For a small country like Singapore, we probably boast one of the longest period of apprenticeship before a top dog emerges at the top of the pile.
Both Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong served 5 and 14 years respectively as Deputy Prime Minister before they became Prime Minister of Singapore in 1990 and 2004.
But looking at the current batch of potential successors to the PM-ship none of them – whether he be Chan Chun Sing Heng Swee Keat or Ong Ye Kung – have come anywhere near to occupying this important DPM position and yet PM Lee declared his intention of retiring no later than 70. This leaves him currently 65 only 5 years to select and groom from the batch of 3. Thus it would appear quite unlikely that he can have his retirement wish granted.
The timeline problem is further compounded when his favorite nominee Chan Chun Sing has no experience in helming the critical Ministry of Finance which both he and current DPM Tharman have helmed for 7 to 8 years respectively. But unfortunately, Tharman whom many Singaporeans have touted as the most promising candidate for the premiership has been ruled out because of ethnic and ageism reasons*.
Of the 3 current contenders only Heng Swee Keat has the experience of serving as the Minister of Finance since 2015 and prior to that Minister of Education for 4 years. This seems to place him at the head of the queue if not for the fact that he suffered a stroke recently but made a brave and remarkable recovery since and will soon be presenting the budget for 2018.
By the time PM Lee sort out who he will name as DPM the next GE will be around the corner in either 2019 or 2020. This will cut short the period of apprenticeship leaving them less than 5 years to learn the ropes. This is worrying for how is the paper general Chan going to acquire the financial skills to run the government when he has no experience of running even MAS let alone being the Finance Minister of a country squarely founded on the bedrock of state capitalism.
Although ESM Goh has openly asked PM Lee not to procrastinate anymore he has been blithely brushed aside as a mere spectator to the succession game. He may well be asking because he too has his favourite candidate in mind.
One way that PM Lee can buy time for his ultimate succession plan is to harness DPM Tharman to become the next PM while he assumes the position of SM while monitoring the performance of Heng Swee Keat and paper general Chan as DPMs.
This may be the smart thing to do as Tharman is hugely popular and may lead the PAP to score well in the next GE while allowing the 2 DPMs to prove their mettle in an electoral battle fraught with much uncertainties.
It would be interesting to watch how Lee Hsien Loong will handle this last battle in his political career.
In a chess board of many pawns bishops one queen and a castle soon to be vacated there will be many who will want to be king. They will have to look into the mirror and ask:
Mirror mirror on the wall
Who is the fittest of them all?
* Cherian George argues that it is Tharman’s political color that is the reason why he cannot be the next Prime Minister. Read “Singapore’s mystifying political succession“