ALL SINGAPOREANS know the deal. They surrender a great deal of personal liberty and most rights to political expression. In return the party that has run Singapore since its founding, the People’s Action Party (PAP), delivers progress and predictability. Sometimes, the social contract is made explicit, such as when a delinquent like Jolovan Wham mounts an unconscionable challenge to it. Mr Wham awaits sentencing for holding up a piece of cardboard with a smiley face on it—“illegal assembly”, in the prosecutors’ eyes. For the most part, however, the contract is implicit, because the gentlefolk of Singapore know to mind their own business, while the authorities settle an intoxicating bliss on the clean, green city-state.
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Yet if the people have kept up their end of the bargain, then it is all the more spectacular that the PAP this month broke its side. Singapore has had just three prime ministers since its independence in 1965. The incumbent, Lee Hsien Loong, eldest son of the late independence leader, Lee Kuan Yew, has governed since 2004. In late 2018 years of speculation ended when Mr Lee’s fourth-generation, or “4G”, successor, the finance minister, Heng Swee Keat, was picked out. Mr Lee also made it clear that he would step down before his 70th birthday in early 2022.
Planning years ahead is what the PAP does. But on the eve of a general election last July, Mr Lee said he would stay on longer (ostensibly to guide Singapore out of the covid-19 pandemic). And on April 8th Mr Heng made the shock announcement that he was giving up his role as Mr Lee’s heir apparent. The PAP’s reputation for predictability, says Donald Low of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, has now “taken a beating”.
Putting a gloss on things, Mr Heng, who is 60, said he was stepping aside to give the next prime minister a “sufficiently long runway” to master the demands of the job. Lee Kuan Yew was 35 when he took over, Mr Lee 52. In truth, Mr Heng’s problems—and his party’s—began months ago. The government’s effective handling of the pandemic early last year boded well for the forthcoming election. Yet by mid-April infections were racing through the packed dormitories of Singapore’s migrant workers, a blind spot in the PAP’s containment programme. Apparatchiks suddenly looked unprepared and out of touch. In the election, when it came, the PAP won just 61.2% of the vote. That would be a landslide anywhere else. But in Singapore, where the PAP gerrymanders constituencies, hounds opposition figures and cows the media, the result was a humiliation.
Worse, the PAP team in the multi-member constituency into which Mr Heng was dropped mustered only 53.4% of the vote. Cherian George of Hong Kong Baptist University notes that no prime minister, current or prospective, has underperformed the party like that before.
Mr Heng’s fate appeared sealed then. His retreat this month lays bare two of the PAP’s problems. The first is that Mr Heng, a soft-spoken technocrat with plenty of experience and an ability to listen, was probably the best candidate among the pool of 4G candidates. The second, the lack of a succession mechanism, magnifies the first. Opaque and elitist, the PAP carries out its internal functions with near-Leninist discipline. Its obsession with rules is one of Singapore’s defining traits. Yet when it comes to succession, it seems embarrassingly bereft of procedures. That puts it in a bind. It appears unable even to slot Mr Heng’s anointed number two, Chan Chun Sing, into the top spot. The scrappy, rough-edged Mr Chan, who last year seemed to think that cotton came from sheep, does not look like great leadership material. That only underscores the shallowness of the available pool.
A top-down regime prevents renewal from below. Mr Lee and his 3G cohorts obsess about preserving the technocratic successes of the past. All the main 4G candidates—the others are Lawrence Wong, minister for education; Desmond Lee, minister for national development; and Ong Ye Kung, minister for transport—arefunctionaries. The only way to rise through the PAP’s ranks, Mr George argues, is to have served as apprentice to party grandees—Mr Heng was private secretary to Lee Kuan Yew himself. No wonder many talented Singaporeans shun the PAP route to politics and leadership. Meanwhile, the gulf widens between an increasingly plural electorate and an ossified ruling party. This month’s ructions are indicative of problems within the PAP. When does it become a problem for Singapore?
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Dropped connection”
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