Malaysia has Anwar Ibrahim, its Prime Minister-in-waiting. Now we have our own PM-in-waiting – Heng Swee Keat, the newly appointed First Assistant Secretary-General of the ruling People’s Action Party. Two very different personalities who have made it to the penultimate political spot in very different circumstances.
Anwar, leader of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the dominant component of the governing Pakatan Harapan coalition, is a hardened politician, having survived the quicksand world of combative Malaysian politics to await and, if all goes well, take his turn as the next Malaysian PM. It has been a long journey for the PKR leader. Still, even at this stage, nothing is guaranteed and everything is possible in leadership battles across the Causeway.
Heng, Singapore’s 4th PM-to-be, is the product of an almost closed system that has little in common with the Malaysian one. In Malaysia, politics is played out in the open. Factions compete, party polls are public, party leaders take on one another. The result: national leaders who make it are normally those who can carry the ground, having gone through the route of having to convince party members that they would be more than capable of fighting in the wider contest that lies ahead at district, state and national levels. No choreography, no leadership by tea session or appointment.
In contrast, the People’s Action Party has not veered from its cadre system of controlled internal elections and consensus. This system has its roots in the earlier years of the PAP when the old guard leadership, having prevailed over their pro-communist rivals, thought it wise to retain it to maintain control. No overt infighting. Cadres keep a strong grip on party directions and leaders keep an eye on the cadres.
This impression of a closed-door culture has been reinforced by 4G leaders saying in January that they “will settle on a leader from amongst us in good time”. They would not be hurried. Basically, they were saying to ESM Goh Chok Tong, who told them to hurry up, that this was an internal matter, not open even to party elders no longer involved in the day-to-day business of government business.
All countries, including Singapore and Malaysia which were once together, have to work out their own styles.
But, whatever system they choose or are comfortable with, it must throw up leaders who can lead and inspire. Or isn’t that what politics is all about? Will Heng be able to lead and inspire?
Lee Kuan Yew had many good things to say of him:
“He has one of the finest minds among the civil servants I have worked with,” “the most valuable member of the new (4G) team” and the “best principal private secretary (he ever had).”
The only pity, said LKY, was that Heng was not of a big bulk, which made a difference in a mass rally.
Bulk is not a must for leadership. History is replete with leaders who were not bulky or tall – Napoleon, Deng Xiaoping. Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim are not particularly big-sized.
There is another more important point, however. Being a civil servant par excellence does not translate into being an effective political leader.
Heng might have passed the test of his peers in the ruling party but there is the wide wild wild west world outside, with many who do not think like PAP cadres or PAP card-carrying members.
At this juncture, Heng could rest easy in the belief that the endorsement of a group of young PAP leaders carries the guarantee of a good housebrand and get a shock later. Or he could step out of the cosy establishment cocoon and carve out his own niche and rapport with the electorate whose say is the one that counts most.
He should brush aside the politesse of sycophantic accolades and establish an own recognisable voice that resonates with voters. His ex-Monetary Authority of Singapore colleague, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, started his own political career not entirely at ease on the podium. But he is today a refreshing voice at any level of public engagement – at a rally or a World Bank talk. For a start, Heng can do no worse than be another Tharman.
Lastly, he will not be judged just by his performance in Singapore. He has to step up quite a bit to make his mark in the region and the rest of the world.
And that’s another story. His Malaysian counterpart, Anwar Ibrahim, is already an iconic figure worldwide.
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.