lee in 2004.

PM Lee is 59-years old this year.

It would seem that the age of 60-plus is a time to step down as Head of Government. PM Lee thus has some 10 years or so before he gets to high heaven and become Senior Minister Lee.