Author: Bridget Welsh, University of Nottingham Malaysia
When Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong went on Christmas leave last year, he chose not to appoint then prime minister-designate Heng Swee Keat in his stead. This was a clear signal that he was unwilling to hand over the reins. This came after the People’s Action Party (PAP) performed poorly in the July 2020 election, losing 8.7 per cent of the popular vote. Despite that result, the party had refused to make any major changes to Singapore’s political line-up.
Lee has been in power since 2004, and while he has appointed new 4G (fourth generation) leaders in his cabinet, real power still rests with Lee and his own 3G (third generation) cohort. Recognising the writing on the wall, last week a gracious Heng stepped aside as leader-in-waiting, couching his decision with platitudes on health and his age.
Heng’s departure exposes serious internal challenges for the PAP. In power since 1959, it has been lauded for its achievements and success in governance. Over 62 years, Singapore has had only three prime ministers — Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong and Lee Kuan Yew’s son, Lee Hsien Loong. Pending the now 69-year-old Lee Hsien Loong’s health, Singapore is unlikely to see a fourth in the near future.
The reasons lie within the PAP itself. There is reluctance to hand power over to those not connected to the Lee family. Unlike in 1990 when Lee Kuan Yew passed the baton on to Goh, there is no current clear successor. While speculation runs rife over Lee Hsien Loong’s second son Li Hongyi, he lacks standing within the party and credible experience to govern in the medium term.
Since Lee Kuan Yew’s passing in 2015, the Lee legacy has been increasingly contested. This played out in an ongoing family feud involving Lee Hsien Loong’s brother and sister, which then expanded to include his sister-in-law and nephew. The initial issues involved personal differences over Lee Kuan Yew’s house and will, but they took on a life of their own when they were politicised and taken to court.
Divisions within the Lee family are part of evolving dissatisfaction within the PAP. In 2011, former PAP parliamentarian Tan Cheng Bock came within 0.35 per cent of winning the Singapore presidency from Tony Tan, who’s also part of the Lee extended family. Tan Cheng Bock’s challenge reflected growing discontent among the traditional PAP grassroots. In 2020, Tan Cheng Bock’s Progress Singapore Party (PSP) gained 48.3 per cent of the vote — 26 per cent more than in the 2016 election.
While the PSP ultimately did not win any seats in the 2020 election, it broadened the country’s opposition landscape. In the 2020 election, the Worker’s Party won 10 seats and has created a credible alternative voice.
Among the Singaporean public, the PAP’s political base has contracted. Potential challengers to Lee Hsien Loong’s leadership have systematically been forced to leave the party. Some lost elections, as occurred with former foreign minister George Yeo in 2011. Others, such as the popular Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, simply bowed out from leadership. Despite his impressive performance in government, Tharman was not seen to reflect the ‘PAP brand’ — he is an ‘outsider’ brought into the PAP in 1991 and is a member of Singapore’s ethnic Indian minority. Lee Hsien Loong has held onto control.
Open discussion of a PAP leadership transition has widened divisions inside the party. Competition for hierarchy within the 4G has intensified party factionalism, fostered distrust and undermined the party’s performance. There is no clear successor to Lee Hsien Loong and any successor who is chosen does not have a public mandate of his own.
All of the 4G leaders share a liability — they are beholden to Lee Hsien Loong and must protect the Lee PAP legacy. They derive their positions from the party leadership — not the public. Lee Hsien Loong’s unwillingness to step aside has prevented an alternative leader from gaining his own mandate, earning needed public legitimacy to set Singapore on a stronger trajectory.
Despite his lack of charisma and his nomination day gaffe in the 2020 election, Heng was an important leader because he was seen to be able to bridge the different generations and factions within the PAP. Unlike the other contenders, he was a consensus-builder. It remains to be seen whether Lee will appoint a family-tied designate or another within the party.
The default option will be that Lee will stay on himself, likely until after the next elections. In doing so, he risks creating even deeper divisions within the PAP itself and weakening the credibility of the party. Singaporeans are already starting to look to non-PAP leaders for Singapore’s future.
This internal PAP leadership crisis has come at a time of unprecedented external demands on the PAP to address the COVID-19 pandemic and a serious economic contraction. As a party that has prided itself on planning its own forward trajectory and economic management, this failure in planning could not come at a more seminal moment. Lee and his 3G cohort are holding the country back from new ideas and new leadership needed to move the country forward.
Bridget Welsh is an Honorary Research Fellow of the University of Nottingham Malaysia’s Asia Research Institute. She is also Senior Research Associate of the Hu Feng Center for East Asia Democratic Studies of the National Taiwan University and a Senior Associate Fellow of The Habibie Center.