Comment: Each PM frontrunner has been handling matters outside their portfolios, as if preparing for the top job.

Some eight months have passed and we're no closer to finding out who will be the next PM.

Sulaiman Daud | November 27, 2021, 04:21 PM

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The People's Action Party (PAP) has a party convention this Sunday (Nov. 28), but I'm willing to bet this is the first you've heard of it.

After all, politics in Singapore doesn't exactly have the high drama glimpsed in other countries. Barring a massive shake-up, it's a safe bet that the PAP are going to form the next government.

So it's no wonder that a party convention ranks lower than say a Netflix movie starring The Rock, Gal Gadot and Ryan Reynolds on the list of things to pay attention to this weekend.

Even the biggest question in politics today -- the identity of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's successor, is somehow still up in the air, with a resolution unlikely at this party convention.

No new obvious developments

The last concrete development was Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat "standing aside" as the leader of the 4G team of ministers and effectively taking himself out of the running for the top job. That was in April this year, nearly eight months ago.

If it feels like a lifetime ago, that's because time is relative and an entire life's worth of events have passed within eight months. How many phases and Covid-19 restrictions have we lived through since then?

Frustratingly for political otakus, these eight months have brought no clear indication as to who will take the top job.

Manchester United Football Club sacked their manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and apparently made a decision on an official interim manager in less than a week. The PAP, faced with a rather weightier decision, is taking its time. Still.

Examining the speeches of the frontrunners

A peek at what the three frontrunners have been up to recently could provide clues as to who's in pole position.

Things like addressing matters outside their portfolios, or being interviewed by foreign media, could hint as to which minister is gaining prominence on both the domestic and international stages.

After all, the next prime minister will not only have to be comfortable with international scrutiny, he will also need to make decisions on a wide variety of issues, and not just the ones within a narrow portfolio.

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong

Lawrence Wong currently serves as Finance Minister, ever since Heng stepped aside.

Wong, who previously served as the Second Finance Minister before this, was seen as a natural fit for the job.

You would expect a finance minister to be dealing primarily with money matters. As deputy chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), Wong has addressed concerns over money laundering, monitoring inflation, and so on.

However, you wouldn't normally expect a finance minister to be handling thorny social issues like race, religion, tribalism and sexual orientation.

But that's just what Wong has recently done.

Lawrence Wong on Singapore society and identity issues

During an IPS-RSIS Conference on Identity, Wong spoke on how tribalism and identity issues could pose a danger to Singapore's social fabric.

He urged people to avoid stereotyping others, highlighted the importance of the Singaporean identity, and assured listeners that the government views itself as a "fair and honest broker" between the different groups.

He also acknowledged the concerns of groups like women, people with disabilities and the LGBTQ community, which includes them feeling like they are not part of or accepted in Singapore society.

Now that seems a thorough elaboration of the government's position, but from an outsider's perspective, it would seem more natural for a Minister in charge of social policies to give such a speech.

In addition, Wong's position as the co-chair of the Multi-Ministry Taskforce (MTF) on Covid-19 also affords him more prominence, as part of the team dealing with the number one challenge facing Singapore today.

He has also merited column inches in international publications, such as this full-length CNBC interview in June about taxation and supply chains, and this New York Times October report on the local Covid situation.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung

Wong's co-chair on the MTF, Ong Ye Kung was arguably given one of the toughest jobs in the Cabinet during the last reshuffle.

He candidly said during an April interview that he was "wordless" when learning of his new role, directing Singapore's health policy and expanding capacity in the middle of a pandemic.

Still, as a previous education minister, Ong was no stranger to the impact that Covid had on public policy, having made the decision to keep schools open in 2020 before our vaccination programme was rolled out.

Since then, Ong has faced other challenges, particularly during the recent September and October surge in infections, driven by the Delta variant.

Of particular concern was ICU and hospital bed capacity, which came close to being overstretched.

But the local situation appears to be improving, with under 1,500 new infections reported on Nov. 25. Some restrictions have been eased, and Singapore is opening up to more countries overseas with more VTLs.

Ong also had the pleasure of announcing the S$4,000 cash award for 100,000 healthcare workers to show appreciation for their hard work.

You might be forgiven for assuming that Ong has been focused on Covid and nothing else.

Ong Ye Kung speaking on foreign affairs and economy

However, he has also been tapped to front a number of initiatives linked to foreign business and trade.

In July, Business Times reported that Ong outlined details of Singapore's deepened collaboration with China's Greater Bay Area at the FutureChina Global Forum.

In August, Ong gave a speech at the European Chamber of Commerce Dialogue, reiterating Singapore's commitment to free trade and an open economy.

And in November, during a conference on governance at Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza Hotel, Ong spoke of the differences in the systems of government in the U.S. and China.

Not quite what you'd expect from a health minister.

Ong is also no stranger to international coverage, such as in this recent Bloomberg interview in Hong Kong.

Education Minister Chan Chun Sing

Chan, the party's Second Assistant Secretary-General, took up the education portfolio in the latest reshuffle, having given up trade & industry.

But although he has tackled tricky education issues, like the burdens faced by teachers, Chan remains involved in foreign affairs.

In October, it was announced that Chan would be taking over from Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean as Singapore's co-chair of the Singapore-China Forum on Leadership.

His counterpart on China's side is Jiang Xinzhi, an Executive Vice Minister and a fairly big wheel within the ruling Communist Party of China.

Sure, Chan is the Minister-in-charge of the Public Service.

But as Teo is a Senior Minister and a former Deputy Prime Minister, does this appointment suggest a bigger role for Chan?

After all, Heng, a DPM, heads key government-to-government initiatives with China, such as the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC).

Chan on U.S.-China competition

His speech at the forum touched on income inequality and diversity in leadership, among others.

And in November, Chan gave another big speech, but to a more international audience this time, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia Fullerton Lecture.

This speech also addressed the big power competition between the U.S. and China, and how smaller countries can best respond.

Again, these are speeches that a typical education minister might not be expected to make.

No signposts

Perhaps these are just examples of the Singaporean commitment to having a well-rounded skillset.

But it does hint that of our three frontrunners, you can't rule anyone out of the top job yet. At least, not if portfolios are the main focus.

This Sunday's convention may very well be a big party announcing the identity of Singapore's next prime minister, with streamers and fireworks and neon signs. But it seems unlikely.

Until we do get some clearer signals, your chances of guessing the correct pick remain, as ever, at one in three.

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