Time to tweak succession formula?

SINGAPORE - If Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is to get his wish to step down by the time he reaches 70, Singapore's next PM might have to be identified by the next general election due in 2016.

That will leave the new PM-designate up to five years to prepare to lead his party in the 2021 General Election.

Mr Lee would then be 69 - hitting his target with a year to spare.

Score one for another carefully thought through succession plan?

In any other democracy, this would have been derided as highly presumptuous, as the PM and his party need to be elected by a majority of the people whose votes should not be taken for granted.

But in the Singapore context, it probably wouldn't raise many eyebrows, so used are the people to having leadership renewal done this way.

Indeed, political succession planning was a Lee Kuan Yew special.

He devised the system for inducting promising young candidates in their 30s and 40s into the Cabinet, mentoring and testing them to get the best into government.

The high level of predictability on who the next prime minister would be was one hallmark of this system, probably unmatched elsewhere.

When Mr Goh Chok Tong was made first deputy prime minister in 1985, he was identified as a front runner for the hot seat.

Within five years, he succeeded Mr Lee as PM in 1990. It was no surprise, part of a carefully laid-out plan.

The younger Lee's rise was even more predictable, with the question at the time being when he would assume the premiership, not whether.

With such a history of planned and stable changeovers, it is not surprising if the current leaders see it as a model worth emulating.

The question though is whether this LKY modus operandi can work in today's changed circumstances, and if not, what adjustments have to be made.

In fact, the early indications are that it won't be business as usual.

For one thing, there is no clear successor in sight ready to take over come 2016.

 

Those who have been mentioned as possible candidates, notably Mr Heng Swee Keat and Mr Chan Chun Sing, were elected only three years ago, a far cry from the 10 years that Mr Goh served before being made deputy PM.

PM Lee's training was even longer - he said recently he was fortunate to have had 20 years of apprenticeship before heading the Cabinet.

If it is going to be less certain who the next PM will be, it isn't necessarily a bad thing. Predictability is less important than being sure the right choice has been made.

In the Singapore of today, that means having a PM who is able to connect with the ground, which has shifted and changed significantly over the last 10 years.

PM Lee should take his time assessing the candidates, never mind the timeframe.

One necessary feature of the LKY method, but which is unlikely to be repeated, is that he made sure politics didn't get in the way of his young proteges' performance.

His hardball approach against his political opponents was so intimidating few dared enter the arena. This cleared the way for the newly inducted scholar ministers to operate in almost ideal laboratory-like conditions.

In today's more competitive politics and with a more critical electorate, it is doubtful that this formula can produce the same results.

Ministers today have a much harder time proving that their policies will work and are in the interest of the country because the public expect quicker results and are not as forgiving when their expectations are not met.

It is said that younger Singaporeans take for granted the country's success and this thinking has shaped what they expect from the ministers.

But older Singaporeans, too, are different from their forefathers.

They are better educated, and have lived through the ups and downs of Singapore's progress since independence.

They have accumulated considerable experience and are not as easily impressed, especially if the younger ministers have not yet proven themselves through the successful implementation of their policies.

This is very different from the earlier generation which accorded greater respect to their leaders.

And because the ministers then had an easier time implementing their policies successfully, it added to their credentials.

How then to meet this challenge?

The answer for the People's Action Party (PAP) must lie in widening its search, beyond the traditional pool of candidates in their 30s and 40s.

It has to look for people in their 50s, even 60s, especially those who have already made it in their careers and are looking for fresh challenges.

Their wider personal and professional experiences will add greater diversity to the leadership, which is sorely needed in the present line-up.

They will bring a different set of experience to the Cabinet, and a fresh perspective.

In any case, the PAP probably has no choice but to try this older-candidate option because the 30s-40s pipeline will become increasingly difficult to tap, especially from the private sector.

It would take some persuading for these young career professionals who are starting to climb the corporate ladder to take the plunge into a much riskier political life.

That would leave the civil service as the only other source - and aggravate the imbalance we see today with a Cabinet that's dominated by former civil servants and military officers.

In fact, the present Cabinet today is probably the most civil service-like in composition.

Making fundamental changes to a system, especially one that has delivered results for so long, is never easy.

But with only three more years to the next election, the PAP will have to act fast to make this change.

Otherwise the PM might not get his retirement wish.

And Singaporeans will be no clearer as to who his successor might be.

hanfk@sph.com.sg


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