08 January 2018

Is Singapore's leadership succession planning a myth?

The People's Action Party (PAP) has been Singapore's sole ruling party for more than half a century. The PAP ruled Singapore since self-governance in 1959, its federation with Malaysia in 1963, and independence in 1965. It is accepted wisdom that Singapore's leadership transitions are carefully managed: a prime minister is 'chosen' by peers of their cohort, serves for more than a decade, and stays on to guide the next prime minister and their cabinet as a "senior minister".

The managed succession of Singapore's political leadership is a fairy tale and urban legend eagerly consumed by the gullible and the politically illiterate.

Living with political myths

From the leadership transitions between Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong, and Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore's nation-building media and naive international observers have cobbled a useful and enduring political narrative which has resurfaced as Lee Hsien Loong's term as prime minister nears its end.

1. The prime minister of Singapore is the wisest man in the land. He must be rewarded with political longevity, and serves far more terms than the average Westminsterian prime minister, and then even more terms as a "senior minister".

2. The prime minister and his cabinet collectively selects the next prime minister, who must also be an exceptional leader.

3. Hence, leadership change is a generational change. Not only that, the right candidate for prime minister must be old enough to have served as a minister for several terms, and young enough to serve as prime minister and senior minister for several terms.

In total, Singapore is an exceptional nation, ruled by an exceptional political party that is headed by a series of exceptional leaders. Without an exceptional leader, the PAP would be a normal party to whom the electorate owes no special favours, such as a perpetual supermajority in parliament. Without an exceptional leader, the electorate would not tolerate the arrangements granting retired prime ministers a political afterlife as sagely mentors in the cabinet to current prime ministers.

This political myth informs and is further propagated by the media's reporting of contenders for the next prime minister, Goh Chok Tong's public exhortation for the "next generation of leaders" in the cabinet to choose their prime minister by the end of 2018, Inderjit Singh's lamentation that none of the current contenders have the requisite experience, and political commentators criticising Lee Hsien Loong for wasting the talents of the "super seven" ministerial cohort of 2001.

While this political myth may appear convincing, there exist serious practical objections to each of its main claims.

Political longevity? But what about policy failure?

The more terms a prime minister serves, the greater the tendency towards the concentration of power, authority, and decision-making as more of his cohort retires from politics. From being the primus inter pares at the beginning of his tenure (if that claim can be taken seriously), the prime minister gradually takes on an imperial authority overseeing much junior, less politically experienced ministers. That pseudo-imperial authority waxes to its maximum when the prime minister steps down and remains in cabinet as a "senior minister".

This political longevity causes successful public policies associated with the prime minister to become orthodoxy, to be questioned at the peril of one's career in politics and public service. A successful policy may solve a social, economic, or political problem of its age. When it becomes settled as political orthodoxy, a once-successful and relevant policy begins to drift from its social, economic, and political mooring. Policy once appropriate for its times loses relevance, and becomes the wrong prescription for different problems faced in a different time. The end result is policy failure.

From each prime minister of Singapore, a political observer may easily identify a hallmark policy and solution which became a policy failure. Lee Kuan Yew curbed population growth with a "stop at 2" policy, which resulted in a demographic bomb we now have to deal with. He also promised the value of public housing would increase every year. Decades and 2 prime ministers after that promise, Singapore faced a housing affordability crisis. Goh Chok Tong dealt with the Asian Financial Crisis by throwing open Singapore's employment market by offering easy permanent residence and public housing ownership to foreign workers. Barely years ago, the announcement that Singapore's leaders wanted a population of 7 million (more than half of which would be foreign workers or permanent residents) provoked a politically costly popular backlash. If the managed succession works out according to script, Singaporeans should look forward to seeing Lee Hsien Loong's good policies turn sour in the next decade or so.

Collective succession planning? Generational succession? Lee Kuan Yew as Augustus

Lee Kuan Yew often adopted this pose when lecturing Singaporeans

A cursory examination of the politics of the times should be sufficient to dispel this myth Singaporeans have had to live with. Singapore's first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, made it clear that while Goh Keng Swee as finance minister to hold the sole veto in cabinet over any policy, S Rajaratnam was the chief ideologue who decided what the PAP stood for, what Singaporeans believed. In the 1970s, Goh Keng Swee was pitted against Ong Teng Cheong. Their clash was decided over the question of the mass rapid transport system - but Ong was made president, not the next prime minister! In the next decade, S Dhanabalan, Goh Chok Tong, and Tony Tan were the heirs apparent, and some say their clash was decided over a most singular slap... by someone who would almost certainly, if not quite preordained to succeed them.

Students of history will recall that Augustus, despite ruling as dictator for life, always made clear that there was always a succession plan - just that the names of his intended, anointed successors changed from decade to decade. It is precisely because the Princeps is known to have a succession plan that the Princeps outlasts almost all of his designated successors.

In the same way that Augustus's actual successor was more of a final survivor than an actually intended successor, Goh Chok Tong was the final survivor when Lee Kuan Yew's political career declined after the election of 1984 and decided to bow out after his minor triumph of 1988.

It is possible that the current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, is employing the same strategy. In the first decade of his leadership, the heirs apparent were Khaw Boon Wan, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, and Vivian Balakrishnan. Next, it was a race between Chan Chun Sing and Tan Chuan-Jin. In the past few years, the successors appear to be a choice between Chan Chun Sing, Ong Ye Kun, and Heng Swee Keat.

Who does Illusio endorse for Singapore's next PAP prime minister?

In due course, when conditions allow, at the appropriate juncture, in the fullness of time: these are the reassuring and meaningless phrases that faceless committees in the press office are paid to draft, and not the sort of reply one expects from a cohort of cabinet ministers who will "choose" their next prime minister.

Sir Humphrey Appleton proving the best argument for short leaderships and sunset clauses for policies

Instead of perpetuating the exceptional leader model for another generation and subjecting Singaporeans to another two generations of living with policies way past their expiry date, we at Illusio suggest the sensible thing, the political norm established by Westminster over centuries of trial and error, and a norm which Singapore's leaders have flouted with much cost:

1. The average prime minister should be the most relevant man for the job at the time, as agreed by the parliamentary party and the party's voters

2. The average prime minister should serve for a term or two

3. Prime ministers and their cabinets should set policy with a definitely sunset clause, and periodically review past policy to ensure that it is still relevant, that it hasn't lived past its shelf life


yuen said...

should LHL stay beyone 17? elgin toh's article actually mentions a fourth option: having Teo Chee Hean or Tharman take over as PM for one election only; with such short tenure, the PM would not have time to groom his own succession team, and the issue of continuity arises, especially if he is followed by another PM around age 60 who too would only hold power for an interim period

however, it is possible to provide a different track of continuity: within PAP; it is possible for an incumbent PM to leave cabinet and parliament, thus freeing himself from heavy administrative work including constituency matters, but remain as Secretary General of the Party; instead of facing voters, he only need to be re-elected every two years by the party's cadre members; in the position, he oversees the admission of cadre members, the timing and agenda of party meetings, the Central Executive Committee election, the selection of parliamentary candidates for the next election, etc

Alex ken said...

The first major study of leadership styles was performed in 1939 by Kurt Lewin who led a group of researchers to identify different styles of leadership (Lewin, Lippit, White, 1939). This early study has remained quite influential as it established the three major leadership styles: (U.S. Army, 1973):

Leadership expert in the UK