Who will be Singapore’s next prime minister?

OCTOBER 15 — Singapore isn’t due for another general election until 2021 which should imply that we are some time away from seeing a change in our leadership.

In Singapore, the prime minister is the head of government and effectively the national leader. The position has been filled by Lee Hsien Loong since 2004. Following his party’s victory in the 2015 general election, Lee can continue in power until 2021.

In fact providing the People’s Action Party (PAP) wins the 2021 election, which is very likely,  he can continue in power after that,  as there are no terms limits for the prime minister.

However, reports in local media and statements from the prime minister and other party seniors indicate that the  search for a successor seems to have begun.

During last year’s National Day speech, PM Lee seemed unsteady on his feet and concerns about the health of the 65-year-old leader appear to have spurred the search for a potential successor.

Initially the spotlight was on Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam but he withdrew himself from any potential succession bid saying the party’s leadership would pass to someone in the fourth generation of party leaders.

Singapore city night skyline from Marina Bay Sands. — Picture from commons.wikimedia.org
Singapore city night skyline from Marina Bay Sands. — Picture from commons.wikimedia.org

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The ruling party arranges itself by generations with the current prime minister and both deputies classified as third generation leaders.

So those trying to gaze into a political crystal ball and determine the future of Singapore’s leadership need to consider some relatively fresh faces.

A number of potentials have presented themselves: Finance Minister Heng Swee Kiat, and Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung have the right profiles while  fancied Tan Chuan-Jin seems less likely to emerge as PM as he’s has just been sworn in as Speaker of Parliament which is usually a separate track from PM.

Recently though attention has been focused on Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing. He also serves as secretary-general of the influential National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and as deputy chair of the People’s

Association, a community organisation which is currently headed by the prime minister. 

An ex-military man rising to the rank of Major-General, he headed  the army while still in his early 40s but then resigned to enter politics as an MP for the PAP in 2011.

His current responsibilities as Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and member of the People’s Action Party’s central committee put him at the heart of government and the speed of his rise after just six years in parliament put him on the trajectory to be a serious contender.

He also has the  academic credentials of a future leader; a student at Raffles Institution, an economics degree from Cambridge and an MIT-Sloan MBA.

Ample education, experience at the top of the military and senior political positions all at just 47, this looks like a man who is going to keep rising, but will he get to the top?

One of his key advantages is that, with the exception of a few early gaffes, he has cultivated  the image of an Everyman. Despite his elite education, Chan is the child of a single mother who worked as a machine operator.

His ascension to the top ranks of the PAP appears to be the embodiment of  meritocracy. For a party that has been criticised for being elitist, Chan’s modest upbringing is a key draw. 

A keen sportsman and runner, his lean, active profile fits the image of humble, youthful, discipline the government would like to project. 

Where Chan falls a little short though is gravitas, experience and stature. These aren’t easy things to cultivate in a six-year political career and he recently drew flak for referring to as yet (at the time) unelected Halimah Yacoob as Madam President.

Halimah would go on to become president in a walkover election but some felt  Chan’s open allusion to this prior to the fact was off colour and somewhat premature. 

He is also not  known for a being a strong public speaker and has limited experience in the private sector, rising completely through government institutions and organs, including the military.

Given the private sector is Singapore’s growth engine, how he might relate to and manage outside of hierarchical government structures is an open question. Chan is also largely untested on the world stage. 

So he has a strong base but there are definite gaps; is this the man to lead the country?

It’s actually very hard to tell. Foreigners sometimes dismiss Singapore’s politics as dull but actually there is real open-ness and unpredictability regarding who our next leader will be.

While the People’s Action Party won the previous general election convincingly, the next leader will have to gain and hold the trust of the nation without the presence of Lee Kuan Yew, or any second generation seniors.

The constant pressure of social media makes campaigning and keeping on the right side of public opinion increasingly difficult.

Can a candidate who will be scarcely more than 50 with just a decade’s political experience really cut it? Or will the ruling party bank on someone with more experience or with more public charisma?

There’s no way to tell but Chan seems to have an early lead in what is likely to be a long race.