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None of potential 4th generation PMs meet LKY’s criteria of having “big bulk”

by Vincent Low

In a Facebook post today (27 Feb), PM Lee said that there would be a Cabinet reshuffle after Parliament takes a mid-term break. This will give the younger ministers more exposure and responsibility, he said.

"This way, my successor will be supported by a stronger and more experienced team, committed to leading Singapore to a better and brighter future," PM Lee wrote.

Parliament will be taking a break after the present Budget debate is over. It is expected to end on 9 March.

PM Lee also said that he has asked the 4th generation ministers to draft the Government's agenda for the President's Address when the new parliamentary session opens in May. "It will give Singaporeans a better sense of them and their thoughts," he said.

Not appointing any DPMs

In January, PM Lee has said that the Cabinet reshuffle will be "a significant step in exposing and building the new team of leaders", although he does not plan to appoint any new deputy prime ministers.

On the last day of last year, ESM Goh Chok Tong suddenly posted a Facebook message urgently asking the 4th generation PAP ministers to choose the next PM amongst them. He wanted to see the PM-designate in place in the next 6 to 9 months.

ESM Goh's posting triggered PM Lee to respond in January, saying that appointing the next PM-designate (i.e, DPM) would take "little bit longer".

He also rebuked ESM Goh publicly for wanting the 4th generation ministers to choose the next PM amongst themselves. PM Lee said, "ESM (Goh) is speaking with the privilege of watching things rather than being responsible to make it happen."

In the past, People's Action Party (PAP) would let the designated PM to work under the PM for a number of years before succeeding as the next PM of Singapore. ESM Goh was the designated PM working
under Lee Kuan Yew for nearly 6 years before he took over as PM in 1990 (he was First DPM from 1985 to 1990). And when ESM Goh became the PM then, PM Lee himself was promoted to become DPM working along side with ESM Goh as PM-designate for the next 14 years before becoming PM in 2004.

Identifying someone early, as proposed by ESM Goh, has its advantages. The PM-designate can be given more significant tasks to the extent of running the Government day to day, as was the case for Goh when he was the First DPM. With the added responsibility, the PM-designate can show to everyone that he can hold his own. Acting early also ensures room for manoeuvre. If he doesn't pass, there is time to explore alternatives.

Then, there is another issue. In the past, PAP PMs did not stay beyond 70. PM Lee was born in Feb 1952 and will be turning 70 in 2022, which means he only has about four years to hand over to a successor and step down as PM. ESM Goh's call makes sense because the PM-designate, if chosen this year, will have at least 4 years to work as an understudy.

ST Editor wants PM Lee to stay on instead

Then, ST Insight Editor Elgin Toh published an article on 2 Feb advocating PM Lee to continue to lead Singapore as PM, well beyond age 70.

"If the purpose is to entrust the mantle of leadership to the next generation, then a more sensible third option is to give the younger ones more time by having PM Lee stay on as PM for slightly longer, beyond the original timeline. This ensures continuity, while the succession issue is worked out," Editor Toh wrote.

"If called on by circumstances to do so, one hopes PM Lee would not refuse to stay on for perhaps a few more years after 70," he added.

"It gives enough time for the changing of the guard to happen smoothly and uneventfully. It is an option that merits serious consideration."

No 4th generation PM meets LKY's criteria to be one

In any case, mainstream media has been saying that the next PM would come from one of them: Heng Swee Keat, Chan Chun Sing and Ong Yee Kung.

In his book, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew did talk about the 4th generation ministers in the Cabinet.

In particular, he singled out Heng Swee Keat, whom he described as "the best Principal Private Secretary I ever had".

"The only pity is that he is not of a big bulk, which makes a difference in a mass rally. But he has one of the finest minds among the civil servants I have worked with."

Going by the late Mr Lee's criteria, it looks like none of the 3 potential 4th generation PMs would make the cut since all 3 are not of "big bulk" (in Hokkien, it's called "Tua Mao").