Author: Robin Vochelet, NUS
Days before his 70th birthday on 10 February, Lee Hsien Loong announced that he wouldn’t be stepping down from his position as Singaporean Prime Minister. Lee had previously marked this date as the end of his tenure as the city-state’s prime minister and leading figure of the People’s Action Party (PAP).
The leadership transition process garnered attention in the aftermath of the 2015 general election. It falls under the mandate of the fourth generation (4G) leadership group, a group of leaders who will ostensibly take over after Lee’s departure. Although Lee announced that he would retain the premiership through the COVID-19 crisis in July 2020, the 4G leadership group remained committed to appointing a successor by the 10 February deadline.
Plans for succession had stalled a year earlier in April 2021 after Deputy Prime Minister, Heng Swee Keat — widely understood to be Lee’s intended successor — stepped aside from the 4G leadership group. Heng was concerned he would be in his mid-60s by the time he took over, preferring to give way to a ‘younger leader with a longer runway’ — even if some attributed his decision to lower than expected turnout during the general elections in his constituency in 2020.
The premiership race is now between Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong and Education Minister Chan Chun Sing. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, all three officials have taken up additional leadership roles as part of the Multi-Ministry Taskforce.
As co-chair of the taskforce, Wong became a particularly prominent figure in Singapore’s pandemic policy, receiving praise from media and health officials around the world and significantly improving his credentials for succession. But the fact that Wong has yet to receive explicit endorsement hints at a lack of experience, potentially making him unsuitable to replace Heng as leader of the 4G group.
Concerns about the group’s ability to take over after Lee’s departure from the Istana, the Singaporean Office of Prime Minister, had already been raised before Heng’s abdication. In the aftermath of a cabinet reshuffle in January 2018, Lee was yet to select a successor, with some contending that the promising candidates needed time to acquire more experience. Heng’s entry into the premiership race came the following year amid another cabinet reshuffle, with his accession to Deputy Prime Ministership leading many to believe he was intended to succeed Lee.
The issue of premiership succession has long been central to the PAP. It has ruled the city uninterrupted since 1959 before Singapore even achieved independence from the British Crown in 1965. Under former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s stewardship, Singapore achieved high levels of economic growth and social development. Although Lee passed away in 2015, his name and legacy remain significant in the city, where he is now widely recognised as the founding father of modern Singapore.
As the eldest son of the nation’s most revered political figure, Lee Hsien Loong was long seen as a natural successor when he took over the premiership from Goh Chok Tong in 2004 — a position he consolidated in the 2006 general election and has retained since.
Since independence, the city has held regular elections, mostly considered free, but whose fairness is often debated. The 2011 general election was seen as a watershed in the city’s politics, with the Workers’ Party (WP) — the country’s main opposition party — scoring 6 out of 87 seats in parliament, the largest electoral gain for any opposition party in Singapore. The party once again increased its parliamentary presence in the 2020 general election, scoring 10 out of 93 seats.
While these gains are far from sufficient to challenge the PAP’s dominance over Singaporean politics, they point to a need for the party to restructure to keep capturing the majority of the popular vote, particularly when younger voters seem increasingly attracted to the opposition.
The 4G group’s struggle to select a successor brings into question the transparency and efficiency of the PAP’s succession process. Despite nearly 60 uninterrupted years in power, the leadership struggle hints that the succession path requires strong institutional groundwork — or at least, a consolidation of such groundwork — if the PAP leadership wants the process to remain sustainable. Since Heng’s withdrawal from the leadership race, the PAP’s communiques have vaguely articulated the 4G group’s need for ‘more time’ and that the selection of a new successor would come in ‘due course’.
Nearly two months past the 10 February deadline, uncertainty looms over the identity of Lee’s successor. The 4G group’s credibility remains at stake for as long as Lee maintains a deliberate ambiguity over his intended successor, hinting that he doubts their ability to become future prime ministers. If he wants to re-establish the 4G group’s legitimacy over the succession process, Lee needs to show he is confident in the group’s ability to take over after his departure and formulate a clear stance in favour of one of the remaining candidates.
Robin Vochelet is a Singapore-based journalist and researcher, currently pursuing a Master in International Affairs at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.
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