Wednesday 7 October 2015

Shaping Singapore's 4th-gen leadership

Last Thursday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and 30 members of his new Cabinet team were sworn in at the Istana. Among them are those who will be at the core of the next generation of leaders. And they will have to decide among themselves who will eventually head the next team. Insight looks at how the fourth-generation leadership could be shaped.
By Tham Yuen-C, Assistant Political Editor and Charissa Yong, The Sunday Times, 4 Oct 2015

Urgent. Critical.

"The clock is ticking, we have no time to lose," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the swearing-in of his new Cabinet last Thursday.

With Singapore's top political leader making these pronouncements about leadership renewal, one could be forgiven for worrying that well-laid plans for succession may have hit a snag.

After all, Mr Lee, 63, has said that he hopes not to continue as Prime Minister into his 70s, and that he wants the next team to take over soon after the next general election, which must be called by 2021.

By then, PM Lee would have been at the helm for some 17 years, and in politics for more than 37 years.

With the new Cabinet sworn in at the Istana, the bulk of the next- generation leaders are in place.

Several in this group, though, have been in Cabinet for just one term - having been appointed after the 2011 General Election - while others are among those elected at the Sept 11 polls this year.

Political observers say that means a much shorter runway before they take over the controls of the Government. As Dr Lam Peng Er of the National University of Singapore's East Asian Institute put it: "They are expected to perform like Harrier jets and do a vertical take-off."

The military aircraft, first produced in the 1960s, are revolutionary for being capable of short take- offs and landings. Will Singapore's fourth-generation leaders be expected to do the same?

Insight looks at how a shortened preparation time affects training and testing, and what this means for leadership succession here.

Faster succession 'likely the new norm'
As Singapore's leaders gear up for what will be the country's third leadership transition some time after the next general election, Tham Yuen-C and Charissa Yong look at past leadership transitions, the process by which the fourth-generation leadership will be decided, and whether having a shorter preparation time matters
By Charissa Yong and Tham Yuen-C, Assistant Political Editor, The Sunday Times, 4 Oct 2015


Politicians destined for the top-most tiers in Singapore have typically spent a good number of years in various posts - starting out as parliamentary secretaries or ministers of state and being rotated through various ministries, before they are deemed ready for ministerial responsibilities.

The approach has always been to identify a team of rising stars early, assign important tasks to them, and then promote them when they make good.

Under this process, the team of leaders for the next generation gradually emerges and spends time working closely together, before they finally take over at the helm.

PM Lee himself spent 20 years in politics - from the time he entered politics in 1984, became a junior office-holder and then Cabinet minister - before his appointment as Prime Minister in 2004.

Likewise, his predecessor, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who entered politics in 1976, had 14 years under his belt before he took over as prime minister from Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 1990.

Both men were given key tasks early. Mr Goh was appointed senior minister of state for finance; and Mr Lee, minister of state for trade and industry and defence.

Mr Lee was also asked to chair an Economic Committee, which recommended changes to long-established policies to reduce business costs and revive the economy during a severe recession, as well as policies to foster longer-term growth.

The ministers who formed part of their leadership teams also entered politics around the same time as them. They, too, were put through their paces over the years.

By comparison, five years is all the time that some of Singapore's fourth-generation leaders will have to prepare themselves, if they are to take over governing the country on time and according to plan, some time soon after the next general election.

By Singapore standards, this may seem a tad too short. But is it really?

Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies Tharman Shanmugaratnam points out that in most other countries, leaders are given one or two years to take over and, sometimes, not even a year.

Speaking at a press conference about the current succession situation when the new Cabinet line-up was announced on Sept 28, he said: "We are never in an ideal situation for succession. But this is as good as it gets, where we have experienced people still in Cabinet, and we have a new team, each of whom are solid people with their own track records both in and out of Government."

He added: "In most countries, you are given one or two years to take over, sometimes not even a year. Here, we have got five years, shorter than it has been for the normal practice in Singapore, but I think entirely doable because these are good men and women, and we have got experienced hands still in Cabinet."

Retired MPs and politicians tell Insight this accelerated succession planning process will likely become the new norm, given how politics in Singapore is evolving.

They point out that people are entering politics at an older age - many in their 40s instead of 30s - after they have built up their credentials and gained experience elsewhere.

This means they will have less time to get up to speed in the Cabinet.

And with elections becoming more hotly contested, the leadership renewal process has become less predictable, since it is dependent on potential leaders being elected in the first place.

In the 2011 General Election, for instance, one of those identified as being of ministerial calibre, former civil servant Ong Ye Kung, contested as part of the People's Action Party team in Aljunied GRC. But the team lost to the Workers' Party.

Just elected into Parliament on Sept 11 this year, Mr Ong has lost five years of training.

But PM Lee has a plan to speed up the process.

He has made what he described as a "decisive move", and has thrown younger ministers into the deep end, entrusting them with major responsibilities. Mr Ong, for example, has been appointed an Acting Education Minister along with another newcomer, former chief of defence force Ng Chee Meng.

To speed up the learning process, the Prime Minister also put new office-holders in nearly all of the 15 ministries.

Elaborating on his plans for the fourth-generation team, PM Lee said in his speech at the Cabinet swearing-in ceremony last Thursday: "They have to be tested, learn the ropes, prove themselves and shake down as a team. Increasingly, they will carry the Govern- ment's programme - initiating, explaining and executing policies, and persuading people to support these policies which will increasingly be their policies."


There are two parts to the training regime for core members of the fourth-generation leadership.

One, key leaders are put in charge of portfolios relatively new to them, to give them broader experience and stretch them.

Two, coordinating ministers will oversee their progress and mentor them.

Former MPs who have held office say this process is broadly similar to what they went through in the past.

Although they were not made ministers right away, they were sometimes asked to handle portfolios they had little or no expertise in.

Working alongside the ministers in charge, they could benefit from the guidance of their seniors.

The former MPs, several of whom asked not to be identified, said it was common practice for newcomers to be given specific portfolios within ministries, so they could be better evaluated on their work.

This appears to be the case with Mr Ong and Mr Ng, who are both in charge of education - a key portfolio - but who will have different areas of focus.

Mr Ong will oversee the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), polytechnics, universities, private education institutions, continuing education and training, as well as skills upgrading and workforce training.

Mr Ng will oversee pre-school education, special education and, critically, general education, that is, primary and secondary schools as well as junior colleges and centralised institutes.

Meanwhile, ministers from the 2011 batch have also been moved around so they have the opportunity to prove their mettle in different areas. Former culture, community and youth minister Lawrence Wong has moved to the National Development Ministry - a portfolio with heavy responsibilities - where he will oversee public housing and national infrastructure plans.

And former education minister Heng Swee Keat now heads the Finance Ministry. He has also been tasked with chairing a committee on the "Future Economy" that will study the ongoing heavy task of restructuring Singapore's economy.

PM Lee and the three coordinating ministers will mentor the newcomers.

Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean, and Mr Tharman are both former education ministers, while Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure Khaw Boon Wan was national development minister in the previous Cabinet.

Observers liken the process of being catapulted to the top to hothousing, a crucible from which capable top ministers can emerge.

Associate Professor Hussin Mutalib from the National University of Singapore's political science department, speaking to Insight, says: "PM Lee is expected to bite the bullet and take the risk of giving every minister, including the new ones, the chance to run his ministry in the way he thinks best - and answer to the repercussions, both from the Cabinet and the public.

"In this way, there will emerge, those who rise to the occasion and those who do not make it."

The 2011 group of ministers have not stayed for more than a term in the same portfolio. They and the 2015 batch may not even stay for a full term, as they may be moved to helm new ministries after a mid-term review, which PM Lee said he will undertake.

Mr Chan Chun Sing, for instance, was social and family development minister for less than two years - from September 2013 to May this year - before he relinquished the post to become Minister in the Prime Minister's Office.

The labour movement also appointed him secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress. Taking over from him, as Social and Family Development Minister, was his batchmate, Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, who was acting manpower minister from August 2012 and then, manpower minister from May last year.


Former MP Inderjit Singh thinks the younger ministers will have the benefit of the experience and wisdom of the more senior ministers.

These seasoned hands can act as sounding boards for plans and strategies developed by the junior ministers - and also as safety nets.

"There will be a lot more handholding, so that decisions can be made quickly, and errors can be corrected early, before a wrong policy emerges," says Mr Singh.

This may mean more informal discussions and interactions during which ministers can share their opinions and offer their advice, instead of waiting for the weekly Cabinet meeting.

However, senior ministers must be able to find a balance between supervision and delegation.

While new and less experienced ministers need the direct input and advice from the more senior coordinating ministers, Dr Hussin says they must also be given the confidence to manage their ministries in ways they consider best.

They must also be able to show the public that they are in charge of their own ministries, he adds.

Mr Singh agrees. "Too much handholding may mean they may not be able to stand on their own feet if left on their own," he says.

But there will be no honeymoon period for the new ministers, who must prove themselves from day one, says former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin. "After all, they were elected on the basis of high expectations of them," he says.

And there are simply no shortcuts to some things. Having taken up ministerships immediately, they may not be able to spend as much time on the ground as is ideal, talking to ordinary Singaporeans to understand how policies impact them.

As new entrants to politics, they also would not have had as many opportunities, or spent as much time, with their grassroots networks, compared with their predecessors.

Mr Singh says that, ideally, all ministers should spend at least a full term as an MP before taking on a Cabinet position. "Now, they will not have that chance and will be judged by the policies they formulate, how they debate in Parliament and make speeches," he says.

Whether the approach of hothousing the future team works depends on the ministers' performance. These "greenhorns in a greenhouse", as NUS' Dr Lam describes them, will have to prove their mettle."Under hothousing conditions, certain plants will wither but others will thrive, even when the temperature is turned up," he says.

Time, he adds, will tell which of these ministers will turn out to be like the bougainvillea, which blooms well in very hot weather.


Beyond learning the ropes and proving themselves, a key task for this fourth-generation team will be to make an assessment and decide on who will be their leader.

While PM Lee last week indicated that his successor will come from the current Cabinet, barring any unexpected developments, he has also made it clear that it will be up to the fourth-generation members to choose among themselves one person who will lead them.

This was a practice started by founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who believed that "the chances of success are much better if you select a group of people, anyone of whom could be your successor, let them contend among themselves and decide who will be the leader".

When he presided over independent Singapore's first leadership transition 25 years ago, he laid the groundwork for that handover nearly a decade earlier. As early as 1984, the second-generation political leaders had met on their own and chosen Mr Goh as the PM-in-waiting, six years before he eventually took over the reins from the late Mr Lee in 1990.

PM Lee himself, who was Mr Goh's choice to take over from him, had also won the support of his third-generation peers, and had also been identified early on.

He was made one of two deputy prime ministers in 1990. In his case, parliamentarians from the period say, he was a clear choice right from the start, given his abilities.

With no clear front runner this time, the fourth-generation team will have to choose their leader in the same way that Mr Goh's peers had chosen him, say observers. However, unlike their predecessors, the team will have a much shorter time to assess who from among them should be the next PM.

But PM Lee has perhaps made the job slightly easier by quickening the pace of appointments and rotations and indicating the nucleus of the team who will take over from him.

Among the ministers in this group, say observers, are four who entered politics in the 2011 batch - Mr Heng, Mr Chan, Mr Tan and Mr Wong - and two from this year's batch, Mr Ng and Mr Ong.

They cite the fact that several of them have been rotated through key ministries and, in Mr Chan's case, the labour movement.

Mr Heng, previously the managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, had also been made a full minister following the 2011 General Election, and Mr Chan, who was former army chief, as well as Mr Ng and Mr Ong, were appointed acting ministers after they were elected.

A retired MP, who was in Parliament during a previous leadership transition, says it is almost certain one of the six will become the next prime minister.

He reckons the fourth-generation team has about five years at most to choose their leader.

He says: "The sooner you identify the leader, the more exposure he gets."

The process of selecting the next prime minister is also likely to involve a broader pool of fourth-generation leaders, including Culture, Community and Youth Minister Grace Fu, Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli, as well as several ministers of state and senior ministers of state such as Ms Indranee Rajah, Mrs Josephine Teo, Dr Maliki Osman, Ms Sim Ann and Mr Desmond Lee.

Observers say deciding on who the next leader will be is an important and pressing task, with predictability and transparency a hallmark of Singapore's efficient and low-key leadership transition process. By the time PM Lee is ready to hand over, it must already be clear who exactly he is handing over the reins to, they add.

This lends stability to the process and ensures investor confidence, and is key to why the only two leadership transitions in Singapore so far - from the late Mr Lee to Mr Goh in 1990, and from Mr Goh to PM Lee in 2004 - have almost been non-events, in contrast to the uncertainty and even squabbling that mark transitions of power in other countries.

Former NMP Mr Zulkifli says a clear transition process that is also communicated to the public - in this case, PM Lee signalling to Singaporeans over the past week how his successor will be selected - allows Singaporeans to feel more involved and creates greater confidence in the process. PM Lee, he added, has "categorically stated which candidates are meant for bigger things but must prove themselves". What is key is keeping the whole process predictable and transparent, no matter the length of the runway.

But with a shorter training period for future leaders now, the selection criteria have to be a lot more stringent right from the start.

For Mr Zulkifli, the best way to prepare leaders for political office is to recruit those who are already ready for the job.

In Singapore's political culture, it is almost unheard of for a prime minister-in-waiting to declare his ambition or openly highlight his qualities and capabilities for the job, let alone jostle for the post.

Hence, it is all the more important that the process of selecting the fourth-generation leader must involve those who will be able to objectively assess their own suitability as leaders, and who can set their personal ambitions aside to work together as a team when they are not chosen by their peers.

This is especially critical as the challenges ahead for Singapore are set to be more complex and demand even greater consensus and cohesion among its core leaders.

Who will be the fourth PM? That's not the right question
More crucial is whether the new leadership can become an 'A' team in the next few years
By Rachel Chang, Assistant Political Editor, The Sunday Times, 4 Oct 2015

In announcing his new Cabinet earlier this week, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made clear that despite the uncertainty surrounding his successor, there would be no delay in his intended handover of power.

A fourth-generation team, led by a fourth-generation Prime Minister, should be ready to take over soon after the next general election, he emphasised.

PM Lee, 63, has noted before that he would not like to be Prime Minister beyond 70 years old, or continue as the head of the ruling party beyond 2020.

But given that there is no clear successor to the premiership among the fourth-generation leaders at present - and two potential candidates, former defence chief Ng Chee Meng and former top civil servant Ong Ye Kung, were elected into Parliament just weeks ago - some expected that Mr Lee would draw out his tenure for stability's sake.

In announcing that his new Cabinet would be working towards this "next GE" deadline, PM Lee made clear that, in his view, stability would come from having succession play out on schedule.

As established by former prime minister Goh Chok Tong, this is a pattern of baton passing at the top every 15 years or so.

This timeline means that the coming five-year term of Government will be marked by seismic political developments.

Within the next few years, one of the younger ministers will emerge as the heir apparent, picked by his or her political peers, and be anointed by way of appointment as Deputy to PM Lee.

Singaporeans can then expect the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) to fight the next election with the two figures - PM Lee and his successor - at the forefront of the campaign.

The electoral mandate then will be measured not just on the strength of PM Lee and the PAP's track record, but on the faith voters have in his successor.

That these developments are on the near horizon when so many of the younger leaders may still seem politically wet-behind-the-ears has given many pause. PM Lee so singularly dominated the ruling party's election campaign this year that it is hard to imagine anyone else being able to speak to the nation as convincingly in just a few years' time.

But as Deputy PM Tharman Shanmugaratnam said at the Cabinet announcement earlier this week, a five-year runway is more than what most politicians in the world have. It is short only by Singapore standards.

Here, it is important to note that the concern over a short runway pertains only to the identity of the fourth PM.

Ministers can, and have, thrived in senior positions without long periods of political training. Taken as a group, the Acting and Full Ministers in the new Cabinet under the age of 55, plus the Senior Ministers of State in the wings, are a solid mix of skill, gender, ethnicity and background, if perhaps a little skewed towards the government scholar profile.

So there should be little concern about the fourth-generation team. In many ways, it is a more diverse, savvy and ground-driven team than ever before.

The lack we are seeing now is of that period of gestation, teamwork and joint trial through which a natural leader organically emerges from, and is endorsed by, his peers.

This is followed by a long runway during which the successor - made known to the public at large - learns from his predecessor and slowly takes over the day-to-day running of government while building a bond on the national stage with the people, all before he is actually sworn in as PM.

The template for this was former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's ascension: In 1984, the group of second-generation leaders, who by then had been working together in Cabinet for several years, picked him to be Mr Lee Kuan Yew's successor.

He was made First Deputy PM that year and began running the day-to-day business of government a few years later, before being sworn in as Prime Minister in 1990.

This process was not repeated exactly when it was time to pick the third Prime Minister, because Mr Lee Hsien Loong had been established as Mr Goh's successor very early on.

He had been included at the historic meeting when the group of second-generation leaders picked Mr Goh as their PM, invited as an "observer", recounted Dr Tony Tan in the book Men In White, as he was "the best man of the 1984 cohort".

When Mr Goh became PM, Mr Lee was appointed Deputy PM, and he remained so as heir apparent for Mr Goh's entire 14 years at the helm.

PM Lee's preponderance on the national stage for such a long period of time, and his natural gifts as a leader, have played a role in Singaporeans' anxiety towards, and wariness of, a time when there is no such singular political figure on the scene.

Hence the yearning for clarity on the identity of his successor, a clarity which, I've sometimes felt, is largely desired so that second-guessing can be lobbed in the accurate direction.

I've argued before that part of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's legacy is a reliance in Singaporean culture - especially its political and public sector culture - on the "Great Man" figure to chart the way and steer the ship.

In my view, this gives rise to a certain lack of resilience, faith, and grit, in the body as a whole, be it a company, a Cabinet, or a country.

Whatever the merits or demerits of Great Man leadership, a reckoning is upon Singaporeans.

At this stage, it must be accepted that whoever takes over as PM after the next election will not have the luxury of growing into the stature of the role the way that PM Lee did - nor will he or she be met with the same initial consensus from the electorate.

It is also likely that the next PM will not be as well-rounded as PM Lee, or Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

Perhaps he or she may be the most technically brilliant of the group, but not the most comfortable or convincing on the ground. Perhaps it might be the other way around.

Or perhaps he or she may not be the choice of the predecessor - as was Mr Goh's cross to bear, which he did with dignity and grace, when Mr Lee Kuan Yew made public the fact that his first choice as successor was Dr Tony Tan.

Whatever unfolds in the next few years, it is an important opportunity for Singaporeans to leave Great Man reliance behind and put their faith in the fact that a team - where excellence is diffused, not concentrated - can also ably steer a ship.

A retired politician, someone formerly at the highest echelons of political power, once told me that when there is an "A" leader, like Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the country can survive with a "B" team.

But a "B" leader can only survive with an "A" team surrounding him or her, he said.

Whether Singapore's fourth Prime Minister will be an "A" or "B" leader is a question for history to decide. What can be guaranteed is that at the moment of his or her ascension, a few years from now, there will be voices deeming unworthiness off the bat.

Who will be Singapore's fourth Prime Minister?

To me, that question is less important than whether or not the ruling party's fourth-generation leadership will coalesce through these crucial next few years as an "A" team through and through.

It is often overlooked that the Prime Minister in a Westminster parliamentary system like ours is known as primus inter pares - First among Equals.

For a while now, Singaporeans have trained their eyes largely on the First. It might be time to keep faith that a group of equals can rise to the challenge.

Room to speculate over succession - for once
By Han Fook Kwang, Editor-at-large, The Sunday Times, 4 Oct 2015

After the new Cabinet line-up was announced last Monday, a friend messaged me with the question: Any surprises for you?

That was a surprising question in itself.

The Singapore Government operates on the principle that predictability is a good thing and surprises are to be avoided like the haze.

In the many years that its Cabinet has been refreshed, reshuffled or just plain reappointed, surprise was never part of the vocabulary.

But this one, with more moving pieces than before, had some elements that made the question quite understandable.

Two ministers for Education, and Trade and Industry?

Three coordinating ministers? (Reminder: This isn't the Indonesian Cabinet.)

A record 37 office-holders in an 89-member Parliament?

These are unconventional changes, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself put it: "The task is urgent and we do not have the luxury of time. Therefore, I am making a decisive move in my new Cabinet, and not just an incremental change."

Though Mr Lee explained the rationale for some of the moves (Education and Trade and Industry had become big and complex, he said), the nature of the exercise is such that he is unlikely to reveal his innermost thoughts.

That leaves plenty of room for speculation.

So, here goes.

One speculative thought: Having two ministers at Education had probably less to do with the ministry's enlarged work than it had with exposing and testing two up and coming leaders in a challenging job.

Indeed, the Education Ministry has always been one for the heavyweights: Goh Keng Swee, Tony Tan, Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

It was where Mr Heng Swee Keat did his first term, showing how highly the PM must have rated him.

Now, with two rookie ministers, Mr Ng Chee Meng and Mr Ong Ye Kung, being thrown into the deep end of the same pool, it's fair to say that they are being similarly earmarked.

The hot-housing makes sense because they are already one term behind the other members of the fourth-generation leadership comprising Mr Heng, Mr Chan Chun Sing, Mr Tan Chuan-Jin and Mr Lawrence Wong.

Exposing and testing them in double quick time in a heavyweight ministry should hasten the catching up they need to do if they are to be eventually considered for the top job.

It will widen the available pool, always a good thing when the going is uncertain.

So who's in front of this pack?

Going by what's happened in the past, it looks like Mr Heng is in pole position.

Someone going from Education to Finance has the makings of someone heading for the top job.

More so now that it has been announced that he will head the committee to look into how to grow the stalling economy.

This is a critical challenge and a must-pass test for any future prime minister.

In Singapore, the top man should ideally have helmed an economics ministry, given how important the economy is to the country's future.

That's been the case with Mr Goh Chok Tong, who was Trade and Industry minister, and PM Lee, who has been in Finance.

Of course, the past is never a perfect predictor of the future and there may be more than one dark horse in this race.

But remember what I said earlier about being predictable.

In the Singapore succession system, the ideal process is one where a leader naturally emerges and is seen and acknowledged by his peers to be the chosen one.

You won't find anyone here saying publicly he wants to be the next PM.

Neither will it do for the incumbent PM to appoint his successor, which can be a risky business fraught with many problems.

But when there is relative peace and stability, this emergence of the leader has to take place, not in the heat of battle fighting a crisis, but in the more mundane day-to-day interactions, as ministers debate, work together and resolve the issues of the day.

Hence the importance of exposing them to difficult problems in which they have to work with one another.

In doing this, the PM has one other advantage.

Although he does not have the luxury of time, he does have three senior mentors with large overseeing duties.

Mr Lee, Mr Teo, Mr Tharman and Mr Khaw Boon Wan have between them 82 years in government, an abundance of experience very few administrations elsewhere can even dream of having.

Their tutorship and assessments should prove invaluable to their eager charges.

One caveat though: While they have many insights to share, one hopes that the weight of their seniority and experience will not bear too heavily and suppress their younger colleagues' willingness to explore new ideas and thinking.

Already there has been criticism that the Singapore Government suffers from group-think with the majority of ministers, young and old, drawn from the civil service and armed forces.

It won't do to reinforce this perception further if ministers have another layer of bosses to deal with.

The ideal scenario is one where younger ministers know they can be more innovative because there is solid back-up to prevent serious slip-ups.

The least desirable is for them to be more cautious than necessary because someone is looking over their shoulders.

Either can happen, and much depends on the individual concerned and the management culture set at the top.

It was encouraging to hear PM Lee say at the swearing-in ceremony last Thursday that the challenges Singapore faces "require fresh and bold ideas".

Whatever happens, this term will be defined, not so much by new policy initiatives, but how the fourth-generation leadership shapes up, in particular how it decides who will be the next PM.

For once, the outcome is not completely predictable but it also won't be wholly surprising.

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