Tuesday 2 January 2018

Singapore economy grew by 3.5% in 2017, says PM Lee Hsien Loong in 2018 New Year Message; Choosing next Prime Minister will take 'a little bit longer'

PM Lee credits productivity growth and global upswing for strong performance in 2017
Plans to mark 200th anniversary of the founding of modern Singapore in 2019
By Elgin Toh, Insight Editor, The Straits Times, 1 Jan 2018

Singapore's economy grew by 3.5 per cent in 2017 - more than double the initial forecast - and incomes rose across the board, especially for low-and middle-income earners, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

In his traditional New Year message, he noted that Singapore benefited from the global economic upswing. But more fundamentally, the better-than-expected growth was because Singapore's productivity - long a challenge for the country - has grown.

"Singaporeans are upgrading and learning new skills, while businesses are innovating and adopting new technology. That is how we will stay competitive and ready for the future," PM Lee said.

Singapore is finishing the year stronger than it started, and "we are ushering in 2018 with confidence and strength", he added.

In the past five years, productivity growth has languished at between minus 0.2 per cent and 1 per cent despite efforts to help firms and workers upgrade. Last year, it shot up to between 3 per cent and 3.5 per cent, due to an improving global economy and a tightening of the inflow of foreign workers, said analysts.

Looking ahead to 2018 and beyond, PM Lee announced plans to mark the 200th anniversary of 1819, when Stamford Raffles set foot on the island. Singapore marked 50 years of independence in 2015 but "the Singapore Story began way before 1965", he said. "We must understand truly how far back our history reaches, and how complex it is."

The history goes back at least 700 years. Singapore was a maritime emporium in the 14th century, though it declined in later centuries.

"We should commemorate this bicentennial appropriately, just as we marked the 150th anniversary in 1969. It is an important milestone for Singapore; an occasion for us to reflect on how our nation came into being, how we have come this far since, and how we can go forward together," he said.

With observers expecting firmer clues this year on who Singapore's fourth prime minister would be - especially with an imminent Cabinet reshuffle - PM Lee said younger ministers will play a bigger role in policymaking. Parliament will be prorogued after the Budget before a new session opens in May. The opening will see the President's Address laying out the Government's agenda for the rest of the term.

PM Lee said "this will bear the imprint of the fourth-generation leadership, who are taking on greater responsibilities, and putting forth their ideas for Singapore".

The home front will also see an upgrade of industries and workers' skills, improvements to healthcare, work to raise rail reliability and big infrastructure projects such as the Tuas Megaport, the High Speed Rail link to Malaysia and Changi Airport's Terminal 5.

These domestic priorities are essential investments for the future, which "will stretch way beyond this term of government", he said. "We have to plan well ahead for them."

Looking back on 2017, PM Lee said the year began with uncertainty at home and abroad. The economic mood was muted and there were worries about security and terrorism. "But Singaporeans pressed on, undaunted," he said. "We dealt with the urgent concerns, but we looked beyond immediate problems and did not settle for quick fixes."

He noted milestones such as the SGSecure campaign, which raised awareness of the terrorist threat, and changes to enable a reserved presidential election, which he described as "one significant step to strengthen our racial harmony".

Singapore also reaffirmed its strong ties with major powers China and the US, and deepened cooperation with immediate neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia.

The external environment remains uncertain, with tensions over North Korea and elections due in Malaysia and Indonesia.

And as ASEAN chair this year, Singapore "hopes to take the group forward with... chairmanship themes of 'resilience' and 'innovation' ".

Singapore’s bicentennial commemoration in 2019

Singapore to mark 200th anniversary of Raffles' arrival
It will be an occasion to understand island's complex history stretching back 700 years
By Yuen Sin, The Straits Times, 1 Jan 2018

The Singapore Story did not begin in 1965, the year of independence. Instead, it stretches back 700 years, telling a tale of ebb and flow.

One major turning point was in 1819 when Stamford Raffles landed here, setting the island on a different trajectory, noted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his New Year message yesterday.

"Because of Raffles, Singapore became a British colony, a free port and a modern city," he said.

He announced plans for Singapore to mark the 200th anniversary of 1819, calling on Singaporeans to "understand truly how far back our history reaches, and how complex it is".

Even before Raffles' arrival on St John's Island on Jan 28 that year, Singapore had a rich history, harking back to the 14th century when it was a maritime emporium.

Migrants from China, India and other regions later formed families and communities, "turning an emporium into a home, and eventually a country".

While the SG50 celebrations in 2015 had paid tribute to the pioneer generation, there are groups older than independent Singapore that have contributed to its foundations, added PM Lee.

He cited anniversary celebrations he attended in recent months: the 100th anniversaries of the Singapore Malayalee Association, Masjid Khalid and his alma mater Nanyang Girls' High School, and the 150th anniversary of Thong Chai Medical Institution.

"Each has contributed to the Singapore Story... Without this history, we could not have made the SG50 journey from Third World to First," PM Lee said.

The bicentennial commemoration will debunk the conventional narrative that Singapore had been only a backward fishing village before its transformation into a developed country today, say historians.

Organisers of the commemorative activities also said the commemoration will not take on a "rose-tinted, celebratory" sheen or perpetuate a "great man" narrative of history since the arrival of colonial powers on the island.

Instead, it will be a reflective attempt to understand the "full essence and complexity" of events in Singapore's 700-year history, Yale-NUS College president Tan Tai Yong, who sits on the Singapore bicentennial advisory panel, said at a press briefing last week.

Mr Gene Tan, executive director of the newly created Singapore Bicentennial Office in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), added that the bicentennial, which wants to be "responsible to history", will not shy away from addressing elements in history that may not always be positive.

This includes acknowledging the "squalor and segregation" that existed under colonial rule, and the 1915 Sepoy Mutiny, which saw over 400 Indian soldiers rise against the British during World War I.

Plans for the bicentennial will be overseen by Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Josephine Teo, with Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat advising.

The bicentennial will also pay homage to ground-up organisations that reflect the "organic effervescence" of the story of how Singapore came to be.

To that end, the bicentennial office will engage them throughout this year, to plan for how stories of various groups' historical roles can be told. The PMO declined to disclose its budget for the bicentennial activities but said it will be on a smaller scale than that for SG50.

Professor Tan Tai Yong said the commemorative activities will reflect evidence of Singapore's long history that could even pre-date the 14th century. This runs counter to popular belief that "Raffles landed in Singapore, founded modern Singapore and (it was only then that) our history started".

It is important to debunk the notion that Singapore had existed merely as a sleepy fishing village before Raffles arrived, said Mr Yatiman Yusof, Singapore's non-resident High Commissioner to Kenya, who is also on the bicentennial advisory panel.

"Singapore was a well-known trading centre (in the centuries before that), and Raffles' arrival propelled it into a more energetic and attractive place for business," he added.

* ESM Goh Chok Tong says settling 4G leadership an urgent challenge, hopes next PM can be designated 'before 2018 ends'
By Elgin Toh, Insight Editor and Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 2 Jan 2018

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong has sketched out what he hopes would be a timeline for the formal designation of the next prime minister - the first time a senior figure from the People's Action Party has done so.

According to this timeline, Singaporeans could know who their next leader is before the year is over.

Writing in a Facebook post on the last day of 2017, Mr Goh said that the issue of the fourth-generation (4G) leadership is "one urgent challenge I would like to see settled".

He added: "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 six to nine months' time. Then PM (Lee Hsien Loong) can formally designate their choice as his potential successor before 2018 ends."

PM Lee has said that he hopes to hand over the reins of government to the next leader by the time he is 70, in 2022.

Observers say having Mr Goh weigh in shows the issue is of utmost urgency.

Political observer Mustafa Izzuddin, noting that Mr Goh "is speaking from wisdom and experience", said this could well mean the identity of the next prime minister would be made known this year, "sooner rather than later".

There have only been two prime minister successions since Singapore's Independence, and Mr Goh was involved in both.

In 1990, he took over as prime minister from founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. In 2004, he handed over the role to the current Prime Minister - PM Lee.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan agreed that the timeline should not drag on beyond this year, as the designated successor has to earn the trust and respect of Singaporeans and other stakeholders and "you can't hothouse and rush this process".

"Furthermore, the uncertainty can also undermine the 4G leadership's internal cohesion as the tacit quest to be first among equals will raise the stakes of competition if the process becomes long-drawn," he added.

Meanwhile, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Norshahril Saat said that PM Lee's successor would need time to "settle into" the post of deputy prime minister.

He added that before taking on the top job, PM Lee himself was deputy prime minister for 14 years, while Mr Goh spent five years as first deputy prime minister.

This means that the next prime minister will have the shortest run-up phase.

Observers have said that there are just three Cabinet ministers left in the race to be the next prime minister - Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat, labour chief and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing and Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung.

The appointment of one of these three as deputy prime minister or first deputy prime minister could happen during the major Cabinet reshuffle that PM Lee has said will take place this year.

Associate Professor Tan said that an announcement late in the year would "allow for a final appraisal of the front runners by their peers".

Mr Goh had written in his post about the task that the 4G leadership faces, noting that "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," he added.

"This is my wish for the new year - a Singapore in good hands, a Singapore that all of us build together."


Singapore's 4G team addresses leadership succession issue, will pick a leader among themselves "in good time"
Ong Ye Kung says he has someone in mind but observers say he is still one of 3 front runners
By Tham Yuen-C and Seow Bei Yi, The Straits Times, 5 Jan 2018

In their first joint comment on the issue of succession, the ruling People's Action Party's fourth-generation leadership team members said they would pick a leader among themselves "in good time".

The 16 office-holders were responding yesterday to Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong's call on Sunday for the team to do so in six to nine months.

One of those in the running to become Singapore's fourth prime minister, Mr Ong Ye Kung, told The Straits Times that he has already made his choice of whom he thought should lead, but added that it would be inappropriate to put oneself forward.

In an interview earlier this week, the Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) said: "I am shaping up in my mind someone who can be the leader among us.''

The 48-year-old declined to name the person he has in mind, but when asked if ministers can nominate themselves, replied: "That doesn't sound like it is in the right spirit."

As to how he decided on the person he intends to support, Mr Ong said he considered the person's conviction and ability to drive long-term, important policy, as well as public and party support for the person.

Observers said that Mr Ong is still in the race despite his comments, as the others in his cohort could pick him. It is too early to rule out any of the three front runners, they added.

Apart from Mr Ong, the two other ministers tipped to be in contention for the job are Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, 56, and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing, 48.

Both declined to comment when contacted earlier this week.

Yesterday, the 4G team issued a statement saying they are aware that the question is an urgent one.

"Political stability has been the hallmark of Singapore and smooth leadership succession has instilled confidence amongst Singaporeans and our friends around the world.

"The younger ministers are keenly aware leadership succession is a pressing issue and that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong intends to step down after the next general election. We are conscious of our responsibility, are working closely together as a team and will settle on a leader from amongst us in good time."

The statement was signed in alphabetical order by the group, including the three front runners. It gives for the first time an indication of those in the cohort that will decide the next prime minister.

The statement came as interest in Singapore's political leadership succession was piqued by ESM Goh's Facebook post on New Year's Eve. Mr Goh said he hopes PM Lee can formally designate his potential successor before the year's end.

It is the first time a senior figure from the PAP has publicly stated a timeline. Some party insiders believe Mr Goh's timeframe is partly a bid to pressure the younger leaders to come to a consensus. PM Lee has said he intends to hand over the reins of government to a successor by the time he turns 70, in 2022.

This means the next prime minister will have the shortest run-up phase. PM Lee was deputy prime minister for 14 years, while Mr Goh spent five years as first deputy prime minister.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Josephine Teo told The Straits Times earlier this week that there is "nothing unexpected" about Mr Goh's comment.

She said the process of choosing a new PM has not changed, with the fourth-generation ministers choosing one among them to lead.

"It is a tested process, it has worked well for us. It ensures there is a strong team in place, so I think that is indeed what will happen."

She added that Singaporeans have to wait until after Parliament opens in May with a President's Address, for further developments on the leadership succession front.

Mr Lee has said he will prorogue Parliament this year.

"The President is making her inaugural address, we have to give due respect to the importance of the occasion," said Mrs Teo.

Selection process for fourth PM may have echoes of 1984
Choice of Singapore's fourth PM not as obvious as previous successions, say past and present PAP politicians
By Elgin Toh, The Straits Times, 5 Jan 2018

In 1984, the decision was made over coffee, orange juice and chocolate cake after dinner at then Finance Minister Tony Tan's home in Bukit Timah. The group settled on Mr Goh Chok Tong "fairly quickly".

In 2004, it was a powwow over a lunch hosted by then Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng at the Istana. The meeting was short because "the choice was clear": Mr Lee Hsien Loong.

This time, it will not be as easy. Current and former People's Action Party (PAP) politicians say the choice of Singapore's fourth PM is not as obvious.

Mr S. Dhanabalan, a core PAP leader from the second generation who helped select Mr Goh as PM, told The Straits Times: "With this generation, there are no clear markers to say, this person should be the leader. There are a few who can do it. It is difficult to say who would be the best candidate."

Former PAP MP Inderjit Singh said: "The runway is too short and the fourth-generation leaders have not shown very clear achievements to convince their colleagues."

This will be Singapore's third change of top leadership. Mr Goh took over from founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1990. PM Lee succeeded Mr Goh in 2004.

Many believe the current race has narrowed to three contenders: Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing and Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung. In accordance with past practices, the leader will be selected by those of his generation, to be "first among peers".

A call by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh on Sunday, for the new leader to be designated before 2018 is over, has injected a sense of urgency into the process, prompting a statement from fourth-generation ministers that they will settle on a leader "in good time".

It was signed by 16 men and women who meet regularly to discuss issues including the succession, said a party source. The Straits Times understands that as of now, no date for a gathering to settle the question has been set.

Observers say the process this time is closer to that in 1984 rather than 2004, on two fronts.

First, the discussion at which the 4G team should settle on their leader could precede the Cabinet reshuffle - which PM Lee had said would take place this year - when the person is made deputy prime minister.

In 1985, Mr Goh was made First DPM a few days after that fateful meeting. He and his team was then tasked with day-to-day running of the state, though the official handover was five years later.

Based on ESM Goh's timeframe for the current process, there is not enough time to do it the other way round, as was done in PM Lee's case, said Mr Dhanabalan. Mr Lee was made DPM 14 years before the 2004 lunch at the Istana. Three months later, he was PM.

Recalling that meal, Mr Lim Boon Heng, who was Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, told The Straits Times: "It was a short meeting because the choice was clear. As DPM under Mr Goh, Mr Lee Hsien Loong was doing a lot of heavy lifting."

During the lunch, someone put forward Mr Lee's name for PM, and "the rest of us agreed". On what the considerations were, he said: "What is important is ability, clear motivation to do what is best for Singapore and Singaporeans, not for personal glory."

A second present-day parallel to 1984 is that there is more fluidity on the question of who the leader could be.

Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew favoured Dr Tan, but the latter "made it clear he would not want to be leader", said Mr Dhanabalan, describing what happened at Dr Tan's house.

"The next obvious candidate was Chok Tong. When the others said he was the best candidate, he accepted it. He was not aggressive in wanting to be the leader. He was responding to a need, rather than looking for a leadership role."

Today, whoever becomes the next PM will face a similar challenge to what Mr Goh did, said Mr Dhanabalan.

"There was a big difference in communication skills between LKY and Goh Chok Tong, but what is remarkable is that Chok Tong was able to establish excellent rapport with the public... through his own way of communicating.

"The transition from Lee Hsien Loong to the next PM will have a similar kind of gap, since Hsien Loong, in terms of eloquence, is more like his father than Chok Tong."

And so, when the next PM is identified, Singaporeans should give him the benefit of the doubt, he said, adding: "If there is any lapse in communication, they should not take it too seriously."

The years as DPM will be important in getting the public to warm up to him, just as they did to Mr Goh in the five years before he became PM, he said.

Mr Dhanabalan, who was foreign minister, revealed that he had even asked Mr Lee Kuan Yew to consider leaving Singapore for up to a year on a sabbatical with a university or think-tank during the transition period from 1985 to 1990 - to leave no room for doubt that Mr Goh was the man in charge.

The elder Lee declined. "His reason was that his wife would find it very difficult to be away from the grandchildren."

Given that today's situation seems even less clear-cut, one question is what will happen if there is a difference in opinions within the team on who their leader should be.

One way, said Mr Dhanabalan, is they could look to the present leadership to gain some indication as to who they think is a good candidate. "That will be helpful."

Veteran PAP backbencher Charles Chong said that while there may be uncertainty in the eyes of the public, "the inner circle would know much more than the public", and it would be clearer to them.

A second way is for the issue to be discussed within a broader circle of PAP MPs. Such a parliamentary caucus was introduced in 2004, when the PM-designate was confirmed by them.

Looking ahead, the next PM could have a more challenging time, given a livelier political environment, said those interviewed.

Mr Singh said he should be able to make tough decisions and shun populist policies. Mr Chong stressed intellectual ability and communication skills: "Sometimes, very good policies end up making a lot of people angry when communicated wrongly."

16 'younger ministers' sign statement
By Ng Jun Sen, The Straits Times, 5 Jan 2018

The line-up of Singapore's fourth-generation leadership became clear yesterday when 16 "younger ministers" issued a joint statement saying they are working closely together as a team to pick a leader.

It is the first time this team has explicitly identified itself.

The 16 names represent the next generation of political leaders who will carry the baton for the ruling People's Action Party, a party insider familiar with Cabinet procedures told The Straits Times.

The statement is also meant to clearly indicate that the decision of selecting the next prime minister lies in the hands of these ministers, said the source who declined to be identified.

The 16 names are listed in alphabetical order in the statement, and all are ranked senior minister of state or above.

There were some noticeable names missing, such as Senior Minister of State for Health and Transport Lam Pin Min, 48, and Senior Minister of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs Maliki Osman, 52.

Some will wonder why, but their omission is unclear as yet. The source declined to comment on those who were not on the list.

Institute of Policy Studies' deputy director Gillian Koh said the statement sends the message that there is a "strong, attractive group of younger leaders with different talents, skills and qualities" in place, even if one were to remove the third-generation leaders from the Cabinet as a thought experiment.

The party source said that age is not a deciding factor for inclusion in this informal group of younger ministers.

Neither is the selection dependent on rank - ministers of state are also called to participate in the group's discussion on succession.

They do not meet regularly to discuss matters of succession as this younger caucus - as a subset of all Cabinet members - is not a formalised one.

When matters of the next prime minister are discussed, consensus can be easily reached because they function as a "cohesive group", the source said.

"The dynamic is not dissimilar to any other groups when it comes to picking a leader. Everyone roughly knows who among them will be the one," the source said.

He added that the statement was a clear response to Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong's earlier comment that the next prime minister needs to be identified by this year.

Political observer Mustafa Izzuddin said "the time is ripe" for the next leadership team led by a PM-designate to be made known to Singaporeans, adding that the selection of the next prime minister has traditionally been an internal matter that is seldom made public.

Setting out a timeline may be ESM Goh's way of putting pressure on the fourth-generation leaders, said former MP Inderjit Singh.

"As an elder statesman who was concerned about leadership transition in the past, he is the best person to raise the alarm if he feels things are not moving as desired," he said.

** PM Lee Hsien Loong: No new DPM to be appointed during Cabinet reshuffle; choosing next PM will take 'a little bit longer'
That may take a little bit longer, he says; reshuffle will be a significant step in exposing, building the new team
By Elgin Toh, In New Delhi, The Straits Times, 27 Jan 2018

Singaporeans will have to wait a little longer to find out who their next prime minister is.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday that no new deputy prime ministers will be appointed during the Cabinet reshuffle, which he said would take place after this year's Budget in February.

This suggests there will be no clear front runners made known to the public even after the reshuffle.

"My assessment is, it probably will take a little bit longer," he added when asked about a timeline suggested by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong last month.

Mr Goh had said he hoped the younger ministers will choose their leader in the first six to nine months of this year, and that this person can be made PM-designate within 2018.

PM Lee said: "ESM (Goh) is speaking with the privilege of watching things rather than being responsible to make it happen. I think we know it is a very serious matter."

He added: "The team is taking shape. The dynamics among them, they are working it out. They are learning to work together.

"Also, they 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.

"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. I am confident it will be."

The Cabinet reshuffle will be "a significant step in exposing and building the new team, and putting them into different portfolios", he said.

Designating a successor will depend on the team's dynamics.

"I would not say that that is imminent," he said. "If it is settled, everybody will know."

PM Lee also took stock of his visits to Sri Lanka and India when he spoke to the Singapore media in New Delhi. He returns to Singapore today.

The race to be Singapore's next PM is generally viewed by observers as having narrowed to three candidates: Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing and Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung.

On whether these are indeed the front runners, PM Lee said: "I think they are all good ministers."

Asked who he thinks is best suited for the job of PM, he replied: "I think there is a strong team."

He added that many people see the leadership as being "personalised as one person".

"Actually, there is a team. The team works together and they have one - Mr Lee Kuan Yew said - striker. Now, you have to strike from time to time, but you are really also sometimes spokesman on behalf of the team, bringing together a collective wisdom and giving voice to that.

"In the next team, that aspect of it will have to be even more important," he said.

As for whether he will give the younger ministers his views on their relative strengths, PM Lee said: "If they ask me my views, I will try my best to be helpful."

He noted that founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had, from time to time, publicly given his views on the younger members of his team and their strengths, which they found "a little bit awkward to be put under the spotlight".

"I don't think I need to do that to my younger ministers," he said.

PM Lee's remarks come less than a month after 16 younger leaders from the People's Action Party issued a statement, in response to ESM Goh, to say that they will choose a leader from among themselves "in good time".

Commenting on the statement, PM Lee cast doubt on the idea that it is an exhaustive list of the fourth generation leadership team.

He noted that "a lot was made" of the fact that a few senior ministers of state were left out of the statement. Those who did not sign were Dr Lam Pin Min, Dr Maliki Osman and Mr Heng Chee How.

"They didn't intend to (leave them out), and I don't think you should put a lot of weight on that," he said.

PM Lee has reiterated that he intends to hand over the reins to his successor after the next election.

On what role this person will play in the next general election, which has to be called by April 2021, he said: "He will have to pull his weight and... show that he deserves to be what his peers and his colleagues in Cabinet think that he can do.

"This is necessary. If you are unable to win elections, you cannot be the leader. You can be a great thinker, you can be a great planner, but you have to be in politics."

More time for 4G leaders to prove their mettle, say observers
By Yasmine Yahya, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 27 Jan 2018

The news that no new deputy prime ministers will be appointed in the next Cabinet reshuffle has taken some political observers by surprise, but they said this gives the fourth generation of leaders more time to prove their mettle to Singaporeans.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's remarks yesterday suggest there will still be a question mark over who his likely successor is even after the reshuffle.

"It is surprising, but I do understand why PM has said this," said former People's Action Party (PAP) MP Inderjit Singh.

"The 4G leaders have not had enough experience. It is important that they can independently lead policies and succeed. There hasn't been enough of that kind of opportunity for them."

Institute of Policy Studies deputy director Gillian Koh noted that each of the three men who are widely considered front runners for prime minister need time to address certain gaps in their resume.

The trio are Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing, and Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung.

"Mr Chan is still deeply ensconced in NTUC, so it will take time to find his replacement and for him to go back to a policymaking capacity," she said.

"Mr Ong does not lead a GRC, and it is hard to envisage a PM-in-waiting who doesn't head a GRC, but this will take time," she added.

Mr Heng has stepped back into his role full time for a year now since he suffered a stroke, she noted, but had kept public engagements to a minimum until late last year. "So, he needs time to get back in the saddle, meet different constituencies and rekindle those links to make up for the time when he was recovering."

Political observer Derek da Cunha said the next prime minister "has to be seen by everyone as having the stature that approximates his three predecessors".

In a Facebook post last night, he wrote: "Whoever the person might be from within the 4G team, ideally, he has to get more exposure - domestically and internationally - and more experience in terms of Cabinet portfolios.

"This is because the PAP has established standards whereby a person for high political office has to be very knowledgeable - widely read - charismatic, have presence, be a polished speaker, be quick-thinking, and where ordinary folk are able to relate to him or her."

Waiting a bit longer to name a new deputy prime minister will keep the focus on the work being done by the fourth generation leadership, rather than on one personality, said political analyst Mustafa Izzuddin.

"It is clear from PM's comments that he wants there to be more focus on the progress being made by the team as a whole, and what the team is doing to take Singapore forward," he said.

Even so, he expects more clarity on who will be the next prime minister by the end of this year.

"It is worth asking who will take the PAP to the next general election, which has to take place by 2021. If you want to give the new leader a strong mandate, then you need to give him time to prepare the team and lead it to victory at the GE."

Talking succession: Passing remarks on PM front runners spark discussion
Lack of clarity on new PM leaves field open for others to weigh in on merits of contenders
By Yasmine Yahya, Senior Political Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 28 Jan 2018

One week ago, Professor Tommy Koh, one of Singapore's most respected public intellectuals, put up a Facebook post.

It was not unusual. The veteran diplomat is as prolific an author of social media posts as he is of books and essays.

What set tongues wagging was the content of his post. Prof Koh posted a photo of himself with Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung, and wrote: "I would describe him as intellectually brilliant, capable of thinking out of the box and coming up with creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

"He has both high IQ and EQ. He is charismatic and an eloquent speaker. He has good leadership qualities and is very likeable. He is a man of integrity."

The post attracted others who weighed in with their own encounters with Mr Ong. One said: "Our next PM, hopefully."

Two days later, another public figure made another affirmation of support - this time of a different politician.

At the Singapore Perspectives conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies, former senior minister of state for foreign affairs Zainul Abidin Rasheed took to the microphone during a dialogue session with Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat.

Mr Heng had earlier sidestepped a question of whether he was "ready to be Singapore's fourth prime minister".

Mr Zainul was not so easily daunted. Almost wistfully, he told Mr Heng, in the hearing of about 1,000 delegates who included civil servants, academics and the media: "I would have been happier if you had answered in the positive."

The crowd laughed.

In Singapore, where political succession planning is traditionally a structured, low-key and impersonal exercise mapped out years if not decades in advance, these public remarks highlight just how unusual the current situation is.

With four years before Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's declared deadline of when he wants to step down from the post, Singaporeans are none the wiser as to who the baton will be passed to.

So far, three front runners have been identified by observers: Mr Ong, 48, Mr Heng, 56, and Mr Chan Chun Sing, 48, the labour chief and a Minister in the Prime Minister's Office.

Last Friday, PM Lee dashed expectations that there would be greater clarity on who the fourth PM would be when the Cabinet next tweaks its line-up. The reshuffle will take place after the Budget next month, he said during a trip to India. But there will be no new deputy prime ministers and the process in designating a successor is going to take "a little bit longer".

Singapore's fourth-generation (4G) leadership team - which chooses who will be the prime minister among them - is learning to work together, said Mr Lee. They also need more time for Singaporeans to "get a feel" of them.

"Successor designation - that will depend on the dynamics and I would not say that that is imminent," he added.

Till then, it seems, the field is open for anyone to weigh in on the merits of each contender.

In any other country in the world, this would be par for the course in politics. In Singapore, it is unprecedented.

Prof Koh and Mr Zainul, when contacted, clarified that they were not endorsing Mr Ong or Mr Heng for the PM position .

Prof Koh said he was surprised that many thought he was doing so.

He had worked with Mr Ong when negotiating Singapore's free trade pact with the United States from 2001 to 2004.

"At the moment, there's so much talk about the 4G leaders and their comparative strengths and weaknesses, and I thought since I had the pleasure of working closely with one of them, why don't I share and comment on it with my Facebook friends," he told The Sunday Times. "No other ulterior motive."

Mr Zainul, meanwhile, said: "I (just) wanted to say that people were happy Mr Heng's health is back. From feedback, many Singaporeans are happy about his health being back to normal and would be happy if he succeeds PM, except many are also concerned for him and his family, and that the job and responsibilities of PM will not affect his health or the position."

In May 2016, Mr Heng suffered a stroke but recovered and returned to work in December the same year.

Mr Zainul noted that many Singaporeans are "anxious" about the succession question, from ordinary folk to Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who on Dec 31 urged the 4G team to name their leader in six to nine months' time.

It prompted a team of 16 4G office-holders to issue a statement saying they would pick a leader among themselves "in good time".


In Singapore, this is a question that has never really needed asking before now.

Way ahead of the last leadership transition in 2004, it was clear that then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong would take up the mantle. He had been DPM for 14 years by then and was considered to be clearly above his peers.

The transition before that was a little hazier. But once Dr Tony Tan, then PM Lee Kuan Yew's first choice as leader, ruled himself out in 1984, the next obvious candidate was apparent: Mr Goh Chok Tong. The question was settled six years before the actual handover in 1990.

It helped that both men had a considerable length of time to prove themselves to Singaporeans.

PM Lee was in politics for a full 20 years before taking on the top job; ESM Goh was in politics for 14 years before becoming PM.

This time around, Singaporeans have not had as much time to get the full measure of the three top contenders for PM, note observers.

Mr Heng and Mr Chan have been in politics for just six years since becoming MPs in 2011, while Mr Ong, elected in 2015, has only had three.

PM Lee has said he plans to step down by 2022, by which point the three contenders would have had 11 years at most to prove themselves to Singaporeans.

Certainly, the trio have been given high-profile responsibilities.

Last year, Mr Heng took on the role of chairing the Future Economy Council to spearhead productivity-driven economic growth. Previously Education Minister, he now helms Finance, which includes delivering the Budget speech.

Mr Chan was appointed deputy chairman of the People's Association, with sway over the powerful grassroots network in Singapore. He has also headed the Social and Family Development portfolio.

Mr Ong is spearheading the charge to ready Singapore's workers for jobs of the future through skills upgrading.

They are also busy making themselves known to the outside world: Mr Heng in China in November, where he expounded on the way forward for Singapore-Sino ties; Mr Chan in Davos last week during which he spoke on the Belt and Road Initiative; and Mr Ong in Washington during PM Lee's October visit to the White House.


Some insiders say that within the party leadership, there is already some consensus as to who the next PM should be.

In an interview with The Straits Times earlier this month, Mr Ong said he already has a name in mind - and that it is not himself.

Others have said the choice is an "obvious" one.

If that is the case, why the delay in announcing the person?

Those interviewed point to the rise of social media as well as a more well-educated and questioning electorate and a more volatile global political climate.

More than ever, Singaporeans want a prime minister who is nothing less than an all-rounder who is highly intellectual, has chalked up deep ministerial experience, and has charisma, gravitas and a common touch. This is probably why it has taken longer for the People's Action Party (PAP) to publicly name its next leader - because none of the contenders has definitively proven to the public that he is truly all-in-one, say pundits.

"Even if they roll out the future PM earlier, it probably would not have worked in their favour," said a political analyst who declined to be named. "There would just be a lot of questions about this person on social media. The Government has to take this into account."

This is worrying to some.

Former nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin, who sits on the board of directors of several companies, said the lack of clarity on PM's successor might be seen as a reflection of a government that is increasingly bending towards populism.

This, he said, has raised concerns among the business community and foreign investors, already frazzled about the move to tighten the inflow of immigrants in response to public sentiment.

"I trust the PAP will not choose its leader based on popularity alone, but choose a leader who is the best man who can bring progress and unite people, not necessarily someone who is likeable."

But other factors could be at play. PM Lee's revelation on Friday that no new DPM will be appointed in the upcoming reshuffle caught many by surprise. The money was on one of the three front runners being elevated - signalling clearly that he will likely be the next PM.

Did something unexpected happen, throwing a spanner in the works? No one knows for sure.


The PAP has long made early succession planning a matter of pride - and national survival. To the party, it is important that investor confidence or the stock market not be rattled by any leadership transition.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew's search for someone to succeed him as PM began as early as the late 1960s, and picked up after Finance Minister Hon Sui Sen in 1976 stressed the need for early succession planning.

Mr Hon told him, according to a 2003 Straits Times article: "When company chairmen and CEOs come to see me, they are not just looking at me, they are looking for who will be taking my place. Because their investments are going to go on a long time - 10, 15, 20 years, and I won't be here...

"They're watching you too. You're still okay, but, you know, they are looking beyond your lifetime."

Former PAP MP Inderjit Singh said the uncertainty today does raise some concerns, but added that it is far better that the party takes its time than rush into a decision.

"If it takes too long, people would start worrying about Singapore's future leadership, although PM's remarks show that he feels it is better to be sure about the next leader before handing over - which is good for investor confidence."

The business community here agreed, saying that while there is curiosity about who will helm Singapore, there is confidence that policies will continue no matter who is eventually anointed.

Mr Jeffrey Hardee, vice-chairman of the board of governors at the American Chamber of Commerce Singapore, said: "The American business community has no reason to doubt that the upcoming succession plan for political leadership will go smoothly. The Government has a system of testing would-be leaders that seems to have worked well and paid dividends."

In his remarks on Friday, PM Lee was asked if he already has someone in mind. To this, he stressed that what was key is that there is "a strong team" in place.

Singapore Business Federation chief executive Ho Meng Kit said all three front runners have shown willingness to engage the business community over the years.

"Businessmen are of course interested in who the next PM will be but what's more important to them is continuity in policies, and they are confident that regardless of who the PM is, there will be continuity," he said.

Just like the rest of Singapore, the business community is divided on who would be the best man for the job, said Mr Ho. "Each of the front runners has his strengths - but isn't that a good thing? Whoever it is, we will have a good leader and we'll still have the other two working with him as a team."

Additional reporting by Yuen Sin

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