Beyond 70? It’s putting the brakes on leadership renewal

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By Augustine Low

Lee Kuan Yew stepped down as Prime Minister at 67. Goh Chok Tong stepped down at 63 and for 14 years now, he has been a senior member of the cabinet.

So when PM Lee Hsien Loong set a target more than 10 years ago of leaving office by age 70, it made perfect sense. Like his predecessors, it would be in the name of leadership renewal.

But suddenly, with the delay in the annointing of a PM-designate, some of the talk has shifted from who the next PM will be to whether PM Lee will indeed step down at 70.

In a recent Straits Times commentary, it was argued that staying on beyond 70 should not be a problem for PM Lee because leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill were in office well into their seventies. Yes, and we might add that Dr Mahathir Mohamad, at 92, is still fighting elections and bidding to be PM of Malaysia once again.

But health and fitness for office is not the issue here. Most certainly, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong could have carried on but they chose to make way. As PM Lee himself put it in 2012: “. . . Singapore needs a prime minister who is younger, who’s got that energy, and who is in tune with that very much younger and very much different generation.”

Globally the trend is towards younger, not older leaders. French President Emmanuel Macron is only 40. New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern is 37.  Ireland’s leader Leo Varadkar is 38. And amazingly, the leader of Austria, Sebastian Kurz is a youthful 31.

Not forgetting that Barack Obama was only 55 after completing two terms as US President, while British PM David Cameron was 49 when he left office.

Singaporeans are not clamouring for PM Lee to hand over the baton but for as long as we can remember, we have been told that leadership renewal is the cornerstone of the country’s continued success.

Already there has been a whiff of a riff between PM Lee and Goh Chok Tong on the succession issue. Throw into the mix rampant talk of PM Lee having one preferred candidate and the 4G cohort having another, and the waters get murkier. What used to be smooth sailing has now become a bone of contention.

In China, there are also rumblings about leadership renewal. Political watchers have found it ominous that President Xi Jinping has yet to annoint a potential successor. They see it as a sign that he intends to break away from the Chinese Community Party’s 10-year mandate for the Paramount Leader, that he wants to carry on for more years than his predecessors.

Is it a case of no one capable enough to be successor, or a case of personal agenda taking hold?