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PM Lee’s Leadership Transition: A Delayed Promise?

Last year, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong’s ascent as the leader of the fourth-generation (4G) leadership of the People’s Action Party (PAP) marked a significant shift in Singapore’s political landscape.

Yet, with the next General Election on the horizon, uncertainty persists about when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (PM Lee) will transfer power to Wong.

This question is fueled by a combination of factors: PM Lee’s increasing age, his earlier commitments to foster a new generation of political leaders, his conspicuous reduction in activity in the 14th Singapore Parliament, and an apparent lack of innovative political ideals in policies that seem more focused on maintaining the status quo rather than introducing transformative change.

The PAP, under PM Lee’s guidance, has traditionally held a supermajority in Parliament, with 83 seats. However, the 2020 election exposed potential cracks in this dominance when the party lost a newly formed Group Representative Constituency (GRC) to the Workers’ Party, which began the parliamentary term with ten MPs.

At 71, PM Lee has steered Singapore’s progress since he became Prime Minister and consistently expressed his intention to facilitate a seamless leadership transition.

During his swearing-in ceremony in 2004, PM Lee stated,

“The next generation of leaders must come from our post-independence generation…leadership succession will be one of my top priorities. 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.”

Yet, nearly two decades later, this generational shift appears to be delayed, prompting many to question PM Lee’s commitment to relinquishing the reins to a younger generation.

The path to this transition has been fraught with challenges.

After GE2020, PM Lee, then 68, suggested that the pandemic might force him to delay his planned handover of power to Heng Swee Keat, who had been groomed as his successor since 2019.

Heng’s subsequent step down from his 4G leadership role in April 2021 due to the runway being “too short” reintroduced uncertainty into the succession issue.

After much speculation, Wong was declared Heng’s replacement last year through a press conference.

Addressing a question about the leadership transition last September, Wong told business leaders at a global conference that he would take over from PM Lee when both he and the PAP 4G team were “ready for it”.

Wong stressed that his priority was addressing pressing issues facing Singapore, which were “taking up a lot of my time”.

This includes matters related to the cost of living, preparing for a possible economic slowdown in 2023, and ensuring Singapore successfully navigates through the ongoing pandemic, given the risk of new Covid-19 mutations.

With Singapore having transitioned past the pandemic and the DORSCON level reduced to green last February, queries arise as to whether this might be an opportune moment for the transition.

Confronted with imminent issues like skyrocketing living expenses and a probable economic deceleration, establishing a defined timeline for leadership transition could grant the nation enhanced stability and guidance.

Additionally, the apparent indecision displayed by the prospective Prime Minister in assuming political authority raises concerns. Can we entrust him with the helm of the nation during turbulent times, as depicted by the PAP?

In any case, PM Lee’s delayed handover, despite appearing methodical and cautious, has raised eyebrows, especially with the upcoming General Election due by 2025 and rumours have it that it is planned to be held within this year.

Adding to this conundrum is PM Lee’s decreased parliamentary activity.

Despite serving as both Prime Minister and Secretary General of the PAP, his contributions to parliamentary proceedings have been limited. Since 2020, PM Lee has only spoken twice in Parliament.

Firstly for the motion to refer Workers’ Party’s Pritam Singh and Faisal Manap to the Public Prosecutors for alleged perjury to the Committee of Privileges, and secondly, during the parliamentary debate on President Halimah Yacob’s address to commence the second term of Parliament.

While some may sympathize with PM Lee’s hesitation – acknowledging that a leadership transition requires careful deliberation and planning, not merely a ceremonial handover – it’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time he’s indicated readiness to step aside. After all, Heng was poised to take over after GE2020.

PM Lee’s continued reluctance to set a definite timeline for succession, coupled with his reduced parliamentary engagement, stokes speculation about his willingness to cede power, thereby amplifying the tension between maintaining the status quo and embracing change.

As Singapore stands at a critical juncture in its political landscape, it is paramount for PM Lee to uphold his 2004 promise – to ensure a smooth transition of leadership to the next generation, thus safeguarding the nation’s future stability and progress.

The question that lingers is whether PM Lee is unwilling to step down from the highest paid civil service position in the world despite the apparent need for a generational shift, and whether he aims to maintain his leadership role until it is no longer feasible.

This is 9 of 60 articles written for the S$30k fundraising of Terry Xu’s contempt of court fine and cost. To see the full list of the 60 articles, visit this page.

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