Photo from TODAY/Raj Nadarajan

Nine months after it became apparent that Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s designated successor Heng Swee Keat was “incapable of operating beyond his talking points,” in the words of the political analyst Michael Barr of Flinders University in Adelaide, the People’s Action Party is still at sea in attempting to find a replacement.

The party, which has governed Singapore since its modern founding by Lee Kuan Yew in 1959 and has long prided itself on its political dexterity, tried vainly again last weekend, only to have Hsien Loong announce that, according to local media, Singapore’s fourth-generation team needs a “little longer” to choose the country’s next leader. There is growing danger that PAP is damaging the perception of its competence, one of the foundations on which its reputation has rested, analysts say.

The prime minister will turn 70 in February after having led the country, Asia’s most prosperous, for 14 years. It has been an article of faith since his father Lee Kuan Yew retired in 1990 to become “minister mentor” and groom the new generation to govern by themselves that the political technocrats of the PAP would mature into a selection machine after having had every previous prime minister handed to them by the Lee dynasty. They apparently haven’t.

Analysts say Lee’s caution in designating the new leader may reflect not just a lack of his confidence in the party’s leadership ranks but a desire to control the process despite public proclamations of the apparatchiks’ ability to democratically come up with a new party supremo.

The aborted succession plan, which led to Heng’s departure last April, may mirror Lee Hsien Loong’s caution over the handover. There is also considerable suspicion that what Lee Hsien Loong would like to see is another Lee – possibly his son, Li Hongyi, currently a director of a government technology firm, although the son has said he is not interested in a political career. Between Kuan Yew and Hsien Loong, there was only an interregnum by Goh Chok Tong from 1990 to 2004 to interrupt the 63-year sway in power by the Lee family.

“This caution reflects not just a lack of confidence in the party’s leadership ranks, but a determination to tightly control the outcome of internal decisions on leadership,” said Garry Rodan, an emeritus professor at Murdoch University in Australia. “Paradoxically, the PAP’s exhaustive selectivity in recruitment and promotion of MPs has produced ideological and even stylistic uniformity that gives the party political cohesion, but at a cost of generating meaningful choices at this important moment of leadership transition. Party resilience and control are in tension more than any time before.”

“This whole issue of the succession has lingered as a festering sore,” said Michael Barr in an email. “My sense is that people are so grateful that Heng Swee Keat won’t be PM that they are willing to cut the government some slack in choosing his successor, but this is now getting a bit ridiculous. The matter should have been settled long since.”

One western businessman said the PAP “has that deer in the headlights look,” an indication that the wider world, both in Singapore, is starting to notice the inability to come to grips with the problem and that all of the candidates to replace Lee looking increasingly like ditherers. They include the two chosen by Hsien Loong to jointly chair the Covid-19 task force – Finance Minister Lawrence Wong and Ong Ye Kung, the minister of health. The third is former military officer Chan Chun Sing, who lost his front-runner status because of his seeming brusqueness and wider unpopularity in the ranks.

While Heng Swee Keat was Lee Hsien Loong’s choice after spending years winnowing the field down to a choice of one, Barr said, “I now wonder if the real problem is that there is no process for making a choice in a situation where the leader refuses to make a ‘captain’s call’.”

According to another source with lines into the leadership that some young Turks in the party are growing restive and that underneath the veneer of party unity with Hsien Loong in charge, some members of the PAP, including possibly some ministers, don’t support him and are secretly jockeying for power.

If that is true, it suggests that Lee has lost interest and energy, “which means that the government at the highest level is operating on autopilot,” Barr said, “but the next generation – the 4G leaders – are not capable of bringing the matter to a head. Their big dilemma is how they settle outright conflict among themselves when the current leader is not taking an interest, or at least is not willing to impose his will. They don’t seem to have one.”

The fact is that there seems no mechanism to resolve conflict between rival ambitions and rival egos in situations where there is no father figure to give a nudge to a favored candidate.

“Or maybe Lee has given a nudge to a favored candidate, but he doesn’t have sufficient support from his colleagues,” Barr said. “Regardless of what messiness is really going on behind the scenes, this delay is a very poor reflection on governance in Singapore. Of course, Singapore is not the only country with leaderships that suffer problems like this, but Singapore’s particular problem is that a smooth, professional succession is supposed to be the exceptional strength of modern Singapore, and it is one of compensations for the lack of democracy. It is starting to look like Singapore is getting the worst of both worlds – neither democracy nor professionalism.

Anyhow, it is now widely believed in Singapore that Lee Hsien Loong will remain in power until the next national election, not due before August of 2025. He had earlier pledged to move on, as his father had, to make way for a new generation, but announced he would stay on to take on the Covid-19 coronavirus, contributing to suspicions that he intends to perpetuate the long-lasting Lee dynasty.

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