What will the next Singaporean PM offer

Photo: Moritz Hager/World Economic Forum
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Lee Hsien Loong has indicated he will step down as Prime Minister after the next election. Who will succeed him and what will this mean for Singapore?

By Oliver Ward

Lee Hsien Loong threw the hungry public a bone on who might succeed him as Prime Minister of Singapore. Lee, 65, revealed he would step down as Prime Minister before the age of 70, after the next election. He admitted in an interview that his successor would “very likely” be from the ministers already in his cabinet.

Who are the frontrunners?

Deputy Prime Ministers Teo Chee Hean, 62, and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, 60, are approaching Lee’s age themselves. This means the Deputy Prime Ministers are extremely unlikely to be in contention as his successor.

Recent cabinet reshuffles indicate the next prime minister comes from the fourth generation of Singaporean leadership. The frontrunners among this younger group are Chan Chun Sing, Heng Swee Keat and Ong Ye Kung.

How do they compare?

Sources: Forbes, Straits Times (I) (II) (III) (IV), MINDEFMalay Mail Online, Channel News Asia, Business Times (I) (II),  PMO (I) (II), Convergence

In a recent interview, Chan Chun Sing predicted that no matter who becomes Prime Minister after Lee, there would be “business continuity” in Singapore. However, the three candidates have subtle differences in their approach.

Finance Minister, Heng Swee Keat, promoted a forward-looking budget for 2017. His budget included corporation tax rebates, additional Special Employment Credit and Wage Credit Scheme enhancements. This will give an extra S$1.4 billion (US$1 billion) to Singaporean businesses to explore new avenues of revenue and innovative business solutions.

Ong Ye Kung’s economic plan instead focuses on improved ties and coordination between agencies to help bring innovative ideas to fruition. He believes public servants have the responsibility to enable new activities rather than impose stifling regulation and red tape. He said, “in this pursuit of innovation, the main obstacle is ourselves.”

Chan has used his position as secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) to boost Singapore’s economy through wage increases and better support for professionals, managers and executives (PMEs). Unionised workers have seen their wages increase from 4.8% in 2011 to 4.9% at the end of 2015. Chan also lobbied for Wage Support for companies that employed mature PME workers.

There are still strong suggestions of continuity

All three candidates show a strong consensus on the reformation of Singapore’s education system. They recognise the importance of a student-centric, holistic approach to education, which promotes a focus on skills.

The succession of Lee Hsien Loong by Ong Ye Kung would perhaps offer the most continuity. Ong served Lee personally from 1997 to 2005, first as press secretary, then as his principal private secretary.

Chan Chun Sing is the most likely choice

The early frontrunner for succession is Chan Chun Sing. When Lee moved him to the NTUC in 2015, it was a strong suggestion that he wanted Chan to play a stronger role in domestic politics. Since then he has also expanded his activities in external affairs. Chan visited several Chinese cities alone in September 2017 in preparation for Lee’s trip to Beijing.

His involvement in the NUTC and his military background mean he has ample support among grassroots organisations and national institutions. He also has plenty of experience in key government positions.

However, whoever takes the Prime Minister’s office will likely include the other two frontrunners in their cabinet. All three candidates have extensive experience in the key areas of government. Singapore’s future will be in careful hands under the trinity of the fourth-generation leadership.