Shaping Singapore's 4th-gen leadership

Shaping Singapore's 4th-gen leadership
PHOTO: The Straits Times

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'

Too short? Or not?

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."

Hothousing new Ministers

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.

Can mentorship make up for the shorter runway?

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.

Choosing their leader

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.

This article was first published on October 04, 2015.
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