In a small nation where governance plays a pivotal role in all areas, a steady transition of political leadership is crucial, according to Minister of Home Affairs K Shanmugam.
Speaking at the launch of the 9th Corporate Governance Week by the Securities Investors Association (Singapore) yesterday (24 Sep), Mr Shanmugam emphasised that any leadership setbacks and obstacles will produce great consequences not only within the arena of politics, but also in areas such as business and civil society.
Noting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's intention to step down from his post by the time he turns 70 in 2022, Mr Shanmugam revealed that "There's got to be a GE (general election) before that, and there's got to be some sort of indication to the public as to what the slate looks like in terms of the top leadership well before the GE".
The incumbent PAP CEC, chaired by PM Lee as the secretary-general of the party, was elected on 4 Dec two years ago, and has Mr Chan Chun Sing and Mr Ong Ye Kung as its organising secretaries. Both Mr Chan and Mr Ong are said to be in the run for Mr Lee's current position. However, Mr Ong denied that he had someone else in mind to fill the top post, in an interview with The Straits Times earlier this year.
Mr Shanmugam, who is also the Law Minister, reasoned that such an approach - having in store a team of potential leaders in their 30s or 40s to succeed the incumbent ones, and to place them in different designations within the Government Cabinet and the party itself - is adopted by the PAP in order to minimise the possibility of a coup.
In anticipation of the political succession, the People's Action Party (PAP) has formed a Central Executive Committee (CEC), of which the members will be elected during the ruling party's biennial conference.
"That team has been put through its paces, has held a variety of ministerial portfolios. They still need a little bit more time with Singaporeans so that Singaporeans can see them and assess them for themselves."
"You bring in four, five, six people who form the core. You give them different portfolios, you give them different party assignments, then you put them together and say you go and choose. If they have chosen, then it's less likely, not impossible, but less likely that they will go against whoever is in power."
"The cadre members are usually based on branches so... if you don't like the prime minister, within Cabinet if you can get about seven to eight ministers on your side, it's a fair bet that they will be able to swing their cadre members from their branches and their GRCs," he said, in reference to the group representation constituency (GRC) system, under which contain several Members of Parliament (MPs) in a constituency, and is headed by a minister.
"So then you form a team either quietly, as happened in the early 60s, or openly, and then you stand for elections at the CEC [...] if you get the majority, and then you tell the prime minister, "You are no longer secretary-general of the party, please step down"... That's how a coup takes place," added Mr Shanmugam.
"Why am I telling you all these things? To say that these things are real, they are not impossible, they can happen, particularly when you have a dominant prime minister like the current prime minister stepping down," he cautioned.
Processes such as the election of the CEC, in Mr Shanmugam's view, minimises the potential of setbacks that "don't do the country any good" in choosing a new prime minister for Singapore.
Commenting on the prospect of allowing Singaporeans to elect the prime minister instead of leaving it to the PAP or party's CEC, he cautioned that such an approach "fails in so many places" globally.
"Each (contender) has got to present himself or herself in a way that appeals publicly. Do you think the others will then work for him when he gets elected or will they leave, and what damage does that do to the political psyche?" he said.
"Is that sort of public posturing, that sort of public process, really good?"
Mr Shanmugam added that the person who will be selected as the next prime minister eventually has to contest in the general election anyway, adding: "And then Singaporeans will have a say... And if you're not good, you will be out."
ESM Goh Chok Tong hopes to see successor by end of the year, but PM Lee Hsien Loong not ready to name one after 14 years
Earlier in January this year, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, in a Facebook post, sketched out what he hopes would be a timeline for the formal designation of the next prime minister.
Mr Goh wrote, "One urgent challenge I would like to see settled is our fourth generation leadership. Every succession is different, but one thing remains the same: each cohort will have to pick one amongst themselves to lead, and support him. I hope the current cohort will do so in 6 - 9 months' time. Then PM can formally designate their choice as his potential successor before 2018 ends."
He further adds, "Whoever is chosen, the team will have to work together, bring in others, and gel to form a cohesive fourth generation Cabinet. They must write a new inspiring chapter for Singapore, be courageous to make difficult decisions, stand tall with integrity, and earn the respect and trust of Singaporeans and the world at large."
PM Lee had said during his swearing-in speech as Prime Minister on 12 August 2004, that finding a successor was his “top priority”. He professed at the Istana, “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”.
However, PM Lee Hsien Loong said in response to ESM Goh's comment at a later event: "ESM (Goh) is speaking with the privilege of watching things rather than being responsible to make it happen. I think we know it's a very serious matter."
"Also, they (4G ministers) need a bit of time for Singaporeans to get a feel of them - not just to be known as public figures, but to be responsible for significant policies... carrying them, justifying them, defending them, adapting them, making them work, and showing that they deserve to lead," PM Lee added.
"I would not be able to say for certain that it will be settled within the next six to nine months, but it will have to be done in good time."
"Successor designation - that will depend on the dynamics and I would not say that that is imminent," he said. "If it is settled, everybody will know."
He again made similar comments at another event in May, saying that he did not “believe we are ready to settle on a choice yet," and "nor is it helpful to treat this either as a horse race or a campaign to lobby support for one candidate or the other.
"This is a team game, and we want a strong, cohesive team so [that] Team Singapore is the winner."