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Snap Insight: Singapore leadership succession ‘back on track’ but no clear timeline

SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong ended his National Day Rally speech with a positive – though still rather cryptic – note on Singapore’s leadership renewal. Succession plans are “back on track”, he said on Sunday (Aug 20).

This year’s National Day Rally, Mr Lee’s 19th, took on a distinct resonance in what is set to be his final term in office before handing over responsibilities to Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong.  

Mr Lee had previously signalled his intention to step down by 2022 but was delayed by the unexpected severity of the COVID-19 pandemic which he pledged to see the nation through. With a recent series of controversies threatening to erode vital support for the ruling party, Mr Lee affirmed that the incidents will not delay the “timeline for renewal”.

It is important and timely for Singapore that the prime minister reiterated that leadership transition is resuming, with the considerations at play both domestic and international.

PUBLIC CONFIDENCE 

Internationally, a smooth leadership transition would signal continuity and stability to global partners and investors. Domestically, it’s all about the confidence of the public and the efficacy of the 4G (fourth generation) leaders.

What is Singapore’s readiness for political leadership transition? Of the three prime ministers in post-independence history, Mr Lee is the second longest-serving, having been at the helm since 2004.

Against a post-pandemic backdrop with geopolitical uncertainty and economic headwinds, it becomes imperative to facilitate a seamless passing of the baton to the next generation of leaders.

There are concerns about the preparedness of 4G leaders to fully take on the mantle of leadership. The pressing issue of choosing the leader of the 4G team took considerable time and was further complicated when Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat stepped aside in April 2021, requiring a second round of selection before Mr Wong was chosen in April 2022.

Ultimately, Singaporeans’ response to this leadership transition can only be tested with a general election.

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HANDOVER TIMELINE STILL UNCLEAR

Committing to transition without a specific timeline raises questions about clarity and planning.

Certainly, Mr Lee’s words will fuel speculation about the potential timing of an upcoming election. He said in July that he had no plans to call an early election.

A clear handover timeline would provide stakeholders with a sense of direction and certainty. It would give clarity about how outgoing and incoming leaders can work collaboratively to ensure a seamless transition, without leaving the nation in a state of uncertainty.

Two scenarios emerge: A handover before the next election – due by 2025 – or shortly thereafter.

The former could signal Mr Lee’s confidence in the 4G team’s readiness and their ability to shape the nation’s path. Mr Lee might assume the role of a senior minister, as his predecessors did, to continue offering guidance.

On the other hand, if Mr Lee were to lead the next election, it might inadvertently imply that the 4G leaders are not yet fully prepared for the transition.

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FORMIDABLE CHALLENGES AHEAD

As Singapore adapts to changing circumstances and evolving socio-political dynamics, the challenges our leadership faces will only become more formidable.

Mr Lee’s speech not only hinted at the proximity of Singapore’s leadership transition but also underscores the complexity of factors shaping this crucial shift. Singapore’s readiness for this transition is a composite reflection of the nation’s ability to adapt and the preparation of the 4G leadership team. A clearer timeline would help.

Dr Felix Tan is a political analyst at Nanyang Technological University. He is co-author of Unmasking Singapore’s 2020 General Elections: COVID-19 And The Evolving Political Landscape, (Singapore: World Scientific, 2021). 

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