by Zofia Reych
This year’s Singapore National Day Rally Speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong attracted more international interest than ever, as a sudden bout of illness interrupted the PM’s address.
The nationally televised speech was suspended for an hour and Lee had to be helped off stage where he was attended to by a medical team. He then was able return to the lectern. The cancer survivor apologised to the audience for giving them a “scare”, and continued his address without further interruption.
Although doctors say there is no immediate threat to the PM’s health and that his near fainting was caused by fatigue and dehydration, he is currently on a week-long leave to recover after the episode.
The PM’s speech started with a focus on Singapore’s economy. Currently, the biggest challenge that Singapore faces is constant disruption and finding strategies to deal with it, explained the PM. Singapore hopes to benefit from the increasingly digitised marketplace by becoming an international logistics hub for online trade. New jobs will be created in fields such as data analytics and digital marketing.
Touching upon international relations, Lee stressed the importance of alliances which allow the small nation-state to thrive. The PM stressed that a strong, united ASEAN is Singapore’s best chance at ensuring it is “taken seriously” by the world.
The PM also warned that Singapore itself is not immune to Islamist radicalisation. In the last couple of years more than a dozen of Singaporeans were arrested due to alleged ties with terrorism, while some defected to Syria. Terrorism is not only an external threat, but a very real domestic issue, reminded Lee.
The future leader remains unknown
After the break caused by poor health, the PM returned to finish his address and speak of the burning issue of leadership succession. “What just happened makes it even more important,” he said.
The topic was widely discussed before and during the general elections in 2011 and 2015, but so far the successor has not been named, despite PAP’s tradition of naming its future leaders early in advance.
“We hope to have an experienced leader – someone who can withstand the test and be able to secure the support of the people; someone who will stand out from our team,” said Lee just before last year’s GE. At the same time the PM stressed that the world’s most successful leaders have rarely been groomed for years to assume their responsibilities, and that Singapore “will have no choice but to accept such model”.
This might mean a departure from PAP’s tradition of designating the successor years in advance, as was the case with Lee Hsien Loong and his predecessor, Goh Chok Tong. However, in this year’s NDR Speech, Lee stated that his successor must be ready to take over soon after the next general election.
The fourth generation of Singapore’s leaders is slowly emerging from the ranks of PAP, but “the heart of this group will still require time, exposure and experience to be shaped and refined,” believes Dr Gillian Koh from the Institute of Policy Studies, while PM Lee stressed the importance of choosing individuals who are not only capable of laying out future plans for the country, but also of winning trust among the electorate.
In his speech, Lee announced Heng Swee Keat’s return to politics after a stroke forced him to step down temporarily. Now 54, Heng remains a core member of the fourth generation leadership, and is often seen by the media as a potential successor.
The other name often mentioned is that of Chan Chun Sing, who was brought in by PAP in 2011 and immediately entrusted with ministerial roles. In 2015 he led the party to victory in Tanjong Pagar, winning 77.8% of the vote. He’s also younger than Heng, whose health issues might pose a problem for long term leadership.
Known for speaking his mind and easily connecting with people, also through social media, Tan Chuan-Jin is another potential successor.
Whoever is chosen as the leader among leaders, chances of big policy changes are slim. PAP will remain on course, and its carefully designed take-over processes are in place exactly for that reason, making political and economic predictability one of the biggest strengths of Singapore.
However, despite the crushing win at the 2015 elections, PAP’s credibility is likely to fall if the future PM is not revealed soon. Lee Hsien Loong’s hesitation at designating the successor is proof that the job will not be an easy one, and it requires an individual of great character.
“Renewal is a work-in-progress, never done,” said the PM, assuring the public that he is closely watching the core fourth generation team, and constantly assessing their performance. Even if doubts continue about the right candidate, he will soon have no choice but to speak his mind.