With Singapore’s succession line in flux, an unusual drama is playing out

Singapore politics is being tested by Covid-19, opposition gains and the leader-in-waiting's call to step aside

FILE PHOTO: Singapore's Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat attends a UBS client conference in Singapore, January 14, 2019. REUTERS/Feline Lim/File Photo
Powered by automated translation

Since coming to power in 1959, the People's Action Party (PAP) has ruled Singapore for an uninterrupted 62 years. Such is its dominance that electoral outcomes are mostly predictable, while the politics itself is efficient, brilliantly stage-managed and, for the most part, without drama.

“Singa-bore,” some like to call it, albeit happily. For political stability and efficient governance have served the South-East Asian city-state well, making it among the world’s wealthiest and most business-friendly countries.

But politics in recent months has been anything but boring, and much to the PAP's misfortune, bad things have come in threes. It started with the Covid-19 pandemic and was quickly followed by electoral setbacks, as the Workers' Party gained 10 seats in Parliament – a record for any opposition party in Singapore. Both of these developments culminated last week in Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat's announcement that he was stepping aside as the ruling party's leader-in-waiting.

Mr Heng cited his age as the primary reason for doing so. Originally due to succeed Lee Hsien Loong after the incumbent turns 70 in 2022, that goalpost was shifted indefinitely following the pandemic and the PAP’s relatively poor electoral performance (even though it won 83 of the 93 seats). Mr Lee said he will hand over the reins only once Singapore is “in good working order” again. At 60, Mr Heng said he would be much too old by the time he is ready to enter office.

In most countries, an announcement of this magnitude would animate the public for a few days. In Singapore, that could last much longer, given how intimately involved government is in people’s lives. For many, Singapore is PAP and PAP is Singapore. And what happens in the party matters, at some level, to all Singaporeans.

Mr Heng’s decision has so far not caused panic in the markets. But for a country that thrives on stability and predictability in all aspects of life, particularly in politics, it is a harbinger of uncertainty for the coming few months. In the long term, it could even presage dissent and divisions within an otherwise tightly knit party that takes leadership and succession-planning very seriously.

That stability and predictability have been the primary drivers behind Singapore’s success is entirely by design, as conceived by its founders.

Not long after he was sworn in as Singapore’s first prime minister in 1959, Lee Kuan Yew went about amassing power within the executive, thereby limiting the legislature and judiciary. He also restricted the press and passed laws making it nearly impossible for opposition parties to criticise the PAP, much less grow their movements. Even to this day, public demonstrations are almost non-existent.

Lee Hsien Loong has postponed stepping down as Singapore's Prime Minister. Bloomberg
Lee Hsien Loong has postponed stepping down as Singapore's Prime Minister. Bloomberg

It is easy to see why the founders prized stability and predictability over other considerations. The country is just over 700 square kilometres in size. It has no natural resources to speak of, save for its nearly 6 million people, who are divided along racial and religious lines but united by a national identity. Any hint of disunity can very quickly lead to disharmony on a small piece of real estate, LKY feared, as it indeed had in the early 1960s, leading to a series of race riots. Being surrounded by much larger and unfriendly neighbours at the time of independence was also a great source of insecurity.

Critics, particularly in the West, have scorned LKY’s command-and-control style of governance, but he and the effectively one-party system he bequeathed have nonetheless overseen a clean and efficient government, ushered in prosperity and helped foster peace, friendship and co-operation in the region.

Aside from delivering for the public, the PAP's longevity is also predicated upon its unique process of picking leaders.

LKY and his fellow first-generation leaders, or “1G”, mentored the 2G leadership group that was then tasked with picking the prime minister from among them – effectively choosing their “first among equals”. It still took five years of “apprenticeship” for that leader, Goh Chok Tong, to eventually succeed LKY in 1990. Mr Goh’s 2G group followed the same process to groom Mr Lee and his 3G team before the latter entered office in 2004.

The late Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore's prime minister for 31 years. AFP
The late Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore's prime minister for 31 years. AFP
After a painstaking process of identifying the next leader, the PAP now has to start over. But it isn't back to square one

In both instances, the task was smoothened by the fact that the choice of who should become prime minister was crystal clear to the leadership group, and the party rallied behind him. This practice seems to have hit a curb in Mr Heng’s case.

There are mitigating circumstances, of course. The pandemic is a once-in-a-generation crisis. Age, as Mr Heng himself pointed out, is also an undermining factor – particularly for someone who has suffered a stroke once before. LKY was 36, Mr Goh was 49 and Mr Lee was 52 when they took office.

Well documented, however, is the fact that the process to identify and mentor Mr Lee’s successor was fraught with delays. These were mostly caused due to a lack of experience among the 4G leadership group, as well as Mr Heng’s stroke in 2016. But despite having had a clear edge over his peers in terms of experience, administrative skills and a gentle demeanour that initially seemed to endear him to the public, he was not the clearest choice when he was officially unveiled as Mr Lee’s heir apparent in 2018. A younger but less relatable Chan Chun Sing, the country’s trade and industry minister, finished a close second. The question being asked then was whether the PAP would get squarely behind Mr Heng’s candidature.

Even though he may not admit it, the people’s vote seems to have paved the way for last week’s decision. Not only did the PAP emerge with fewer seats and a reduced vote share in the 2020 election, Mr Heng barely won his own constituency, sparking doubts about his electability and electoral leadership.

After a painstaking process of identifying the next leader, the PAP now has to start over. The good news for it is that it isn’t back to square one. In the intervening years, Mr Heng’s peers, including Mr Chan, have acquired considerable experience, honed their political skills and buttressed Singapore from the pandemic’s worst aftershocks. The cupboard is also far from bare.

The bad news for it is that the world is in flux and so is Singapore's politics. Opposition parties, some that include disgruntled former PAP members, see an opportunity.

The question now is whether, in one or two years’ time, a clear leader will emerge – and if the party will get behind him or her. It is a multi-billion-dollar question, for Singapore's continued economic success will depend on it. A cabinet reshuffle, due in a couple of weeks, will throw up some clues.

Singapore has come a long way since the 19th and early 20th centuries, when it earned the moniker of “Sin-galore” due to its high crime rates and lawlessness. Much needs to happen for it to return to those bad old days. To the contrary, the country will continue to be a paradise of stability for years to come. But the next few months could determine whether, as unlikely as it seems, it can go back to being “Singa-bore” again.

Chitrabhanu Kadalayil is an assistant comment editor at The National