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

After the disappointing 1991 general election results for the People’s Action Party which saw four seats lost to the Opposition, founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew told his successor Goh Chok Tong that there was little fear of the government in certain quarters, and that the problem had arisen as to who would carry the “big stick” for Goh. The implication was that the leader could not afford to be seen as too soft. Goh replied that he would carry the big stick himself, but he would do so “quietly, like Suharto”.[1]

As the newly minted 4G leader, Lawrence Wong may be required to carry the big stick too, but in his own way.

The Opposition will use every opportunity in Parliament to test the PM-in-waiting, and to attempt to exert some sort of psychological dominance from an early stage (indeed, it is the nature of politics that Opposition does not even need to outperform the PM-in-waiting in every single skirmish to claim political victory). This will be an interesting challenge.

Lee Kuan Yew took the view that the PM had to go beyond technocratic expertise and communicating policy. After Goh Chok Tong had been chosen as his successor, he wrote that Goh could hold his own against Chiam See Tong and J. B. Jeyaretnam, but that if for some reason he could not, then Goh should not govern Singapore, and other ministers and MPs should know it.[2]

PM Lee Hsien Loong has also observed when it comes to his own successor:

He will have to pull his weight and … show that he deserves to be what his peers and colleagues in cabinet think that he can do … this is necessary. If you’re unable to win elections, you cannot be the leader. You can be a great thinker, you can be great planner, but you have to be in politics.[3]

Lawrence Wong has already shown on several occasions that he can debate and take on the Opposition effectively, in his own way, particularly when it comes to matters of policy. But inevitably, there will be occasions down the line where taking on the Opposition, either in or out of Parliament (say, ‘street-fighting’ on the campaign trial), will require different skill sets and a different aspect of charisma. As premier, Wong and his team could perhaps seek to depersonalise some of this, while still channelling conviction and passion in debate, which the younger generation seem to relate to.

My own analysis of recent events and of the 2020 general election is that voters, especially the younger generation, increasingly expect the PAP to “play fair”.[4] Whether the Party leadership has arrived at the same conclusion is one matter, although it is clear that in the immediate post-GE analysis, senior Party figures had taken on board the fact the younger generation wanted alternative views and diversity in political discourse. Within this, how the Party campaigns, street fights and takes on the Opposition in direct ways will be important in the coming years. Only time will tell.

Lee Kuan Yew could when the occasion demanded be ruthless. “Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac”, he once said. Domestically, Lawrence Wong, supported by the 4G team, will not need a hatchet and may not even need to openly carry a big stick, given how times have changed. He may however need some hatchet capability, combining a tough and uncompromising approach with the nuance and subtlety that Lee Kuan Yew employed when needed.

These attributes will increasingly be needed in the international arena. Singapore’s principled stand on Russia’s illegal and unwarranted invasion of Ukraine is a case in point. It would have been the easiest thing for the leadership to sit back and adopt a wait-and-see approach, or take a position that fudges the issue without condemning Russia’s naked aggression.

With Ukraine, the right call was made. But as has become clear, segments of the population disagree or have doubts about the wisdom of Singapore making a stand in this way. Some on the ground (and here I take the ground to mean individuals and informal groups from coffeeshops to golf courses ventilating their views) appear to have taken the view that it would have been sufficient to make the right noises against war and to express regret at civilian loss of life, and to state the hope that a peaceful resolution could quickly be reached.

Here, I think of former Head of Civil Service Peter Ho’s account of how Mr Lee Kuan Yew once said to him, “Reasonable men adapt. Unreasonable men change the world.”

Future security challenges will, from time to time, arise that will force Lawrence Wong and the rest of the 4G leadership to be “unreasonable” — in other words, to avoid seemingly safe compromises and risk-free approaches.

Even as Lawrence Wong and his team show this type of steel, when it comes to explaining various issues to the domestic constituency, skill and subtlety will be needed. Many issues have arisen in recent years that have the potential to polarise and open up fissures in Singapore society.

Race is one example. I had the privilege of moderating a talk by Minister Wong at the 25 June 2021 IPS-RSIS Forum on Race and Racism in Singapore, and observed him at a separate forum on tribalism and identity politics on 23 November 2021. To me, he was thoughtful, accurate and nuanced on many issues. He observed the majority need to be sensitive to the minority and acknowledged that there had been instances of thoughtlessness. He also stressed the need to avoid stereotyping groups of people and assuming that these are monolithic. Wong also noted that some Chinese Singaporeans were in some ways disadvantaged and would not understand what Chinese privilege means. In my view, he was correct in making these observations. At one or two points, he seemed to suggest that Chinese privilege is nothing more than a stereotype (many might disagree).

Intelligent, rational people may very well be able to come up with seemingly sound arguments of their own to substantiate or contest the analysis and observations made by Lawrence Wong on the issues above. On this and other domestic issues with the potential to polarise society —which are polarising society — Wong will have to wade into very thorny waters when he gives his views, or when he maps out his vision for Singapore. As much as he might want to appeal to a broad swathe, the very expression of his perspectives may to some degree segmentalise opinion on him.

The Future

It is impossible to tell whether the first major challenge to the next PM will come from within or without. It may well be a combination of both. In facing challenges, what stands the 4G leadership in especially good stead is bench strength when it comes to experience, capabilities and intellect — it is buttressed by both SMs, and ministers recruited during the 3G era. There are also younger office holders, who are not yet full ministers, but who (including a few who sit in cabinet meetings) may well be in future.

The younger office holders were not involved this time round in choosing Lawrence Wong. Not involved too in the choice this time round were PAP MPs, although they endorsed the choice when presented to them. [5]  Lawrence Wong will need time to get younger office holders and MPs used to his style and approach. He shows great promise on this front but this process will take time.

At the 16 April press conference the issue of inducting talent and further successions down the line came up, with PM Lee expressing the hope that Lawrence Wong would together with colleagues identify more promising leaders, and build up the 5G team.  These comments are not premature; nor are they being referred to in an over-the-horizon sense. The Party has always prioritised the issue of talent renewal at all levels — indeed it is treated as an existential issue. The 2G leadership came into being as a result of a rigorous — some would suggest ruthless — winnowing that began in the 1970s.  The process was not altogether (particularly when it came to scrutiny of strengths and weaknesses, and testing out potential from as early a stage as possible) that much different for the generations after. It is a process that should start now with the 5G.

The future team — 4G in the post-Lee Hsien Loong era, 5G and beyond — will doubtless have talent and ability, qualities which will need to be harnessed. PM Lee said on 16 April that “…you must maximise the abilities and the experiences and the instincts of people from a wide range of backgrounds and get them to work together so that you have an outstanding result which no single person can deliver.” I would suggest that Lawrence Wong as premier will need to lead them and inspire them. The team members, including several in the 5G who have not yet made their appearance, may well have diverse strengths and other qualities — belief in one’s ability to do the job at all office-holding levels for example. This would be expected and, as politics progresses, natural. As a Singaporean and observer of politics I hope that as part of the moulding process, they retain within this a disinterested sense too, just as the incumbent, his chosen successor, and his peers have always done.

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 second of a two-part essay on leadership renewal of the People’s Action Party. Read Part I 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), 130.

[2] Ibid., 85.

[3]Ibid., 551-52.

[4] Ibid., 544-46.

[5] In 2004, before handing over the premiership to Lee Hsien Loong, Goh Chok Tong instituted a process which he hoped to entrench: Ministers first discussed the matter and came to a decision, before this was presented to a caucus of MPs. MPs were invited to suggest alternatives (none were suggested in 2004). The choice in 2004 was very clear, but Goh observed  a process was needed as there might in future be a contest for the premiership Goh said in 2004, “The confidence of MPs is important. I want to put in place a process so that, in future, if there is a contest for the position, there’s a process to follow.”  History of the People’s Action Party, p.344, p.385 n.138 (and the references cited within).  I am not entirely surprised that Goh’s process was not used. In keeping with the Party’s own philosophy of pragmatism, PM Lee would not want to be wedded to any process. As he noted at the 16 April press conference, this was a different way of doing things, and it worked, and it might be used on the occasion of the choosing a future premier (or it might be refined further).

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