Ex-minister Yaacob Ibrahim: Next 4G leader should be chosen 'yesterday', but they'll likely need more time

'I think it's important for us, as Singaporeans, it's important for the global community, our investors, to know that there is clarity.'

Joshua Lee | Jeanette Tan | May 01, 2021, 03:24 PM

The 4G leadership should come to a consensus about their next leader as soon as possible, said former Cabinet minister Yaacob Ibrahim.

"If you ask me, my personal preference is they should have decided yesterday," he quipped to Mothership in a recent interview.

The 65-year-old is the first former cabinet minister to be commenting publicly on the news two weeks ago that DPM Heng would be "stepping aside" from being the frontrunner in the fourth-generation race among our leadership to becoming Singapore's fourth Prime Minister.

A week later, and also some days after he spoke with us about that development, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced a reshuffle of his cabinet ministers, with the intent of rotating key 4G leaders into new ministries to expand their experience.

This move ostensibly also allows the collective of Singapore's 4G ministers and leaders to evaluate further the performance of key contenders for the "first among equals" pole position by moving them to new ministries, even though the likes of Ministers Lawrence Wong and Ong Ye Kung had spent less than a year at the helm of the ministries of Education and Transport respectively.

4G leaders have had enough time to assess each other

While Yaacob does not want to project a timeline for the 4G leadership to select their leader (the way Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong did previously), he feels that they have had enough time — or runway, to borrow a word that is in vogue right now — to evaluate and assess each other.

"They've known each other since 2011. Some, like Minister Ong (Ye Kung), came in 2015. So in a way, I think they have enough opportunity to sort of assess each other and evaluate each other.

Why is it that they came up with DPM Heng in 2018, right? This means that within seven years they were able to make the assessment that DPM Heng was the man to lead them. So if they could do that in seven years, now they have more than seven years. I'm sure they can find a person within themselves as quickly as possible."

That being said, Yaacob bears in mind that having made a "mistake" their first time through, with their choice of Heng not having, in a sense, worked out, they are likely to need more time than he (Yaacob) personally would prefer:

"I have sort of a sense that they probably need more time because they've got to make sure that they don’t make a second 'mistake', so to speak — they made the first choice and now they have to make a second choice, and they don't want the second choice to be a similar sort of outcome."

He does still encourage them to come to a decision as soon as possible, though.

"I think it's important for us, as Singaporeans, it's important for the global community, our investors, to know that there is clarity."

For indeed, he notes, having clarity is important because a lack of answers over a prolonged period can lead to speculation, some of which he feels is unhealthy.

"I think that's the thing that I'm concerned about, you know. Is it infighting, is it different camps — all these sorts of conspiracy theories might emerge, you know, social media is rife with such things."

Selecting next PM from among 4G "not like selecting a car"

The prof, who now serves as advisor to the President as well as director of the Community Leadership & Social Innovation Centre at the Singapore Institute of Technology, certainly acknowledges the challenge ahead of the 4G leadership in choosing their next leader — describing it as "not like selecting a car".

Based on his experience working under two prime ministers (Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong) and his observations of the late Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, he offers the following qualities to look out for in the next Prime Minister:

1) Consultative

"You don't want a single man to run the country.

You want a single man to be the face of the country but a single man — or woman, sorry — who knows that he has consulted, he has listened to the advice of the ministers around him and the decision that he and his Cabinet colleagues arrived (at) is the best for Singapore."

2) Humble and willing to listen

"If there's a person who says 'I know how to solve a problem in Singapore', I won't trust him. If he says, 'I know how to go about doing this, and I know that I need to work with my colleagues and work with the Singaporean society', then you know that this person recognises that he therefore needs to bring in the best of Singaporeans both within and outside Cabinet so that we can arrive at an ideal solution."

3) Inclusive, making sure no one is left behind

"You need a sense of inclusivity. Speaking as part of a minority community, I think it's also important that he (or she) sees the benefits of making sure that the minority communities in Singapore feel a part of Singapore — no one is left behind.

It is really the thing that's important; that we all pull together and that he's able to pull all of us together."

4) The ability to make tough decisions

"But finally when we have a very tough decision to make, we know there is person that can make that decision. So you need a decisive leader and a person who's also a team player that can bring people together and glue the disparate views together."

HSK's decision to step aside "a way for him to say that Singapore deserves better"

Yaacob also has some poignant words about Heng, and a unique reading of his decision to stand down from working toward taking the reins of the premiership from PM Lee.

First, he said Heng's decision reflects his recognition that with respect to his road to becoming Prime Minister, "he may not have time on his side, (and) was prepared to step aside for a younger" candidate.

"I think in itself, that’s a major sacrifice on his part, you know. Certainly, most people would have been comfortable with him as a prime minister.

And this came as a surprise because in a way, if you're looking at it from an organisational or businesslike point of view, you’ve invested in this person, you know, and all of a sudden this investment is not turning out to be what it is supposed to.

But you know, it's not the investor — it’s the 'investee' that made the decision: that hey, I'm not ready, and I don't think I can be ready because of my age, and this job requires a lot more training.

I think that it’s a way for him to say that Singapore deserves better. Not that I'm not capable, but I may not have the time to do all the things which needs to be done to make that happen."

Top photo via Yaacob Ibrahim FB / Lawrence Wong FB