Swimming at the deep end

SINGAPORE - For a country used to seeing its top politicians groomed over years or even decades, former chief of army Chan Chun Sing's ascendancy from political newbie to full minister has been meteoric.

Even the highest of the high-fliers of 2001's "Super Seven" batch of politicians - Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan - had about four years between entering politics and reaching the same milestone.

Of the current ministers, Mr Chan's rise is outpaced only by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, who managed the rare feat of catapulting straight into full ministership in 2011. This was last accomplished by former finance minister Richard Hu in 1984.

But Mr Heng entered politics at age 50 - a decade older than Mr Chan and the other fourth-generation leaders.

What the accelerated pace of the careers of Mr Chan and his two peers - Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin and Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong - reflects is an urgency created by uncertainty.

Mr Chan became Acting Minister immediately after the 2011 General Election while Mr Tan and Mr Wong were made Ministers of State, before moving up to their current acting roles a year later.

Even with these moves, Singapore politics has never before had so little clarity on the ruling party's succession planning.

In 2011, as he inducted the fourth-generation leaders into his Cabinet, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (in photo above) said that the faster pace of political appointment was due to the urgency of leadership succession.

He has since said that he hopes not to be PM beyond 70 years old - he is currently 61 - and has set himself a deadline of 2020 to hand over to Singapore's fourth-generation leadership. That is just seven years away. At the corresponding moment in Mr Goh Chok Tong's premiership, it was quite clear who his successor would be.

This is why the young ministers have had to endure the political equivalent of being dropped into the deep end of the pool.

They do not have the luxury of a few years in the baby pool of more junior appointments, observing their predecessors and learning the strokes, before they will be called on to lead the country. This is what the second and third generation, including PM Lee, had.

Instead, they have had to be propelled straight away into key decision-making roles, because it is in the crucible of highest responsibility that leaders are forged. It is only then that it can become clear who the next PM could be.

But this compressed process of political maturation is already showing signs of stress.

On Wednesday, PM Lee also announced that Mr Tan would relinquish his second portfolio as Senior Minister of State for National Development, to focus on the Manpower Ministry.

In an interview with reporters in China, Mr Lee said he had previously been asked to take on too much.

Some have taken it as a demotion of sorts, or even as a public insult to Mr Tan's abilities. But that is unfair.

Both Mr Chan and Mr Wong are effectively helming half a ministry each - the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports was split last year - while the Manpower portfolio that Mr Tan is grappling with is at the centre of Singapore's economic restructuring.

Instead, what this reveals is the downside of a compressed political timeline. A baptism of fire will burn even men of the highest calibre, and all of the fourth-generation leadership will likely have already felt some form of this, public or not.

But it can also reveal their mettle.

In a way, an intense, accelerated ascension befits a prime minister who will have to deal with a vastly more competitive political landscape than his predecessors did. Governance will be complex and unpredictable at every turn.

But it will also be replete with opportunities for a leader with a maverick vision for a country in transition, and the steely persuasion required to take the people along. The kind of leader who, when he is thrown in at the deep end, surfaces, swims and wins.


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