Comment: When exactly will PM Lee pass the baton to Lawrence Wong? We look at past examples.

Whether running an Olympic race or running a country, the timing of passing the baton is very important.

Jane Zhang | April 25, 2022, 09:59 AM

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On Apr. 14, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that Finance Minister Lawrence Wong had been chosen by his peers to be the new leader of the 4G team.

This means that Wong will likely be the next prime minister of Singapore. But the question left unanswered is: when exactly might this handover happen?

As we do not have a crystal ball (nor a way to read PM Lee or Wong’s minds), we also don’t have the answer to this question.

But what we can do is take a look at how the plan for transitioning to the 4G leader has changed over time and examine the 2G and 3G leadership succession planning for clues.

An unexpected succession plan

When then-Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat was selected as the 1st Assistant Secretary-General of the People's Action Party (PAP) in late 2018, and then named deputy prime minister (DPM) in 2019, it seemed clear that this meant he would become the fourth prime minister of Singapore.

After all, both PM Lee and Singapore’s second prime minister, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong had served as DPM — for just under six years and nearly 14 years, respectively — prior to their appointments as prime minister.

However, this seemingly-clear succession plan changed when Heng announced on Aug. 8, 2021 that he would be stepping aside as leader of the 4G so that a “younger leader” with a “longer runway” could take the reins instead.

In response, the 4G team requested that PM Lee stay on as prime minister as the team would need more time to choose a new successor, given that their biggest priority at the time was “tackling Singapore’s pressing immediate challenges and ensuring that Singapore emerges stronger from this crisis”, referring to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Heng remained as DPM. PM Lee agreed to continue leading the country in the meantime, but emphasised that Singapore’s political leadership is conscious that "succession remains an urgent task and cannot be put off indefinitely".

"I think it will take longer than a few months, but I hope that they will reach a consensus and identify a new leader before the next general election. I have no intention of staying on longer than necessary."

Had hoped to handover by age 70

PM Lee had previously said that he hoped to hand over the prime minister position to his successor by the time he turned 70. He passed this milestone on Feb. 10, 2022.

On the last day of 2017, Goh shared his hope that the 4G leadership would choose the next prime minister within six to nine months.

Speaking to the media on Jan. 26, 2018, while in India for the Asean-India Commemorative Summit, PM Lee was asked about the six- to nine-month timeline.

He responded that he “would not be able to say for certain that it would be settled in the next six to nine months but it will have to be done in good time”.

PM Lee estimated that it would likely take “a little longer” and voiced his desire to hand over to his successor “after the next election, earlier rather than later”.

Looking forward to handing over to Wong: PM Lee

However, the timeline of the handover was affected, no doubt greatly influenced by the unexpected Covid-19 pandemic.

At his online lunchtime rally during GE 2020, PM Lee pledged that he would see through the Covid-19 pandemic with his deputies before handing over.

"You have my word: Together with my older colleagues like Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, as well as the 4G ministers, I will see this through. I am determined to hand over Singapore, intact and in good working order, to the next team."

Currently, there is no confirmation that a handover would take place anytime soon.

In a press conference on Apr. 16, PM Lee said he is “looking forward to handing over to Lawrence once he is ready” as he is already 70 years old.

He said that the handover will be done “carefully and deliberately”, taking into account the factor of when the next general election will be.

The next general election must be held by Nov. 23, 2025.

PM Lee said he will be discussing with Wong what the best strategy will be for contesting in the next general election:

“Whether it is for me to hand over to him first, he consolidates, he leads into the next election as leader of the 4G team and will be in charge after the next election.

Or I go into the next election leading the PAP, fight the next election, and if we win, after that Lawrence takes over, and then the 4G team goes forward.

It will depend on how things evolve and is something which we will decide later on.”

Either way, PM Lee said, the plan is for Wong to be the next prime minister as long as the PAP wins the next election.

Next general election likely later rather than sooner

When Mediacorp editor-in-chief Walter Fernandez asked Wong whether he feels that he may need to seek a mandate from Singaporeans sooner rather than later, and if the next general election might take place one year from now, PM Lee interjected, chuckling while saying:

“You surely don't expect an answer, right?”

This is because the PM advises the President to dissolve the parliament and is unlikely to share details of his decision years in advance.

At the People's Action Party (PAP) Convention held on Nov. 28, 2021, PM Lee had said that the decision about succession would happen “well before” the next general election.

"The 4G team will need a little longer to make a decision but I'm confident that they will settle it well before the next general election comes around.”

He said, "We haven't decided on the date of the next general election yet, but I'm confident they will settle it in good time before that."

So assuming this still holds true, the next general election may not take place quite so soon.

Past succession planning examples may not help with estimates

Would looking at past leadership succession planning help shed light on when this handover might take place?

Likely not, given that this round of succession planning is quite different from how it has been done in the past.

Goh was chosen in an informal meeting of a small group of six ministers after the 1984 General Election.

In 2004, then-Deputy Prime Minister Lee was chosen as the leader of the 3G during a lunch meeting with a group of ministers.

This time around, PM Lee said that the leadership felt that it would be better to make the decision in a “more systematic way”.

They felt it was important for people to be able to honestly share their views about the strengths and weaknesses of the potential candidates, without “impairing mutual relationship and trust amongst the team”.

Former minister and former PAP chairman Khaw Boon Wan was tapped to oversee the process.

Interview of "key stakeholders"

Starting after Budget 2022 wrapped up, Khaw interviewed the Cabinet ministers — excluding PM Lee and the two senior ministers — and also Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin, and Secretary-General of NTUC Ng Chee Meng to get their views on their preferred choice.

15 of the 19 stakeholders interviewed chose Wong as their preferred leader, Khaw said.

In terms of timeline, looking at previous leadership succession decisions is of limited help in terms of trying to read the tea leaves.

Goh was chosen as leader after the 1984 General Election, yet took office as prime minister in 1990, nearly six years later.

Lee was chosen as 3G leader in mid-2004 and became prime minister later that same year, on Aug. 12, 2004.

It seems unlikely that the handover would take less time than PM Lee’s handover, or a longer period than Goh’s handover.

What are the factors involved?

So, when will PM Lee pass the baton to Wong?

That depends on:

  1. When the next general election takes place, which has to take place before Nov. 23, 2025, and;
  2. Which strategy the PAP leadership decide to go with — having Wong lead the 4G leaders in the next general election, or having PM Lee fight the next election and Wong take over afterward, if the PAP wins.

Let's assume that the next general election occurs only in late-2025, and PM Lee decides to enter GE2025 still leading the PAP.

This would mean that he would only be able to pass the baton to Wong when he is already nearly 74, almost four years later than his original goal of stepping down by 70.

“I will certainly let the Prime Minister know when I am ready”: Wong

In the meantime, Wong said he will take time to consolidate and discuss with his team about possible next steps and how to organise themselves to tackle the pressing challenges.

“I am fully aware that PM would like to handover to me as soon as I am ready. He has said this to you. He has said this to me more than once.

I will bear that in mind as I embark on my new responsibilities.

I would say that this is also the value of our approach to leadership succession, which is that when we seek to renew the mandate, we do so with the strongest possible team that is ready to take on the mantle of leadership. That is how we ensure continuity and stability in our system.”

He added, “I will certainly let the Prime Minister know when I am ready, and I am also very sure that before too long, he will be reminding me and chasing me for a response. I will do so in due course.”

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Top photos via PM Lee Facebook and MCI YouTube.