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Enter Stage Right: The Choreography of Prime Ministerial Succession in Singapore

09 Nov 2022
By Michael Barr
Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong during a meeting at the Pentagon in Washington. Source: U.S. Department of Defense/

Despite the succession process now having entered its seventh year, and with Prime Minister Lee already 70, the People’s Action Party government is no closer to a formal hand over of power. The usual appearance of a smooth and consensus-based leadership transition has begun to crack.

There is no set rulebook for a change of prime ministers in Singapore. In the absence of fair elections and competitive opposition parties, the selection is always made behind closed doors at elite level, and then the winner is announced at a press conference by the outgoing prime minister – though usually after the selection had been informally circulated in the media for a few days. Since the republic was created in 1965, there have been two successful changes of prime minister, in 1991 and 2004, and one failed/abandoned succession attempt in 2019, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong anointed a heavily flawed candidate, Heng Swee Keat, who stepped aside two years later.

Last April’s announcement that Lawrence Wong will one day succeed PM Lee is thus the country’s fourth attempt at a prime ministerial succession, though unlike the third, there is every indication that this one will be successful. Despite having been passed over in 2019, Wong is a safe pair of hands in every respect: a personable, intelligent communicator; a highly competent administrator; and a team player who has the support of his colleagues. Yet, he also shares one critical weakness with his unsuccessful predecessor: he has no power base of his own and is utterly dependent on the patronage of PM Lee, by whom he used to be employed as his Personal Private Secretary. Remarkably, PM Lee has not yet indicated a timeline for his retirement because  he needs to make up his mind as to when Wong is ‘ready’ to take over. Despite the succession process now having entered its seventh year, and having already missed Lee’s self-imposed deadline of retiring before his 70th birthday, Lee has not even ruled out leading his party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), into the next General Election, which could be held as late as November 2025. Nor is there much likelihood that he will leave politics straight away, since both former prime ministers stayed in Cabinet as ‘Senior Minister’ for many years after their supposed retirements.

Mythologies of succession

The appearance of a smooth and consensus-based leadership transition is intrinsic to the mythology that underpins the Singapore brand of governance and business internationally and the PAP brand of politics domestically. Both the international and the domestic brands ride on the assumption that the leadership can be trusted to provide a stable environment with high standards of technocratic professionalism. Confidence in leadership selection and transition is a central element of this trust, and in the absence of meaningful elections, this means that it needs to maintain confidence in the judgement and conduct of the ruling elite, ensuring high levels of trust that it will maintain its standards.

The operation of an undemocratic, dominant-party system is widely regarded as acceptable practice, but only for as long as the leadership delivers the promised professionalism, which is why, at every leadership transition, the outgoing prime minister constructs a narrative of how the selection was made. It matters not whether the narrative is true, so long as it perpetuates the myth that the Singapore government operates under “almost in laboratory conditions” free of ambitious self-interest and the vagaries of democratic politics, and is completely “rational” – to use the words of the current prime minister after his own ascension.

When Goh Chok Tong was chosen to replace PM Lee Kuan Yew, the decision to anoint him was allegedly made at a meeting of a select group of his Cabinet peers in 1985 that Goh missed because he arrived late. What we now know from a newly published official history of the PAP was that PM Lee Kuan Yew had already been told of Goh’s selection the day before the meeting took place. It then took another five years for PM Lee to actually step aside.

The selection of Lee Hsien Loong (Lee Kuan Yew’s eldest son) to succeed PM Goh in 2004 was less problematic and more predictable, but Goh nevertheless set up an elaborate series of inclusive meetings that produced just the one name for consideration. This mythmaking was undone only recently, when PM Lee admitted earlier this year that his selection was made by “a small group of ministers,” who “settled it over lunch.”

The selection of Heng Swee Keat in 2019 was remarkable, not only because it failed spectacularly, but because the original narrative explaining his selection lasted only three years before it was flatly contradicted in public by PM Lee. The final decision to select Heng to replace PM Lee Hsien Loong was supposedly triggered by his election to the rather obscure position of First Assistant Secretary-General of the PAP. This intra-party election was initially greeted in the press as no more than an indicator that Heng was the front runner to be next PM, but it quickly morphed into a declaration of succession, with much celebration of the introduction of an element of intra-party democracy into the process. Yet when PM Lee was asked about this process in April 2022, he claimed that the decision was made exclusively by a group of senior Cabinet ministers, and only after that did Heng talk to junior ministers, “other office holders” and PAP MPs. He made no mention at all of Heng’s election as First Assistant Secretary-General of the PAP.

Confidence in the judgement of the ruling elite to govern itself took a hit with the selection and failure of Heng, and the government is fully aware that it has to make up lost ground. Little wonder, then, that when introducing Lawrence Wong, Lee kept his mythmaking to a minimum, and presented it as a consultative process within Cabinet, pointedly talking up the trustworthiness of this process – though without acknowledging that this is the same Cabinet that he claimed chose Heng.

Thanks to its strong structural advantages over the opposition, the PAP is not in danger of losing government, but it is nevertheless sensitive about its image as a professional outfit, since this goes to the heart of the reasons that both Singaporeans and foreign investors have confidence in the PAP. The signs are ominous. In the 2020 General Election, an anti-government swing of 26 per cent nearly cost it five MPs in one constituency, including two senior Cabinet ministers; and in another multi-seat constituency the anti-government swing did see the PAP lose four supposedly safe seats to the opposition.

The government’s electoral problems go far beyond the issue of leadership succession, but the embarrassments over the latest attempts at arranging a successor to PM Lee have raised questions about the trustworthiness, reliability, and professionalism of the government. If a corporation had a six-year selection process to replace an aging CEO and still did not have a new CEO to show for its troubles, the board would be under enormous pressure – if it had not already been replaced.

Michael Barr is Associate Professor of International Relations (Academic Status) at Flinders University and the author or editor of several books and many academic articles, mainly on Singapore politics and history. His most recent books are Singapore: A Modern History and The Limits of Authoritarian Governance in Singapore’s Developmental State, both published in 2019. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and a former Editor-in-Chief of Asian Studies Review. He can be reached at:

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