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Lee Kuan Yew planned leadership succession well ahead of time but current Cabinet has yet to identify Singapore’s 4th PM

by Kwok Fangjie

The late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew has been lauded as someone whose foresight, hard work and determination brought Singapore to what it is today.

As one of the nation’s top lawyers put it, the late Mr. Lee was a “genius who, more than anyone, understood human nature and societies, who had the third eye and could see trends and dangers which we mere mortals were blind or oblivious to”.

In terms of leadership renewal, such foresight was also noted by Professor Cherian George as he was more than willing to allow succession rather than hold onto power like other strongmen. Mr. Lee was lauded for having a “hyper-rational, unsentimental view of life. He knew time changes everything, and that people grow old, get weak, and die”.

This was similarly affirmed by his successor Goh Chok Tong in an interview with the Straits Times, saying that the PAP’s “leadership succession is unique, as with almost everything you see in this country” before adding that “Nothing is left to chance” and that Mr. Lee Kuan Yew “planned the leadership handover to ensure that Singapore would continue to thrive after him."

Political experts: None of the successors identified have profiles as prominent as the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew

As Singapore moves into a new political era, the issue of succession has come into light after current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that he would not continue as Prime Minister in the next term. Three people have been identified as his successor – Minister Heng Swee Keat, Minister Chan Chun Seng and Minister Ong Ye Kung.

While political analysts have suggested that one of them become Deputy Prime Minister to gain exposure before taking the top job, this is unlikely to materialise in the upcoming cabinet reshuffle. More worryingly, it remains to be seen if any of these will have the clear-cut mandate or ability to lead Singapore to greater heights.

Assistant Professor Alan Chong from the Nanyang Technological University was quoted as saying that the best scenario “is to continue to pick strong personalities.. someone close to the stature of Lee Kuan Yew, but there's no such person" before adding that the next PM could be chosen based on "very thin arguments.".

A similar tone was echoed by Garry Rodan, Director of the Asia Research Center of Australia's Murdoch University, “None of the most touted contenders have high profiles outside Singapore" before adding that “Lee Kuan Yew remained a force in foreign policy networks and the regional and global order was more stable" during the 1990s when former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong took over.

Surviving in an increasingly turbulent world

While more than two-thirds of Singapore’s economy are reliant on trade, the country faces increasingly challenges in an increasingly turbulent world as compared to the past decade. In fact, external factors have strongly suggested that there is an impetus to disrupt trade in the region.

The USA – Singapore’s largest trading partner - has taken a more protectionist stance while China has become increasingly assertive China in the region. The state-run Chinese Media published a commentary that small states should not make unreasonable demands in an apparent reference to Singapore, after PM Lee’s remarks at the 2015 White House State Dinner.

A recent article in the Bangkok post have suggested that there are talks to open the Kra Canal has again surfaced whereby the shipping routes could pass the narrowest point of Thailand, linking Andaman Sea to the Gulf of Thailand thereby bypassing Singapore’s ports altogether.

Confidence in leadership of the future?

Surviving in a turbulent economy has – and will no doubt continue to have – impact on economic well-being. On average, private sector economists have estimated a growth forecast of 3.2% for 2018 for Singapore. This is a far cry below the compounded growth of 9.3% during LKY-era and 5.1% for the rest of the South-east Asian region.

Clearly, the next leader has big shoes to fill. Do you have faith in the PAP's ability to lead Singapore into increasingly challenging world?