The shock announcement by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat that he will not be Singapore’s next Prime Minister has put paid to the notion that Singapore politics is stable and predictable. Instead, this surprising development spells a period of uncertainty for Singapore; the question is how long and how intense this phase of uncertainty will be.
On April 8, Heng announced on Facebook and in a press conference that he will not succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, a position for which Heng was anointed in 2018. As a result, Singapore’s next generation (fourth generation) of leaders are back to the drawing board, where they must select from among themselves a new successor. In Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), it is standard practice for the next generation of ministers and office-holders to choose from their own ranks the next Prime Minister.
While the fourth-generation (4G) leaders deliberate over who should be the next Prime Minister, there will be uncertainty over succession. In some countries, this uncertainty can lead to bloody chaos such as a coup or civil war, but that will most likely not happen in Singapore. Conversely, a moderate measure of uncertainty, where nobody gets hurt, can engender a smart and tough leader.
The late Lee Kuan Yew is an example of an effective leader emerged amidst turmoil. Lee Kuan Yew, the father of Lee Hsien Loong, became Prime Minister in 1959, when the Lion City, which was under British colonial rule, faced strikes, student unrest, organised crime and Communist sedition.
Before then, he was not expected to be Prime Minister, but Lim Chin Siong, who co-founded the PAP with him, was regarded as a prospective Prime Minister. During the 1950s, Lee Kuan Yew told the late David Marshall, who was then Singapore Chief Minister, that Lim would be the future Prime Minister of Singapore, according to a book, “Leaders of Singapore”, by Melanie Chew. Instead, Lim was imprisoned and subsequently left politics. Lim, who died in 1996, had this in common with Heng — both men were expected to be Prime Minister but did not land the top job. During the 31 years when Lee Kuan Yew was Prime Minister, Singapore prospered tremendously.
Lessons from China
The history of modern China offers some lessons for Singapore’s succession challenge.
In April 1969, Marshal Lin Biao became the second most powerful man in China and the presumptive heir to Chairman Mao Zedong. However, the two men fell out and a power struggle between them ensued. On September 13, 1971, Lin Biao fled China in a plane which crashed in Mongolia, ending his life.
There is an obvious difference between Singapore and this episode of Chinese history. There is no evidence of a power struggle between Heng and Prime Minister Lee. What Heng has in common with Lin Biao is both men were the official successors but did not become leaders of their countries.
After Mao died in 1976, Hua Guofeng became China’s leader. By 1980, Hua was pushed aside and Deng Xiaoping replaced him as China’s de facto leader. Subsequently, Deng launched economic reforms that resulted in China now being the world’s second largest economy behind the US and a rising superpower that is challenging the US.
Singapore’s 4G leadership must inevitably choose the next Prime Minister, but there is no guarantee their pick will be an effective and long-lasting Prime Minister. The possibility cannot be ruled out whereby Singapore’s next Prime Minister may have a short tenure like Hua, to be replaced by a more capable and longer-lasting Prime Minister. One possible scenario is Singapore’s next Prime Minister is replaced by another candidate from the PAP. Another scenario is the PAP loses power in a future election and the following Prime Minister comes from another party.
Forging or grooming a leader
More often than not, great leaders are forged in a crisis, not groomed. Like Lee Kuan Yew, Winston Churchill became a great leader when his country Britain faced grave threats. In May 1940 when Nazi Germany invaded Holland and Belgium, Neville Chamberlain resigned as British Prime Minister after losing the support of many members of Parliament. Churchill replaced Chamberlain, then went on to defeat Germany and win World War 2.
Churchill was not groomed through a careful process. Up to the last moment, it was uncertain whether Churchill or another candidate like Lord Halifax would replace Chamberlain as British Prime Minister. Before that, Churchill was sidelined in his own Conservative Party.
The disruption in Singapore’s leadership has made Singapore more unpredictable, similar to some countries like Malaysia, where Anwar Ibrahim was expected to succeed Mahathir Mohamad as Prime Minister but did not. The examples of Lee Kuan Yew, Deng and Churchill show unpredictability can throw up great leaders who take their nations to the next level of success. Thus, there is a gleam of hope amidst the clouds surrounding Singapore’s future.
Toh Han Shih is chief analyst of Headland Intelligence, a Hong Kong risk consultancy. The opinions expressed in this article are his own. Follow us on Social Media
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