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Secret to Singapore political success: Younger leaders at the helm

The Independent logo The Independent 3 days ago Suresh Nair
Khaw Boon Wan, Teo Chee Hean, Lim Swee Say, Lee Hsien Loong, Yaacob Ibrahim, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Vivian Balakrishnan, Lim Hng Kiang, Patrick Tse posing for a photo © The Independent Singapore

OVER drinks a close friend asked me: Does the People’s Action Party (PAP) have an ageism issue with regards to running the government?

I pondered for a while and remembered thatmSingaporean prime ministers took over running the country, these past six decades, at early ages: Lee Kuan Yew at 35, Goh Chok Tong at 49 and Lee Hsien Loong at 52 and resigned, respectively, at 67, 63 and 68 (that’s if he hands over the baton in the next few months).

Going by the global corridors of power, these are relatively young ages to leave office (without term limits) considering how old politicians generally enter or leave high office.

So, you may well ask: What chance has George Yeo making a political comeback at 64 or even Tharman Shanmugaratnam becoming PM at 62 (besides, of course, being non-Chinese, which seems to be a most awkward criteria)?

Just across our backyard, is the world’s oldest premier. At 92 years and 10 months old, Dr Mahathir Mohamad has become the oldest serving world leader. He was previously PM between 1981 and 2003, and he joins a select band of world leaders who are in power in their 80s or above. His country became independent 60 years ago, when he was 32.

A TIMELINE BEYOND 70?

I must say that we’ve laid down a timeline of not staying on as the No 1 politician beyond age 70. So, PM Lee, who was born in February 1952 and turns 70 in 2022, has about four years to hand over to a 4G (fourth-generation) successor.

On the starting blocks as front-runners to be Singapore’s fourth PM: Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat, 57; Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing, 49; and Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung, 49.

The big ageing question for Singaporeans: Is a 70-year-old too old to run a country?

Nothing out of the ordinary as even the late President Ronald Reagan was days short of his 78th birthday when he left the White House. Sir Winston Churchill stepped down as Britain’s PM at 80. Mind you, both were elected by their electorates well after they were 70, and stayed politically effective.

To wear the PM arm-band for, in my opinion, four years is a very short period for a successor PM to emerge.

PASSING OF THE BATON

By Singapore’s one-party monopoly for 60 years, the passing of the baton has been smooth with reasonably lengthy apprenticeships to ensure stable and seamless transitions.

Looking at PM Lee’s track record, he was Deputy Prime Minister – and de facto PM-designate – for 14 years before he stepped into the PM role in 2004. Likewise, Goh Chok Tong was the uncontested next-in-the-line for nearly six years before taking over in 1990.

That’s why whispers of a GE by end of the year appear to spread like wild smokes (is there really smoke without any fire?) as the ruling party wants to put the Heng Swee Keats and company at the forefront, not just to be known as public figures, but, in the recent words of PM Lee, “to be responsible for significant policies, carrying them, justifying them, defending them, adapting them, making them work, and showing that they deserve to lead. That will be done in good time”.

A warm mandate from the people will provide a shot-in-the-arm to name the new cabinet in order to prepare their early strategies as the leadership succession is a pressing issue, especially if you look at changing political scenarios in the neighbouring countries.

Opposition candidate Harminder Pal Singh, the Founder & CEO of Helping People Succeed, says “age should be a secondary factor as what matters more is the value, knowledge, experience and expertise the person brings to the office and not his entry and exit age, in addition to the ability to relate to the people and work for the betterment of society as a whole”.

Mr Singh, who stood with Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) in the Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC in GE 2015, adds: “Yes, maybe in the latter years, naturally due to longer exposure in the working world, it makes more sense to have leaders who can guide the nation, being empowered by the wealth of experience they gathered over the years with a keen eye on the latest technological developments that can supplement their decision making abilities for the progress of the nation.”

AGE AND EXPERIENCE

Litigation lawyer Jeffrey Beh, a senior partner with Lee Bon Leong & Company and also Chairman of the Singapore After-Care Association, says: “Age is a factor when it comes to speed of thought but experience is equally valuable, a combination of both would be ideal.”

Media artiste Thiyaga Rajan concurs: “It is not a matter of age but a matter of becoming real politicians. Our politicians lack the knack for winning hearts and minds and maybe because of that they might not be able to empathise with the plight of the people. Potential politicians, in my opinion, must be made to spend longer time on grassroots work before becoming MPs, which means they cannot be appointment holders at a young age.”

By Singapore’s long-practiced hierarchy, identifying someone early has its plus-points. The PM-designate can be given more significant tasks – to the extent of running the government day to day, as was the case for Mr Goh, when he was First DPM from 1985 to 1990. With the added responsibility, he can vividly show his colleagues that he can hold his own when placed in the hot seat.

Indeed, with a new skipper at the helm, just like a football or basketball team, it will allow Singaporeans to nicely size him up and decide if he is someone they can follow, and give a longer-term mandate.

A prominent retired oil trader, who declined to be named, says the age-factor for politicians should never be cast in stone. He explains: “Yes, considering how old politicians are, in other democratic systems without time limits (USA has two-term limit, Philippines one-term limit), Donald Trump got to the tops at 69, (late) Ronald Reagan at 70, George Bush at 65 and with regards to Manila, Rodrigo Duterte became President at 71 years.

“It seems a waste of experience and capability, if able leaders leave office at such early ages, leaving the country to be helmed by possibly far less experienced successors. I feel the “age issue” is not cast in stone but a commendable “policy of self-renewal” and to prevent the notion of absolute power corrupts,  the mere fact that there is a need to have a Senior or Minister Mentor, raises the question of why not stay in power a little longer.”

Citing George Yeo as an example, a retired senior Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) journalist, who is now working on a book to celebrate Singapore’s bicentennial, says: “Even if he is fit at 65, he will be hitting 70 after just one term. If Yeo makes a comeback, it will turn the local political roadmap and succession system upside down.

“This may not happen in Singapore because no one man is so indispensable. And depending on what Yeo’s role will be, Lee Hsien Long will have to consider the feelings of all the ministers as the system has groomed to take over in baton-passing style.”

SUCCESSION DILEMMA

PM Lee was asked in a 2012 interview if he saw himself as prime minister beyond age 70. He replied: “I hope not.” He explained: “Seventy is already a long time more. And Singapore needs a prime minister who is younger, who’s got that energy, and who is in tune with that very much younger and very much different generation.”

I believe if he is called on by exigent circumstances to do so, PM Lee should not refuse to stay on for a few more years after 70. In my opinion, having PM Lee lead beyond 70 presents a neater, if not safer, solution to the succession dilemma, considering the prevailing regional political climate. It also gives enough time for the changing of the guard to happen smoothly.

It is an option that merits serious consideration and the 4G Ministers know that, regardless of age or even experience, what matters most is working together, learning to complement one another’s strengths and weaknesses, making decisions as a team, and taking collective responsibility for these decisions.

On hindsight, Singapore has been fortunate that the PMs from the 1960s had stalwart colleagues. Goh Keng Swee, S. Rajaratnam, Lim Kim San, Hon Sui Sen, Othman Wok. Likewise, ESM Goh had a talented team with Ong Teng Cheong, Tony Tan, Wong Kan Seng, S. Jayakumar, S. Dhanabalan, Abdullah Tarmugi, George Yeo, just to name a few.  And, PM Lee inherited ESM Goh’s strong team, and Mr Goh himself stayed on, and more younger talents, including women folks, were introduced.

The political ball is in the court of the 4G leaders, skippered by Heng Swee Keat, who must now enjoy the support and confidence of the broad mass of Singaporeans. The rather remarkable 60-year political success story has, so far, been an absolute team game with “Team Singapore” the winner.

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