Next PM: Saga of the 16 samurais and a fading Jedi

Sense And Nonsense

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What was that all about?

Writing in Facebook last Sunday (31 December 2017), Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said the 4G leadership issue should be settled before the end of this new year, in six to nine months. That got a swift response on Thursday (January 4) from 16 PAP “samurais” – 16 younger PAP political office-holders. The group, which included the three widely acknowledged frontrunners to be the next Prime Minister, said they would choose their leader in good time.

Back came Goh yesterday (January 6). “I posted on purpose to elicit the response from the fourth generation and they have given the response so I have achieved my purpose. In other words, get on with the task,” he said at the sidelines of a youth community event.

“On purpose”. Interesting.

Goh used Facebook no less to prod his “slow” younger colleagues. They were not slow to issue a joint statement in reply but did not seem anxious to be tied down to a timeline. They said: “The younger ministers are keenly aware leadership succession is a pressing issue…we are working closely together as a team and will settle a leader from amongst us in good time.”

Anyway, Parliament was going to be prorogued until it reopens in May for the inaugural address by the new President Halimah Yacob. One thing at a time, according to Minister in PMO Josephine Teo.

So that was it. Some friendly wayang to remind everyone that PM Lee Hsien Loong may be running out of time. The next PM would have a shorter run up time as Deputy Prime Minister than either Lee or Goh before each became PM.

The point is: This time around, there may well be a genuine lack of interest on the part of almost everyone.

Firstly, PM Lee may not think any one of the touted trio – Heng Swee Keat, Chan Chun Sing or Ong Ye Kung – is demonstrably ready. He is not exactly in a rush to name his successor until he is sure.

Secondly, not one of the three is even keen to “fight” for the job. It is not in the PAP DNA or culture. The whole process may well be touted as “a tested process” which will take its due course.  But being PM of a once developing country is also not quite the same as being PM of a now developed nation where expectations are high and challenges may be much more demanding. And unlike when Goh Chok Tong was striker (of an experienced soccer team) with someone like Lee Kuan Yew as goalkeeper (Goh’s own words), the next PM will be captaining a relatively less cohesive team of players in more complex times.

Thirdly, let’s face it. Heng, Chan and Ong may be good or excellent ministers. But the prospect of their becoming the next PM does not fire up anyone’s enthusiasm, not least going by what we have seen or heard in public. If they have any public charisma, we would have noticed it by now. No buzz so far.

Yet, having said all that, here’s my 2,021 cents’ worth at this stage.

The next general election – by 2021 – is just three years from now. It will be PM Lee’s last term as PM. Whoever is anointed to take over after him will go into the pivotal polls as the flag bearer of the next generation of leaders. Voters, many new, will rightly bid PM Lee a fond farewell but they will also tell him whether they endorse the party’s choice of the next PM. His own legacy will be at stake, whether he likes it or not.

Time is indeed running out. The decision of the next PM may not necessarily be the 4G leaders’ alone to make. Theirs may turn out to be not so relevant.

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.