Singapore's 4G leadership race: Will it be Ong, Wong or Chan?

Nicholas Yong
·Assistant News Editor
·6 min read
(L-R) Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung, Minister Lawrence Wong and Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing. (PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore/MCI/Gov.sg)
(L-R) Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung, Education Minister Lawrence Wong and Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing. (PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore/MCI/Gov.sg)

SINGAPORE — The race to become the successor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong appears to be down to three men: Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung, 51, Education Minister Lawrence Wong, 48, and Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, 51.

Sources in the People's Action Party (PAP) and academics, while divided on the frontrunners, agreed that the process, which will have repercussions for the next election, needs to be carefully managed. A Cabinet reshuffle scheduled for next week, which will fill the all-important Finance Minister portfolio, is expected to shed more light on who will be Lee's heir apparent. 

Singapore's well-oiled leadership succession was abruptly brought to a halt last Thursday (8 April), when Deputy PM Heng Swee Keat stepped aside as leader of the Republic's fourth-generation leadership team and designated successor to Lee. Heng, 59, cited his age and the disruptions caused by the pandemic as the key reasons for his decision at a media conference.

In response, Heng's 4G colleagues said in a statement that his decisions had been an "unexpected turn of events" and said they would need "more time" to select another leader. Lee said at the same conference that the process of choosing his successor would take "more than a few months", and "should not take more than a couple of years", with a clear outcome before the next general election. 

Sentiment in the PAP

SINGAPORE - JULY 01: Candidate of Prime Ministry of Singapore Heng Swee Keat answers the questions of press members after meeting residents seeking support as the state goes to the polls for general elections in Singapore on July 01, 2020. Officials wore face masks during the campaign as maintaining social distance as a precaution against coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. (Photo by Zakaria Zainal/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Heng Swee Keat answers the questions of press members after meeting residents on 1 July, 2020. (PHOTO: Zakaria Zainal/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

On Monday, a Bloomberg report, citing high-ranking PAP members, said the leadership race was expected to come down to Ong and Wong. An ongoing Yahoo News Singapore poll on readers' preferred choice as 4G leader, which has attracted more than 23,000 votes as of Wednesday evening, currently has Ong in the lead with 29 per cent, followed by Wong at 16 per cent. Chan garnered just 9 per cent of the vote.

Similar online polls such as that of social news site Mothership, with some 13,700 votes as of Wednesday evening, has Wong narrowly in the lead at 37 per cent and Ong at 35 per cent, with Chan also in third at 23 per cent.

When asked by Yahoo News Singapore about the three possible frontrunners, as well as National Development Minister Desmond Lee, former Ang Mo Kio Member of Parliament Inderjit Singh would only say, "All the four names you mentioned are possible candidates (to be) 4G PM."

Singh added that the process of choosing Lee's successor has been complicated by the lack of "a clear superstar candidate", leading to the need for "a cohesive and strong team" instead of one strong person.

Noting that Heng's decision took many of the party cadres by surprise, given that succession planning has historically been done with very little surprises, he said, "I believe the cadres will want to see the decision made on who replaces Mr Heng as soon as possible. It is important that the PAP continues to look strong and organised."

He added, "If we take too long, we risk looking like we are in disarray."

Among rank and file party members, Chan and Ong are seen as the leading contenders, according to one well-placed source. The former is regarded as a strict military man who is "aggressively pushing" to be the leader of the 4G team, while the latter impressed with his leadership of his Sembawang GRC team at GE2020, the source said.

"By all accounts, the two men don’t get along. One would not be happy to be subordinate to the other," said the source. "The two of them are neither that brilliant nor objectionable. They are about the same. The 4G are just a very uninspiring lot."

Wong, who has impressed with his work as co-chair of the multi-ministry taskforce on COVID-19, has surprised party members with his rapid ascent and does not trigger "strong opinions", the source added.

Race to the Istana 

Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung, who officiated the launch of the Changi Airport Connector on Sunday (11 October), posing with a Tyrannosaurus Rex display. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)
Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung, who officiated the launch of the Changi Airport Connector on Sunday (11 October), posing with a Tyrannosaurus Rex display. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)

Associate Professor of Law Eugene Tan of the Singapore Management University, agreed that the trio are the frontrunners, noting that they are among the most experienced of the 4G leaders in terms of Cabinet experience. Given that Heng's departure is an "own goal", the saga has raised the legitimate question of whether the 4G leaders can consensually pick the right person to lead them, the government, and the country.

Prof Tan added that the way the leadership race is conducted will heavily impact public perceptions of the party, and must not descend into a divisive contest. "Competition is to be expected but it must be healthy, clarifying, and unifying. Anything less than that will not augur well for the party, especially when the 4G is looking vulnerable."

When asked why the selection process is taking so long, Prof Tan pointed out that the strategic environment, exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic, has evolved considerably since 2018, when Heng was chosen. Key considerations include who can be the talisman for the PAP at the next election, and which 4G leader can complement Lee's successor. 

"More time is needed simply because the bottomline is that the 4G must get it right this time – there is no alternative. If the successor wins poorly in the next GE, the 4G and the party cannot undo their selection without irreparable damage to them, and Singapore," said Prof Tan. 

Separately, Associate Professor Chong Ja Ian of the National University of Singapore was reticent about anointing any frontrunners, pointing out that the process of choosing a party leader remains a mystery since the PAP does not have an open leadership election. 

For instance, there is little information on who gets nominated to run for different positions on the PAP’s Central Executive Committee (CEC), even if the vote for CEC members by cadres is public knowledge. Candidates also do not run public campaigns where they lay out positions and seek support.

This creates uncertainty for many Singaporeans, said Prof Chong. "Such conditions are likely to spur unease and speculation until such time more Singaporeans become comfortable with uncertainty and leadership contests."

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