COMMENT: Singapore's political succession in a disruptive world

PHOTOS: Reuters / Yahoo News Singapore
PHOTOS: Reuters / Yahoo News Singapore

One piece at a time, the jigsaw puzzle that is Singapore’s political succession is falling into place.

We know that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wants to step aside by the time he is 70, which will happen sometime after the next election and must be held by April 2021. We also know that the race to be Singapore’s fourth PM has narrowed down from four to three men and that the coming Cabinet reshuffle will throw up new tea leaves on the identity of that person. Boring stuff. But that is the way political succession is done here. No surprises, no black swan events, no dark horses.

The only difference this time round is that the name of the man who will run Singapore is still up in the air, unlike the two previous changes of the leadership baton. Still, there is hardly any debate or excitement in the air as the Keppel scandal, fake news legislation and the cold snap preoccupy Singaporeans. Consider these points as to why this should not be the case:

When compared with that of the three previous teams, the 4G leadership bench strength is the weakest. The country’s future direction is clouded by a rising China with a clear ambition of filling the vacuum left behind by the United States, currently led by a president who wants to abandon his country’s age-old role of world policeman and champion of free trade.

Internally, a host of problems are already cropping up in Singapore:

  • A widening gap between the haves and have-nots

  • An economy that may not continue the sweet run that it saw in 2017 and the spill-over effect it is likely to have this year

  • An ageing workforce untrained for the disruptive forces that are beating down our shores

  • A slow-mo approach to being smarter at the disruptive technology game

  • A gaping lack of home-grown companies to take the fight to the big boys

  • A pervasive culture of waiting for government to pick winners and react to changes.

Like a perfect storm developing, these are all appearing at the same time. This is the kind of challenges the new leadership will face as they begin to take over.

They come from similar backgrounds like the military and the civil service where decision making is not immediate and decisive but done through a slow-mo process of consensus. Their runway of experience as ministers is short, just about seven years, and they have yet to show their mettle in decisively dumping policies that are not going to work. The two education ministers, Ong Ye Kung and Ng Chee Meng, seem to be the only ones who are trying to shake the ground in our schools and institutions of higher learning.

How Comfort-Delgro was outwitted by Uber and Grab is the sad story of a transport giant that was blindsided by technological disruption. In the end, it had no other better idea than a last-gasp one, to take a stake in Uber. It is decisiveness in decision making that is missing as the new team gets on the starting blocks. We hardly saw this characteristic in our previous leaders as they moved from one crisis to another. In a world where changes are taking place at a breathtaking pace, smart and quick decisions are what will make the difference.

It is not all doom and gloom. Singapore is keeping some powder dry in its gun. There are people like Lee Hsien Loong, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Teo Chee Hean, K Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan who can come out firing if there is a need. The Cabinet reshuffle will show how these individuals will be used.

P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who was formerly chief editor of Today, as well as an editor at The New Paper. He is currently a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.

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