Recent reports have emphasised the leadership selection that is soon going to take place within the Peoples’ Action Party (PAP). Given that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (PM Lee) has announced that he will be stepping down within the next few years, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam has indicated that a new Prime Ministerial candidate will be named before the next General Election (likely to be at the end of 2019).
In the Westminster system of government which the Singapore system is based on, it is usually the leader of the majority party in Parliament that becomes the Prime Minister. The leader of each political party is usually chosen by popular vote from a list of contenders who put themselves forward for selection. In the PAP however, it would appear that the selection process is a little less direct. There isn’t a leadership contest where contenders will announce their intentions to run. Leaders, it would seem are chosen quietly and presented to the party and the rest of the country. Who actually chooses is a question that has not been directly answered. While Shanmugam has implied that the next leader will not just be chosen by PM Lee by noting that : “people tend to think that founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew chose Mr Goh Chok Tong and Mr Lee Hsien Loong as Singapore’s second and third prime ministers, and that PM Lee will choose the fourth prime minister….. But selecting a leader this way without consensus from the team could lead to leadership challenges, which has happened abroad”, he stopped short of clearly stating the methodology for selection.
Instead he said: “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.” In other words, it would appear that the selection process is fluid. What I gather from this is that PM Lee will handpick the “four, five, six people” and these will then pick among themselves.
This begs the question of how the chosen few are selected in the first place? Without transparency, how can we be certain that it is indeed the most deserving candidate who gets the top job? How do we guarantee that the “four, five or six people” chosen do not work together to advance their own interests if there is a shroud of mystery that hangs over how they are selected and why they are chosen?
Shanmugam deflects his lack of clarity by using the “foreign chaos” bogeyman. He implies that if the new Prime Minister of Singapore is not chosen in this way, we will end up with the chaos of Australia who has had a revolving door of leaders. What I would like to point out however is that despite the change in leaders, Australia is still doing pretty well as a country and in many ways, it is business as usual. Leaders are important but they are certainly not irreplaceable.
Shanmugam crouches his address in a way so as to give the impression that he is divulging the secrets of the selection. However, he hasn’t really said anything. We still don’t know how the new heir apparent will be chosen and we still have no idea what the criteria is.
Isn’t it better for governance if the candidates who are interested put themselves forward and the PAP can then have an open vote among themselves as to who their leader should be? Won’t this be more credible and legitimate? Rather than a murky closed door selection followed by consensus within the chosen few without a formal criteria list or the legitimacy of a vote?
Genuine stability requires trust and trust requires accountability.