Leadership renewal

The People's Action Party's leadership renewal process at the highest echelons of the Government is facing unprecedented difficulty.

Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, in an interview about his succession in 1990 for a National Day supplement this year, put it this way: "The fourth-generation leadership team is being put in place, but a new leader of the team has yet to emerge. It is getting urgent."

It is instructive to compare the current moment with how the issue of succession played out through the first, second and third generations of political leadership.

By 1980, a full decade before Mr Lee Kuan Yew would actually step down, all the contenders who could potentially succeed the independence-generation founding fathers were firmly in place in the Government. They included Mr Goh, Dr Tony Tan, Mr Ong Teng Cheong, Mr Lim Chee Onn, Dr Ahmad Mattar and others. Most already had several years of politics under their belts.

In 1984, they decided among themselves that Mr Goh would be the next PM; he began running day-to-day government businesses a few years later.

Similarly, PM Lee himself had been identified as Mr Goh's successor and served as his deputy for his entire premiership.

PM Lee is now 63, and has been at the helm for over a decade. We can expect this coming general election to be his last at the head of the ruling party. If it is not, the PAP's renewal process has derailed.

Yet, only half of the fourth-generation leadership are in place in the Government at present, with the bulk of them - Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, labour chief Chan Chun Sing, Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-jin, Culture, Community and Youth Minister Lawrence Wong - having entered politics in 2011.

Former civil servant Ong Ye Kung was to join them, but he was not elected by Aljunied GRC voters.

The significance of Mr Ong's loss has not been dwelled on as public attention was rightly focused on the exit of Foreign Minister George Yeo, who led the PAP's Aljunied team.

But Mr Ong's failure to enter politics on time, in line with the renewal plan, has deeply influenced the ruling party's new-blood strategy.

With renewal facing the roadblock of political pluralism, new candidates, especially potential fourth-gen leaders, must now be deployed differently if the PAP is to keep its plan on track.

The ruling party has begun rolling out its slate of candidates for the coming election.

One trend has become clear: In all constituencies where the Workers' Party (WP) is contesting, there are almost no new PAP faces - and no potential new ministers at all.

Despite the presence of veteran backbenchers for whom the time may be right to retire - like Dr Lily Neo in Jalan Besar, Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef or Mr Seah Kian Peng in Marine Parade, or Ms Jessica Tan in East Coast - PAP leaders have evidently decided that no chances can be taken with renewal. These MPs have been allowed - or in some instances, asked - to stay on, rather than make way for a new candidate.

Meanwhile, almost all its new faces have been bundled away from constituencies where the WP will contest, as that is the only electoral threat that the PAP takes seriously.

Of its potential fourth-gen ministers, former top civil servant Chee Hong Tat will contest in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, Mr Ong has moved into Sembawang GRC, and former top military chief Ng Chee Meng will be fielded in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC. The one thing all these constituencies have in common? A non-WP contest.

These chess moves perhaps belie the renewal pitch emphasised by party leaders in the opening beats of the PAP's campaign.

Party organising secretary Ng Eng Hen, who was the first to introduce new candidates in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC last week, said political succession could unfold only with Singaporeans' support: "If the country feels that the candidates we put up can measure up to those responsibilities and capabilities required of ministers, then we would have the succession plan."

Singaporeans' support may be essential, but by fielding its new blood in safe seats, the PAP is ringfencing political renewal from the vagaries of electoral sentiment.

It is not the only political party whose rhetoric dwarfs its actions. Behold the scrambling that opposition parties have been doing in the past few weeks to avoid three-cornered fights for fear of splitting the opposition vote in the constituencies they contest.

If the will of Singaporeans were really trusted by politicians, elaborate manoeuvring to channel this will to match their best interests would not be necessary.

But this is politics.

Historical evidence shows that the political renewal pitch has never really worked that well for the ruling party, at least in comparison with the classic sources of its appeal based on track record, policy successes and governing integrity.

These are the major reasons for its political success, and are the factors behind the "enlightened self-interest" of Singaporean voters in keeping the PAP as one of the longest-ruling political parties in the world. This enlightened self-interest does not extend to helping the ruling party ensure its own renewal.

Through Singapore's political history, even in the decades that the PAP's dominance went beyond what it is today, factors like the perceived unlikeability of the candidate, or a broad desire for pluralism, have proven more powerful than the renewal pitch.

In 1984, founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew touted then-new candidate Mah Bow Tan's ministerial potential, told voters he would be "more than an MP", and compared his O-level results favourably to that of his Singapore Democratic Party opponent Chiam See Tong.

Mr Chiam won, and Mr Mah entered Parliament only in the next round in 1988, as a candidate for Tampines GRC. He did indeed become a minister.

Similarly in 2011, Aljunied voters hardly took notice of Mr Ong's ministerial potential. And in the 2013 Punggol East by-election, PM Lee's comment on candidate Koh Poh Koon's office-holder potential had little effect on voters leaning towards the WP.

In its deployment strategy for the coming election, it is evident that the PAP has cottoned on that renewal is a party priority not necessarily shared by the electorate at large.

That is perhaps for the best.

It is asking too much for voters to take PAP leaders' word for it that the new candidates they are fielding - barely known to their residents or to the public at large - are essential for the nation's survival and success.

Better that these young leaders prove themselves in Parliament and in office, and build a real bond of their own with voters on the national stage.

After all, that's the way a prime minister should be made - not by blessings from party elders in private tea sessions, but through affection and trust earned from an electorate over time.



This article was first published on August 23, 2015.
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