By Andrew Loh
Over the weekend, the new Singaporeans First Party (SFP) conducted a walkabout in the Tanjong Pagar group representation constituency (GRC).
Among the more than 20 members and supporters were six of the party’s 10 founding members, including its secretary-general and former presidential candidate, Tan Jee Say.
It is the SFP’s first foray as a political party into grassroots activities, and it is significant that it chose Tanjong Pagar to hold its first outreach event.
Tanjong Pagar, of course, has been the constituency of Singapore’s former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, since he first won the parliamentary seat there in 1955.
Mr Lee, however, is now 91-years old and is unlikely to be fielded in the next general elections, which must be called by January 2017.
This would leave the Tanjong Pagar constituency – which has been uncontested for the last five elections, since it became a multi-seat constituency under the GRC system in 1991 – in the hands of a new minister.
That new minister is Chan Chung Sing, the current minister for the Ministry of Social Development and Family (MSF).
Mr Chan is the former Chief of Army from 2010 to 2011, before he went into politics in the 2011 general elections.
Seen as one of the forerunners to succeed Lee Hsien Loong as Singapore’s fourth prime minister, Mr Chan’s inclusion in the People’s Action Party (PAP) Tanjong Pagar GRC team was thus no surprise.
The GRC system has long been seen as an umbrella for the PAP to shelter its potential ministers from the vicissitudes of electoral politics, and pave an easier path for the candidates to win at the polls while tailcoating a more experienced senior minister.
In 2006, then Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said as much, when he commented on the GRC system:
“Without some assurance of a good chance of winning at least their first election, many able and successful young Singaporeans may not risk their careers to join politics.”
“Why should they when they are on the way up in the civil service, the SAF, and in the professions or the corporate world?”
In other words, an assured path must be paved for those headhunted by the PAP, even (and perhaps, especially) if that person is a general in the armed forces, as Mr Chan was.
But if Mr Lee were to step down at the next elections, it would mean Mr Chan would have to helm the GRC, a daunting task given how Mr Lee has been a larger than life figure in the constituency for so long.
Mr Chan would have, barring any movement to a new ministry, only handled one full portfolio, although he is also the second minister for Defence. This would not have been enough for the party to assess if he could indeed be the next prime minister, especially also when he has not helmed a heavyweight portfolio such as Defence or Finance.
With the current prime minister saying he would like to step down when he is 70, which is a mere 8 years away, Mr Chan does not have much time to prove himself in other areas.
Nonetheless, what is on his side is that the MSF allows him to be more popular than perhaps his colleagues. The ministry manages welfare programmes for the elderly, the sick, children, disabled and families.
Still, the question remains: is Mr Chan ready? More importantly, will he be able to helm and win a GRC for the PAP? This second question is especially pertinent given that he did not go through the proverbial baptism of fire in his maiden election in 2011.
So, 2016 (or 2017) will be his first electoral contest – if he remains in Tanjong Pagar GRC (which in all likelihood he will), or if the constituency is not absorbed into another.
Whether Mr Chan leads his team to victory will be momentous.
A win will not only signal a change at the helm in the PAP Tanjong Pagar team, it will also set the succession plans of the PAP in firmer footing.
In short, the answer to who will become Singapore’s fourth prime minister (and also the next secretary general of the PAP) will then be clearer.
However, if Mr Chan should fail to lead his team to victory, it would also be significant – Mr Lee’s constituency which he has helmed for 60 years finally is lost to the opposition, and more importantly, the PAP’s succession plans for Singapore’s political leadership will be in serious jeopardy.
It may also signal that Singapore indeed will be well on its way to further changes in its political landscape.
In a speech in June 2006, Mr Goh said that the PAP’s “ability to attract capable individuals and its practice of political self-renewal were key to Singapore’s success.”
However, this self-renewal only works if older or more senior leaders make way for younger ones, and do so at an early enough time to allow these younger leaders to cut their own teeth, as it were.
And this is also why the GRC system is flawed – that someone who would be our next prime minister needed to be sheltered in to Parliament.
Mr Chan, if he indeed became Singapore’s fourth prime minister, would be the first one to enter politics through the GRC system, and also through an uncontested walkover.
He thus has something to prove yet.
For Mr Chan, working on an 8-year timeline to succession, he has a short period to hone his mettle in heavyweight ministries – that is, if he can win public support at the next elections first.
This is why the walkabout by the SFP on Saturday is also significant – that for the first time since 1991, Tanjong Pagar may at last be contested by the opposition, and that it may also be a reasonably electable team to boot.
History will be made, whichever box the ballot is ticked – unless Mr Lee chooses to run again.
Barring that, Mr Lee’s final farewell to Tanjong Pagar residents, then, will be as significant as his victory there 60 years ago, whether the PAP wins in the constituency – or not – or not this time round.
The above article was first published on Fresh Grads.