Governance of a City-State
Renewal, “Ruthlessness” and (un)Reasonableness Part I

Thoughts on the PAP and present succession from a historical perspective

Football aficionados and students of Singapore politics will have noticed that the analogies used on the occasion of anointing Lawrence Wong as PM Lee Hsien Loong’s successor were different from late 1984, when Goh Chok Tong became then-PM Lee Kuan Yew’s successor-in-waiting. In 1984, both Goh and Mr Lee Kuan Yew were clear that Lee would be “goalkeeper” to Goh’s striker. Minister Wong’s role has been cast somewhat differently. At the 16 April 2022 press conference, PM Lee observed that the next PM and his ministers would “score goals collectively” for Singapore.

Minister Wong was chosen following former Minister Khaw Boon Wan’s interviews with 19 stakeholders (the process involved all cabinet ministers and former 4G ministers like Tan Chuan-Jin and Ng Chee Meng, excluding PM and the two Senior Ministers). We know that Wong was the top choice for 15 of the 19 stakeholders (who had to provide a ranking, not involving themselves, in order of preference), and that none of the other names garnered more than two votes.

Past thinking and finding consensus

The revelations in 2022 about the process leading to Minister Lawrence Wong’s anointing would not, in my view, have been made without serious, deliberate, and careful consideration. They strip away something of the mystique that has usually been seen at pivotal moments of PAP history, especially when it comes to transition and succession. Consider what happened on 30 December 1984, when second generation (2G) leaders came together at Dr Tony Tan’s home to resolve the issue of who would be then-PM Lee Kuan Yew’s successor. As is well known, they chose Mr Goh Chok Tong. But most of this only came to light in 1987, when one minister suggested to PM Lee Kuan Yew that the story of the 2G leadership’s deliberations should be allowed to become public knowledge.

Lee had reservations, and only agreed after careful consideration. He observed:

The old guard never believed in openness of their deliberative process as a plus. Indeed, it was to our advantage to keep our inner workings secret: so our disagreements, our methods of settling them and who supports whom and belongs to which faction-were screened off from view.[1]

In the years leading up to 1984, PM Lee Kuan Yew had made clear to the younger generation that they would have to decide amongst themselves who the next PM would be. They would be leading the country and would need, on their own, to come to a decision on who would lead them. Choosing in 1984 was not a simple matter and there were many (inconclusive) discussions before the 30 December 1984 meeting.

Goh Chok Tong was a frontrunner, but there was also Dr Tony Tan, who was probably, at that stage, favoured by Lee. Dr Tan however ruled himself out of contention. In the end, the younger generation leaders decided that Goh was the man they wanted to lead them.

In 1984, the 2G leaders needed time to reach a consensus. But they were able to make the decision — there was no need to bring in a party grandee.

If there was a consensus on a successor to PM Lee from an early point (after the April 2021 announcement that Heng Swee Keat would step aside as leader of the 4G team and remove himself from consideration for the premiership), it would not have taken so long.

This seems to explain to some degree the terms of reference that former minister Khaw Boon Wan was given. Khaw’s role was not simply to seek views from the stakeholders. His was not a simple consultative role but a bridging one. Khaw confirmed this at the 16 April press conference when he noted that his role was to obtain views from ministers but also to do so in a way that fostered a consensus and brought the team together.

We know that at the end of his one-on-one interviews with stakeholders, there was overwhelming support for Lawrence Wong. We do not know what the views were like at the beginning of Khaw’s interviews. It is possible that the field may have been less spread out but it is pointless to speculate further.

However, what does seem reasonably clear is that on this occasion, there were high quality candidates, and within this mix there were some who were willing to be considered.

If so, is this a bad thing?

It is a given that the Party would not want individuals grasping for the job in a way which leads to unhealthy intra-party competition.

But away from this, there is not much daylight between someone capable and confident in his or her own abilities, being willing to lead, and being willing to put his or her hand up when the moment comes. Several in Cabinet, including individuals within the top tiers of the civil service (the Administrative Service, the top rungs of the SAF, or both) are trained to lead large organisations. It would be quite a lot to expect individuals with these backgrounds to sit back and expect others to lead.

People must be prepared to step forward, and in future, be prepared to put their hands up for MP-ship, be willing to be considered as office-holders, and even for the top job.

At the last election, while there were very capable individuals from the civil service who resigned to run on the PAP ticket, there were none at the level of permanent secretary. Of course, there have been criticisms from time to time that individuals drawn from these ranks tend to think in similar ways. But the Party will need individuals of proven calibre, who have made it through a meritocratic process to the top of public service, to be willing to stand for election as PAP candidates. When approached, these individuals (like all others the Party sounds out) will need to decide and weigh professional and personal considerations.

Other than the public sector, it has historically proven difficult to induct top performers from the private sector — individuals who can also transport their acumen to bear on issues of national policy — into politics. However, the performance of relatively recent inductees into Cabinet ranks has shown that this is possible.

If future transitions see either more than one individual being prepared for the job or being prepared to put his or her hand up, the PAP may have to accept this. While there is a difference between this and competition for the job, the difference in practice may not be large.

The issue is not necessarily the idea of competition in itself but in keeping intra-party contention healthy, while avoiding internal politics and “destructive dynamics” that is commonplace in other cabinets, as PM Lee mentioned at the 16 April 2022 press conference.

Unity and teamwork

Politics has changed — and so has football. It is not so much about just the striker anymore, and yes, passing the ball has become important. Some teams pass in very intricate patterns (while making sure, of course, that the ball is still going upfield). The good teams have many qualities but what the best have in common include decisive, influential captains, and deep talent pools they can draw on.

The most noticeable part of the 16 April 22 press conference was the pronounced stress on unity and teamwork. Together, PM Lee, Khaw Boon Wan and Lawrence Wong used the word “team” 58 times. Notwithstanding the fact that PM Lee was not one of the stakeholders interviewed by Khaw, he felt this point important enough, it appears, to advise ministers that this factor — selecting someone who can forge a team — should be a key consideration:

In choosing a leader, we are always looking for somebody who can bring the team together, to get the best out of each team member. Especially this time, I advised the ministers that this should be a major consideration in choosing the next leader.

Lawrence Wong is thus credentialled as the man — the man beyond all others in the frame — who can unite the Cabinet and indeed bring out the best in them when it comes to collective performance and results for Singapore.

That said, as premier, and in the lead-up to his raking the reins, it would in my view be a mistake to see Lawrence Wong (to use government speak) as a senior director directing other directors — he might be primus inter pares but he will be the leader, not a leader. He will need to show his authority — indeed stamp it, in his own way.


Dr Shashi Jayakumar is head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. This is the first of a two-part essay on leadership renewal of the People’s Action Party. Read Part II here.

Top Photo from Flickr.


[1] Shashi Jayakumar, A History of the People’s Action Party, 1985-2021 (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2021), 49, fn21. Lee further wrote, “The new guard must establish that although they were not ‘present at the creation’ and that no Big Bang brought all of you together, as it did the old guard, nevertheless, you are becoming a closely knit team, through careful building up of relationships, through the testing of each person’s capacity and temperament against each other in real life situations”.


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