Big test awaits 4G leaders as next GE nears

Big test awaits 4G leaders as next GE nears
Party members listening to the speech by Party Secretary-General Lee Hsien Loong at the PAP Conference and Awards Ceremony at Singapore Expo, Hall 8 on Nov 11, 2018.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

There is still quite some time to go until the next general election (GE) in Singapore, but it's safe to say the wheels are already in motion for the big day as the country gears up for only its third leadership transition since independence.

On Sunday, the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) witnessed a significant overhaul of its top ranks during its biennial conference held at the Singapore Expo.

Five veterans who are all in their 60s - chairman Khaw Boon Wan, assistant secretaries-general Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, and retired ministers Yaacob Ibrahim (vice-chairman) and Lim Swee Say (treasurer) - did not contest the ballot to elect a new Central Executive Committee (CEC).

Their stepping aside paved the way for some members of the fourth-generation (4G) leadership to take their place on the party's highest decision-making body.

The 2,000 or so cadres present at the conference voted in a new 12-member CEC, and on that slate are the three men - Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing and Education Minister Ong Ye Kung - widely believed to be in the running to succeed Mr Lee as prime minister after the GE.

Singaporeans will have to wait just a little while more before they get more clues as to who might be the so-called "first among equals" in that trio.

With the CEC election now over, the new committee (along with the two co-opted members Ng Eng Hen and Josephine Teo) will have their first meeting within a couple of weeks to elect a new slate of office-holders.

PM Lee - who turns 67 in February and has repeatedly indicated he wants to do a handover before he is 70 - is likely to stay on as secretary-general and lead the PAP at the next GE.

While the post of party chairman is important, all eyes will naturally be on which two people will be elected assistant secretaries-general, as they will almost certainly be promoted to Deputy Prime Minister when Mr Lee makes another set of changes to his Cabinet line-up.

The more eagle-eyed among political watchers here will be looking closely at the list of CEC office-holders to see who gets elected as "First Assistant Secretary-General" and "Se-cond Assistant Secretary-General".

But regardless of what position they hold in the CEC, the hope is that the future transition of power will be a seamless one, much like how the late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew handed over to his successor Goh Chok Tong in 1990, and subsequently Mr Goh's handover to Mr Lee in 2004.

Mr Lee himself noted that both transitions turned out to be non-events that were "smooth and sure-footed".

But it's a known fact that the 4G team doesn't have the luxury of a long runway that their predecessors enjoyed.

Their learning curve will be steep, to put it mildly, and the world today is fraught with new and difficult challenges that will severely test their ability to work as a cohesive team.

Mr Lee, however, reiterated that these younger ministers have already been in the Cabinet for several years and served in different portfolios.

"They are working with one another, and learning to complement one another's strengths and weaknesses. It is a team of able men and women, with a good combination of skills among them," he said.

"They are gaining experience, willing to serve, and most importantly, with their hearts in the right place. I can see them gelling as a team, and am confident that they have what it takes to lead Singapore."

The party conference that Mr Lee spoke at wasn't an election rally, but it had the feel of one as he told members of Singapore's oldest and most successful political party that it has to win the next GE convincingly.

As Mr Lee himself noted, the next election will be "completely different" from the last one and it will be a "new test" for the PAP to navigate and overcome.

With election expectations increasing, one question that will be asked repeatedly in the coming months is exactly when Singaporeans will head for the ballot boxes.

Mr Lee said there are only two years left for the party to prepare, just a few days after he told an international forum that it was "always possible" the poll could be brought forward to as early as 2019, when Singapore marks its bicentennial.

When the time eventually comes to put the PAP's track record before voters, the spotlight will surely be on the prime minister-in-waiting and the rest of the 4G leaders to prove they - and the ruling party - deserve another strong mandate from the electorate.

PAP's Central Executive Committee (2019-2020)

Elected members

Lee Hsien Loong

K Shanmugam

Chan Chun Sing

Grace Fu

Gan Kim Yong

Heng Swee Keat

Masagos Zulkifli

Indranee Rajah

Ng Chee Meng

Ong Ye Kung

Tan Chuan-Jin

Vivian Balakrishnan

Co-opted members

Ng Eng Hen

Josephine Teo

This article was first published in The Business Times. Permission required for reproduction.

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