Singapore – Succession Plan Taking Shape

The founding of a new political party, the PSP, by dissident members of the PAP headed by Tan Cheng Bock will enhance perceptions of political pluralism in the city-state without posing a significant threat to the hegemony of the governing party, which has maintained a stranglehold on power since the founding of independent Singapore in 1965. Several small opposition parties have expressed interest in forming an inclusive opposition coalition headed by Tan, but a noteworthy lack of enthusiasm for the idea on the part of the Workers’ Party, the only opposition entity currently represented in the Parliament, raises immediate doubts about the effectiveness of the plan.

That said, Tan’s embrace of a populist anti-immigration stance will add to pressure on the government to find some means of reconciling popular antipathy to foreign workers with the simple fact that Singapore’s demographic trends point to an increased dependence of foreign workers over the medium to long term. Of less immediate significance, but a factor that could gain traction over time, the PSP has also won the backing of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s younger brother, Lee Hsien Yang, a leading business figure in Singapore who, along with his sister, has accused their older brother of abusing power. However, the family feud appears to be more personal than political at root, and may well become a historical footnote if, as appears likely, Prime Minister Lee anoints a non-relative as his successor.

The succession plan has become clearer since Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat was named first assistant secretary-general of the PAP in November, with his main rival to succeed Lee, former armed forces commander Chan Chun Sing, filling the second assistant’s slot. Heng’s designation as heir-apparent will be all but official on May 1, when he is to be sworn in as deputy prime minister, becoming the first person to hold that position without a co-deputy in more than three decades.

The next election is not required until 2021, and Lee may want to take some time to formally groom his heir. However, once Heng is in position to take the reins, Lee could fire the starting gun on an election campaign at any time. In addition to giving the opposition little time to build a strong united front, an early election would also mitigate the risk that the negative economic impact of adverse external developments might erode support for the governing party. Of course, it is very probable that the PAP will win the election with a sizeable majority, regardless of when the voting takes place, and Lee is widely expected to remain on the scene in a senior mentor position to better ensure that the generational transfer of leadership proceeds smoothly.

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