Decided over coffee, now mulled for months

Fathin Ungku and John Geddie –

Singaporeans are not used to uncertainty when it comes to their future political leaders.
Only one party has ruled the island-state since its independence more than 50 years ago, and there have been only three prime ministers.
When founding father Lee Kuan Yew handed over the reins to cabinet colleague Goh Chok Tong, who in turn gave way to Lee’s son and current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, the changes were fixed long in advance. But with Lee Hsien Loong making it clear he is ready to stand down in the next couple of years, no obvious successor has yet emerged from a group of 16 ministers tasked with picking a leader from within their ranks to take Singapore into a new era.
The protracted process, portrayed as an experiment in democracy in the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), has already caused a rare disagreement between the current and former prime ministers, and raised questions about whether there is enough time to groom a capable successor.
The uncertainty comes at a time when Singapore is facing some major challenges if it is to remain as vibrant and prosperous in the future as it is today.
Among the issues is the impact of a rapidly ageing population on the island state’s finances, the increasing competition it faces for its traditional business strengths — such as its thriving port — and how to handle the growing dominance of China in the region as both an economic and political power. Eugene Tan, an academic and former nominated member of the Singapore parliament, said there appeared to be a “delay” in picking a new leader because of a “lack of consensus”.
He added that it was not clear whether this lack of consensus was within the group of ministers or because Lee Hsien Loong has decided more time is needed for his successor to be identified.
PM Lee told reporters at a press conference in London on Friday: “I’m quite confident that gradually they (the group of ministers) are beginning to have a sense of one another and who they would like to have to lead them.”
Lee has previously said he will not appoint any new deputy prime ministers in a cabinet reshuffle due this week, suggesting that there is unlikely to be much of a hint about succession in the announcement.
Spokespeople for the PAP did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
The Prime Minister’s Office declined comment, saying it was a matter for the party and not the government.
Little information has been released about how the 16 ministers are going about their task. The process of selecting the leader within the PAP — which has governed Singapore since its split from Malaysia in 1965 and has never seen its support drop below 60 per cent in an election — has always been opaque.
Reports from the Straits Times newspaper, which is often seen as close to the government and the PAP, indicate that previous succession decisions were made swiftly and well ahead of any handover.
The decision to pick Goh, the successor to Lee Kuan Yew, was “made over coffee, orange juice and chocolate cake” by a group of party leaders some six years before he took office in 1990, the newspaper said in an article in January.
Picking Lee Hsien Loong appeared even easier — made “over lunch” in 1990 — some 14 years before he became prime minister in 2004, it added.
This time, the decision to find a replacement for 66-year-old Lee Hsien Loong has been put in the hands of the so-called “fourth generation” of 16 leaders — all ministers but some not yet in the cabinet. PM Lee has previously said he does not think any of his four children will enter politics.
“One of the criticisms from the outside of Singapore is that it is too familial, that the Lee family had too much of an impact. Now, there’s nobody obvious to succeed him, so that’s good,” said Peter Schwartz, an international fellow at the Centre for Strategic Futures in the Singapore prime minister’s office. — Reuters