Comment: S'pore's 4G leadership may rest on strengths of 2 leaders, rather than abilities of 1 front-runner

History shows a combination of a middle-aged PM with both a younger DPM & an older DPM.

Martino Tan | April 25, 2021, 07:50 PM

The recent Cabinet reshuffle announcement has placed some prominence on Lawrence Wong's new appointment as finance minister, especially with the histories of former finance minister Heng Swee Keat as a past front-runner and former finance minister Lee Hsien Loong who subsequently became the Prime Minister.

Many observers are saying that "the field is still open" for 4G leadership, with 4G ministers Chan Chun Sing, Ong Ye Kung and Wong still in the running for Singapore's top political job.

The Straits Times editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang said that while Wong's appointment may have propelled him into the position of front-runner, it would take "at least one to two years" for Wong's colleagues to have a fuller measure of Wong, especially after his first Budget.

ST's senior political correspondent Grace Ho said that "the die is not cast" yet, and should be cast soon during its political line-up around the mid-term mark of the government term.

Media academic and political observer Cherian George, however, thinks Wong "is the man to watch", comparing the histories and the significance of a minister helming the finance ministry and a minister leading the education ministry.

So, it seems that the current leadership narrative online and in the media continues to centre on who the next front-runner is, even though it is not clear who he is at the moment.

First among equals?

Many of us are influenced by the great man theory in politics, which basically means history can be largely explained by the impact of a great individual, highly influential and unique, who has a decisive historical effect on a nation or community.

This is likely how many of us view the late Lee Kuan Yew and his role in the success of modern Singapore.

But the story of an exceptional leader supported by an equally exceptional team is probably a version closer to reality, even though it is a less exciting story to tell.

This was also the central argument in Lee's Lieutenants: Singapore's Old Guard, a national non-fiction best-seller in 1999, that contemporary Singapore was not built by a great, visionary, pragmatic leader (Lee Kuan Yew) alone but by a very competent team of founding fathers (Goh Keng Swee, S Rajaratnam).

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted in his 2015 parliamentary statement to honour LKY:

"Mr Lee was always conscious that he did not act alone, but as a member of a team. His core team included Goh Keng Swee, S Rajaratnam, Othman Wok, Hon Sui Sen, Lim Kim San, amongst others.

It was a multi-racial team who complemented one another’s strengths, trusted one another implicitly, and through their joint efforts created a prosperous, fair and just society in Singapore. Mr Lee himself said he was only primus inter pares – first among equals. So it is appropriate that we consider how to honour not just Mr Lee, but also our other founding fathers."

If this observation is accurate, then the 2G was led by Goh Chok Tong, supported by Lee Hsien Loong and Ong Teng Cheong.

And the 3G? It was Lee Hsien Loong who was supported by Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

Leadership combination/ pair

If the focus is on a leader becoming a "first among equals", it may be useful to look at a core leadership (two or three 4G leaders) group instead.

The two 4G front-runners -- Chan Chun Sing and Ong Ye Kung -- emphasised the importance of teamwork in the press conference on Apr. 8.

Chan said that Singapore's "leadership succession plans go beyond just choosing a leader... It is always about finding and forming the strongest team possible for Singapore so that Singapore has the best chance to defy the odds of history, to not only survive but to thrive".

Ong said that the PAP way is to fundamentally look at how the leadership team can work together, how the leaders can complement each other's strengths and support one another.

Ong noted that "the process of developing a strong team and rallying around the first-among-equals leader takes some time."

He aded: "What we have just learnt is a big change, a big reconfiguration. So we seek your understanding and support to give us some time to regroup."

A political observer also mentioned the plausibility of a leadership pair emerging among the 4G leaders.

Eugene Tan noted in his commentary in Today that "the 4G leaders will select afresh".

"They will probably be looking not so much at one individual this time but also at the pair who would make for the best combination for the 4G PM and Deputy PM."

In other words, the 4G leaders are likely to look at how two 4G leaders could complement each other in terms of their strengths, even if one is seen as the "first among equals".

The original 4G leadership combination

Before we analyse how the four 4G leaders can complement one another, it is instructive to refer to the original 4G leadership combination and get a better understanding on how they may have been chosen.

The most insightful assessment in the original Heng Swee Keat-Chan Chun Sing leadership combination came from Emeritus Senior Minister (ESM) Goh Chok Tong in his 2018 interview with CNA.

Goh said that the Heng-Chan pair was a leadership team with complementary strengths.

Goh said that Heng was a leader who has the ability to deal with a crisis, and manage crisis, referencing his work during the global financial crisis as the managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS).

Goh noted his experiences in governing.

"Heng Swee Keat also has a lot of experiences in ministries — MTI Permanent Secretary, running the Finance Ministry, so his strengths are in governing, in running the civil service."

On Chan, the 2G PM recognised that while Chan would have "experience in running some ministries", "his strengths so far have been exposed in those mobilisation areas".

Chan was the Deputy Chairman of the People's Association (PA) from 2015 to 2020, and was the Secretary-General of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) from 2015 to 2018.

He is also the Minister-in-charge of the Public Service since 2018.

4G leadership combination: Age?

On Apr. 8, Heng cited age and health as the reasons why he was stepping aside as the leader of the 4G.

He said:

"This year, I am 60. As the crisis will be prolonged, I would be close to the mid-60s when the crisis is over.

The 60s are still a very productive time of life. But when I also consider the ages at which our first three Prime Ministers took on the job, I would have too short a runway should I become the next Prime Minister then."

If age is a key consideration in determining the next 4G leadership pair, how would this factor affect which pair of leaders the 4G team would choose?

Chan and Ong are 51 years old.

Wong is 48, while National Development Minister Desmond Lee is 44.

If age (and a long runway) is a key criteria, the 4G team may choose an older Chan or Ong as their “first among equals”, and opt for a younger deputy like Wong or Lee.

Coincidentally, Chan or Ong will be as old as PM Lee if either one takes over as PM by next year.

PM Lee became the leader of the country at 52 in 2004.

4G leadership combination: Confidence within PAP?

In a feature on Apr. 25, ST looked at the challenges facing the successor to PM Lee, and the traits to handle them.

Observers told ST that 4G leaders would need to select "a leader who clearly commands the confidence of his colleagues".

In terms of seniority within the party, Chan is clearly the most familiar face among his colleagues.

Chan has been elected as part of PAP's Central Executive Committee (CEC), its top decision-making body since 2012.

Chan was elected in the next four CEC elections.

Chan, who is currently PAP's 2nd Assistant Secretary-General, is also the most senior 4G party member after Heng.

Ong has been part of the CEC since 2016. He was co-opted into the 34th CEC and was elected as a top 12 leader in 2018 and 2020.

Both Wong and Lee were elected to the 36th CEC for the first time in 2020. They were co-opted into the 35th CEC in 2018.

But it remains to be seen whether longevity in the party will translate to popularity and confidence among party members.

What PM's Cabinet reshuffle shows

PM Lee's Cabinet reshuffle on Apr. 23 may have shown that the likes of Chan, Ong, and Wong are viewed as heavyweight ministers who can be deployed quickly to tackle the challenges of large ministries.

Chan will be deployed from the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), a place where he, in PM Lee's words, "has done an excellent job getting our economy back on track, and preparing our industries and companies to respond to structural changes in the global economy", to helm the Ministry of Education (MOE).

Ong will be moved out of Ministry of Transport (MOT) and into Ministry of Health (MOH), while Wong will move from MOE to the Ministry of Finance (MOF).

Former Nominated MP Calvin Cheng made an observation about how the movements of Chan, Ong, Wong can be analysed.

There is no such thing as a high or low profile ministry internally, said Cheng.

"It is thus not where the 4G ministers are moved that is important, but who was moved."

Indeed, this Cabinet reshuffle was notable for the change in portfolios for Chan, Ong, and Wong.

Ong and Wong were assigned new ministries in less than a year.

But it (the change of ministers within a year) will not be a common occurrence, PM Lee emphasised.

Noting Ong and Wong's move, PM Lee said: "They have made contributions, they are getting to their stride, and now I have to disrupt them. But I hope that after this adjustment, the new ministers in those two posts will be able to settle down for some time."

He added:

"It is not desirable to move ministers after less than a year. Sometimes it is necessary and then you think very carefully, and if it can't be helped, you do it."

On the question of whether it sets a precedence of moving ministers after less than a year, PM Lee said that while it is "not desirable", it is sometimes necessary.

He emphasised that one "cannot say that this is a precedent and because the last minister served a few months, the next minister likewise".

PM Lee added that the Cabinet reshuffle was also a result of extensive consultations:

"I talked to many of the ministers, including DPM Heng, before I settled the moves. And then I had to discuss with each of the ministers to make sure that they understood what their new mission was and what the purpose of the deployments were, before settling it.

That's why it has taken me two weeks rather than just doing it the day after my previous press conference".

And what does history tell us?

Perhaps history can shed some light into the future of 4G leadership by looking at Singapore's first leadership transition in 1990.

In Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong story, Goh's authorised biography in 2019, he revealed how he came to the conclusion that he should have two DPMs, instead of one.

"I wanted and needed (Ong) Teng Cheong more than Hsien Loong to engage the Chinese ground. But why not have Hsien Loong as DPM as well? This was for the future and you signalled that Hsien Loong had the potential to take over."

Goh added that this signal was "to the public".

"It was in my interest and the country's interest. In my interest, I wanted Ong Teng Cheong. In the country's interest, I put Hsien Loong.

But of course, I spoke to Teng Cheong that for the future, Hsien Loong is the one in my team who had the potential to take over. So, if I were to go on leave, I would appoint Lee Hsien Loong as the acting PM".

Lee was a DPM 11 years younger than Goh, while Ong was a DPM five years older than Goh.

Applied to today's scenario, this can be an approach to read the tea leaves better.

Among the 4G leadership, there will be a future PM supported by a potential deputy PM, and mentored by an older deputy prime minister in Heng Swee Keat.

In other words, an approach to decide who the next PM is, will be for the 4G leaders to figure out a leadership pair that works in the coming months.

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