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“Frontrunners” for PM: Was there even a race to begin with?

by Han Lang

Given the fact that our students have consistently topped international education rankings, including the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests, it is baffling that our local mainstream media continues to "believe", genuinely or otherwise, that there are three "frontrunners" to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Let's look at the three "frontrunners" as declared by the media.  Before that, anyone keen on this topic should first research and determine who was the first person to list Chan Chun Sing, Heng Swee Keat and Ong Ye Kung as the "frontrunners". That person attributes it to "political observers" but without naming these "political observers", we can draw our own conclusion on what exactly is the agenda for listing these three names.

Anyway,  let's first look at Heng. Born in 1961, Heng is 57 this year. PM Lee is 66 this year and he has indicated two key points relating to succession. The first point is definitive: He will hand over power AFTER the next general election. In early January 2018, he said: "We know it’s a serious matter, a pressing issue, as the younger ministers have already said in their statement and they know my timetable, after next General Election – earlier rather than later – I would like to hand over to a successor."

Unlike the first, the second key point is vague: on him remaining as PM at the age of 70. At an interview six years ago, he was asked if he would still be the PM beyond age 70. He replied: "I hope not. Seventy is already a long time more. And Singapore needs a prime minister who is younger, who's got that energy, and who is in tune with that very much younger and very much different generation."

The next GE is likely to be held in 2020 and on the assumption that the ruling party secures another five-year term, it is realistic to expect that PM Lee will step down a year or two later - when he would be 69 or 70 years old.

Even if PM Lee steps down "earlier rather than later" - say in 2021, Heng will be 60 by then.

For a political party which constantly prides itself on leadership renewal and in bringing in 'top talents' every five years, would it make political sense for a 69-year-old to hand over power to a 60-year-old?

So, how realistic are the chances of Singaporeans greeting the next leader as PM Heng?

Let's then look at Ong who will turn 49 this year. At the age of 52 in 2021, he would be "adhering" to the recent "age-range" of PAP's second and third PMs. PM Lee took over at this age while his predecessor assumed power at 49.

There are however two issues. First, Ong was elected in September 2015 and just two years later, he was proclaimed as one of the three "frontrunners". Even if we ignore the sentiments of the ordinary Singaporeans, how receptive would the ruling party's MPs be?

The second and more important issue relates to Ong's declaration that he already has someone in mind for the top job.

He told a newspaper earlier in January: "I am shaping up in my mind someone who can be the leader amongst us. I am sure my colleagues are thinking of the same issue too", and added that he had considered that person's conviction and ability to drive long-term, important policy.

By saying what he said, Ong is effectively indicating that person (in his mind) is more well-qualified than him for the post of PM.

How does one convince his colleagues that he is the right man to lead Singapore if he himself had already expressed an "inclination" to support another "candidate"?

Perhaps, Ong never had the ambition to become the top man; he could merely be contented to be a player in the team. If so, he deserves respect.

So, if it's not Heng or Ong in 2021 or 2022, who will that be?

If I'm a betting man, I'll place my dollars on Chan. I'm sure most Singaporeans would do likewise.

Then the question arises: So what's this trio of "frontrunners" all about?

Look at PM Lee's recent comments in Parliament. He said: "I do not believe we are ready to settle on a choice yet. Nor is it helpful to treat this either as a horse race, or a campaign to lobby support for one or the other candidate. This is a team game."

Understandably, there are concerns that certain groups within the party and even the ordinary Singaporeans would start lobbying for their preferred candidate. In a recent media interview, PAP MP Lee Bee Wah openly declared that she and her residents had their preferred candidate for the post of PM. While she declined to name hers, she claimed that her residents like Heng.

If lobbying is indeed unhealthy and unwelcome, why didn't the 4G leaders' statement issued in early January request the media to refrain from such "speculation"? I'm sure the media will comply with such a request or directive as unhealthy speculation could impact national unity.

Truth be told, lobbying will continue at various levels - even from business groups. Imagine there are only two "frontrunners" - wouldn't lobbying be even more intense and fierce?

So, perhaps Ong's name was thrown into the ring to lessen the impact.

But would Heng indeed pose any challenge to Ong? Given his age, I doubt so.

The main contender would have been Tan Chuan Jin, who is known to be very popular with his residents and staff wherever he worked.

So, PM is right when he said, in his reply to Low Thia Khiang last week: "He talked about three front-runners. I don’t know how many people are running. I just said it's not a horse race, it is a team."

It's definitely not a horse race. It's a "campaign" to actively promote the merits and strengths of someone who is probably aware that he would be the next PM but he would need to gather the team to rally behind him within the next two years.

My guess is that Chan will be made PM and he would appoint Heng as DPM to cover the economics aspect of governance - similar to what DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam is doing. The other DPM will cover the security aspect of governance and my guess is that it would be K Shanmugam.

If I ever could "vote" for the next leadership trio, I'd like to have Tharman as PM - with Tan Chuan Jin as 1DPM and Ong, Ng Chee Meng or Desmond Lee as 2DPM.

But well, such serious issues are not for ordinary folks like us to determine.

Back to the first line in this article: Our students are bright and it's a matter of time these generations of students would not be as naive as what certain members of the media would assume. There are more meaningful and impactful things to report and uncover, instead of always playing up headlines with the aim of leading Singaporeans to believe that there are many qualified candidates to become Singapore's fourth PM.

Finally, who exactly came up with the idea of naming the three "frontrunners" and for what purpose?