(Next) PM: From 4G back to 3G?

Sense And Nonsense - by Tan Bah Bah

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There is a very strange rhythm to all the talk about who the next Prime Minister will be. Where is it leading to, exactly? Follow the trail closely.

Since PM Lee Hsien Loong said he would be stepping down by 2021, we all expected that he would clarify his decision of who his successor would be by then. No one was hurrying him since he has three years between now and 2021 and the 4G ministers have already been in place. Until Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong’s Facebook reminder that time is running out.

What was Goh up to? Did he throw in the thunderflash on his own? Speculation in the mainstream media differed. I saw one report that he must have had clearance from the top before he wrote his comment that the issue should be settled early, in six to nine months, to give the anointed next PM enough time to settle down. Another hinted that Goh did it without consulting PM Lee. Does it really matter?

Two other reactions seemed to suggest it was not something that people were nervously biting their fingernails over.

We are aware of our responsibility, we will act in good time, said16 PAP office-holders, including the three frontrunners, Heng Swee Keat, Chan Chun Sing and Ong Ye Kung. So, back off, we will take our time.

Then there was Senior Minister of State for Law and Finance Indranee Rajah:

“That topic has been over-discussed…essentially the 16 have said what we need to say about this. It’s really not about us, it’s about Singapore. While leadership succession is a pressing issue, Singapore’s 4G ministers want to focus on other important topics such as jobs and social issues.”

If we want to stretch the take-it-easy-we-know-what-we-are-doing attitude a little further, we need not look beyond PM Lee’s NDP Rally speech last year, just six months ago. The focus was on diabetes, preschools and Smart Nation. Not a whisper on leadership succession.

Whether Goh had to seek permission to say what he had to say is beside the point. PM Lee was not being fair when he said Goh was no longer responsible for making it (choosing the next PM) happen. The ESM was qualified to share his concern. He had the experience of having been through a similar probationary period, as DPM under probation and as the PM mentoring the PM-to-be Lee Hsien Loong. If he could not speak up, what’s the reason for being ESM? Put more succinctly, would PM Lee have chided his father, Lee Kuan Yew, if he is alive and said the same thing as Goh?

Then again, coming back to the very noble crescent-and-moon flag flying statement by Indranee Rajah, “it’s not about us, it’s about Singapore”. Right. Agree. The country is bigger than anyone or any family or any political party.

My speculative take is this: For some reason, a kite was flown, not quite to focus on who of the 4G “frontrunners” will be the fourth PM of the Republic.

The exercise will serve a number of purposes, not all totally linked, with one or two standalone.

The first one will, of course, be to find out the public’s response to each of the three frontrunners. Which of the trio is the most acceptable, if a choice has to be made, willy nilly?

Related to this is: Is anyone even regarded as up to the mark? If not, why?

The second is: If anyone of the three is pushed through, whatever his weaknesses, what would be the possible consequences? A weakened government, a diminished PAP, a less connected, leaderless ruling party?

Third, a corollary of the second reason: Should Singaporeans be primed for a collegial system of government where it does not matter whether we have a clear leader so long as a strong team is in charge.

Fourth, can voters consider two other scenarios?

Pick Tharman Shanmugaratnam, 60,  as the interim PM until the next one is truly ready. On every count – ability, experience, intellect, public standing, charisma except race and maybe age –  he should be a shoo-in. Some people have already said so.

Or, as has been floated in The Straits Times by Elgin Toh: Why not have PM Lee continue beyond 70? The PM is 65 but will be 66 this Saturday, Feb 10 (so happy birthday). Mind you, it is not Warren Fernandez, Chua Mui Hoong (Opinion Editor) or Lin Xueying (Political Editor), the big guns whose names are in the ST masthead who is asking the $410 billion question but the Insight Editor, a relatively non-big gun, with all due respects to Elgin. The $410 billion is our GDP.

And so we come one full circle. Watch this space.

Should PM Lee lead beyond 70?

Sense And Nonsense is a weekly series. Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.