By Augustine Low
It would not be wise for a PM to stay on in the job past the age of 70.
So declared Lee Hsien Loong once. He then promptly earmarked 2020 as the year for him to step down, when he would turn 68.
He has since revised his target to 2022 – the year he turns 70.
The question is, has he changed his mind yet again?
Asked by a Malaysian editor on April 9 how long he planned to stay on as PM, he replied: “I can’t say exactly how long I’m staying but I’m 62 years old and that’s not young.”
So he’s now not sure when he will step down, after previously declaring 2020 as a target, and then 2022?
His father stepped down as PM at 67. Goh Chok Tong gave up the hot seat at 63.
So Hsien Loong will most certainly become Singapore’s oldest PM. And from the look of things, soldiering on past 70 is now every bit the possibility that he himself warned against.
He did not say exactly why it was unwise for the PM to continue past the age of 70. Presumably, it is not that the PM becomes too old and frail to do the job. The more likely reason is that it does not bode well for the country, to have to rely on one man at the helm for too long.
Is PM Lee grappling with the dilemma that no one has emerged as a clear successor? For certain, his current Cabinet is not exactly bursting with intellectual foresight and prowess. It pales in comparison to previous Cabinets of his father’s and Goh Chok Tong’s reign.
Last year, when asked what he wanted in the next PM, Hsieng Loong said ideally another Lee Kuan Yew. Is he still looking in vain and hoping against hope?
Hsien Loong was DPM for 14 years before he took the top job. Of the current DPMs, Teo Chee Hean is only two years younger, so he is ruled out. Tharman Shanmugaratnam has ruled himself out, and in any case, we are told by the PAP that Singapore is not ready for a non-Chinese PM.
Time is running out, if a DPM is to be blooded in to be the future PM. It has to happen sooner rather than later, most definitely immediately after the next GE.
It is possible that PM Lee is simply hanging on to the job because he feels he needs more time to put gloss and shine to a legacy that is still up in the air. That may, however, be unwise because time is never enough.
But he could be stalling and shifting his targets at stepping down because he has just not been able to identify a worthy successor. It either means that he is indecisive or that the Singapore system fails to deliver when it truly matters.