by Law Kim Hwee
Let us keep in mind two truths; one, the leadership of People's Action Party (PAP) should and must not be conflated with Singapore leadership and two, Singaporeans deserve the leaders and leadership we elect.
It was the first generation PAP leaders (not just late Lee Kuan Yew himself alone) who realized the critical importance of early leadership renewal to Singapore. To a large extent - and to all their credit, including Mr Toh Chin Chye (who objected to the pace of leadership renewal) – they showed they were able to attract a diverse 2nd generation of potential leaders compared to the mostly SAF ones Singaporeans now live with.
Fast forward to the day, 13 Aug 2004, when Lee Hsien Loong was sworn in as Prime Minister. This was what he promised Singaporeans:
Hence, leadership succession will be one of my top priorities. We must continue to search for younger Singaporeans in their early 30s and 40s to rejuvenate the team, to inject new perspectives and to prepare for leadership succession at all levels - ministers, MPs, at the grassroots, in the trade unions
Make no mistake of the significance. That "leadership succession" commitment was the first he mentioned in his speech after all the introductory remarks.
Then, as if to convince Singaporeans further, he restated his intention, days later at his first National Rally on 22 Aug 2004.
But sadly, after the "top priority" was paid its lip service, he conveniently forgot about it for the next 13 years in all his major speeches...except when it suited his PAP immediate goals to gain votes during election time in order to continue PAP's dominance of parliament.
Sadder still, no MPs, no grassroots leaders nor anyone in trade unions - and least of all, the Straits Times (ST) - say anything to hold Lee Hsien Loong to account for his "top priority" commitment. The latter only reports only on the issue what they appear to be instructed to report to Singaporeans. Incredibly, ST editors and writers spin the issue in a way that is almost entirely positive:
More than that, to try to cover up for the fake or failed loong-in-the-tooth promise, ST even offers as an "insight" (how else to characterise the propaganda since it is their Insight Editor who wrote it?) for Singaporeans as a fall-back plan, "Should PM Lee Hsien Loong lead beyond 70?"
Or are there some unknown, unknowable or unmentionable motivations for PM Lee to continue for longer? Our guess is as good as...well, it's already happened, let's move on.
So, how did the PAP end up with a break to their vaunted and tooted boast and promise of ensuring PAP-type continuity for Singaporeans? Maybe, Goh Chok Tong is getting a taste of his own silly, ineffectual "ownself-check-ownself" prescription, evidenced by his need to nudge the issue.
Regardless all the charade that is played out, narrated entirely by PAP-controlled media to make up for the situation, what are the possible explanations.
One, Lee Hsien Loong, for all his initial claims of leadership renewal as a "top priority", has been overwhelmed by other matters that crossed his path.
Two, he must understand how important and helpful it is to put in place a successor on a long runway as preparation to take over from him. He himself was given no less than 17 years full cabinet experience across various ministries. Why would he deny his potential successor that exposure and benefit? For fear that the latter will outshine his performance as PM?
Three, his leadership style and performance could not win over the many potential successors (with track records other than in the SAF or civil service) who we will never know.
Four, could it be possible that Lee Hsien Loong wants to cling on to his premier position for reasons best known to himself?
Or a combination of some or all the above possibilities to explain the failure. Objectively speaking, it is a FAILURE if and when you set out a goal but does not achieve it. If not, it is a FAKE commitment all along. In which case, it is a success since you manage to achieve your hidden agenda under the cover of the stated goal.
Thinking Singaporeans may wish to hold the PAP they have elected to account on this leadership renewal planning commitment, which was used to gain their votes and ask, "Is that a fake or failed loong-in-the-tooth promise?"