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Commentary: Fast tracking Singapore’s new Prime Minister - it’s not business as usual


SINGAPORE: The most intriguing part of the recent announcement on the handing over of the premiership to Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong was that it will be done before the next General Election (GE), which is due by November 2025.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong did not say when the handover would take place, beyond saying it could be before November next year if all goes well.

This means the new Prime Minister will lead the People’s Action Party (PAP) into electoral battle possibly within a year of taking over.

Is it politically risky for Mr Wong to take on this challenge at such an early juncture in his leadership?

Isn’t the safer option for Mr Lee to lead the PAP into the next GE and hand over the reins to the new man mid-term?

The party can ill afford another hiccup in the leadership transition after Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat's decision to step aside as the heir apparent put the succession issue into limbo in 2021. These thoughts must have occupied the minds of those involved in the latest decision.

It is a pity not much was said about what the considerations were on this important issue, and we are left guessing what they might be.

Nevertheless, they are worth discussing because the more the public knows the thinking of the new leader, the greater his chance of strengthening his bond with them.

Time is not on the ruling party’s side, and it is already later than usual for the handover to a new Prime Minister.

A new leader needs time to establish his relationship with the people and with the international community.

This is more so for Mr Wong given how short a time he has had from being recognised as the anointed one to being the top man - just two years and seven months if he takes over in November next year, and even shorter if the transition happens earlier.

In contrast it was already known well in advance that Singapore’s second Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and, later, Mr Lee would take over from their predecessors.

They also had the advantage of being relatively known figures before assuming the premiership as well as having a longer period to prepare for the office.

Not to the same degree for Mr Wong who will need to fast track his preparation and make himself better known.

Hence, the sooner he takes over the faster he will be able to climb the steep learning curve.

His becoming Prime Minister before the GE makes sense in this regard.

In fact, I would argue he should take over as soon as possible, and well before November next year.



What about the possibility of not doing well in the GE?

This is a real risk, but one in which the party might have no choice but to accept. The question is: What constitutes a bad result for Mr Wong?

One benchmark must be the results at the last GE, both in terms of the party’s share of the popular votes and total number of seats it is able to retain.

My own sense is that if Mr Wong can match the PAP vote share of 61 per cent in the 2020 GE, he would have done well.

After all, for both Mr Goh and Mr Lee, the PAP share of the votes fell in the first GE they helmed as new PMs - from 63 per cent to 61 per cent for Mr Goh, and from 75 per cent to 67 per cent for Mr Lee.

Even if PAP votes fall below 61 per cent in the coming GE, the result should not be seen as a personal setback for the new PM.

There is one other consideration.

The ground is currently not particularly sweet for the PAP government, following a series of high-profile issues including the debacle over former Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin’s extramarital affair, the public outcry over the leasing of the Ridout Road bungalows to two ministers, and the corruption case against Transport Minister S Iswaran.

There is also the increase to the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and the rising cost of living, exacerbated by increases in property prices and Certificate of Entitlement (COE) premiums.

Will these issues adversely affect the PAP’s share of the votes in the coming GE?

It is hard to say now but even if they do, it would be unfair to place the blame on Mr Wong.


What he must aim to do is to make sure that in the GE after the coming one - when he would have five more years to establish his position - he delivers for the party.

Indeed, this was what both Mr Goh and Mr Lee did, with better-than-expected results in their subsequent GEs.

Now that the handover timetable has been more or less fixed, Mr Wong has to go full throttle at strengthening his emotional bond with the people.

This is the job of the leader, and it is especially pressing for him because of the short runway he has had and the looming GE.

The challenge for him is not just about addressing issues that Singaporeans are vexed about such as the cost of living.

As the new PM heading the fourth generation (4G) team, he will be scrutinised and judged on how he comes across as the man who will lead Singapore amid all the challenges of the world, what sort of leader he is and whether he has what it takes to instil confidence among Singaporeans.

Because he will have such a short time before the GE to do this, he has to make an impact quickly, certainly within the 12 months.

The message must be: It is not business as usual.

He must exercise strong and firm leadership, which is what Singaporeans expect of their leaders.

The most effective way of achieving this is to persuade people that he and his team are willing to try new approaches better suited to the changing circumstances and that they are not beholden to old practices that may no longer be relevant.

Part of this will be drawn from the Forward Singapore plans, but the new Prime Minister-to-be has to put his personal imprint on it in a more forceful way.

In the Singapore context, the party leader must be its chief vote-getter. Individual candidates need to, of course, do their campaigning well and connect with their constituents. But at the national level, the leader is the face of the party and can make the difference between success and failure at the polls.

Ideally a new Prime Minister needs time to do this part of the job well.

Mr Wong does not have this luxury.

Han Fook Kwang was a veteran newspaper editor and is Senior Fellow at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

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