PUBLISHED IN TODAY (SINGAPORE) ON 9 JUNE 2004
Thank you, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and PAP. Finally, coffee-shop talk in Singapore can move away from who should succeed PM Goh!
Last week, PAP MPs gave PM Goh's choice of successor a unanimous thumbs-up; Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong can now become the third Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore. The mandate is hardly surprising. It has been overdue since last year's National Day Rally, when PM Goh had announced that DPM Lee would succeed him.
During the rally, PM Goh had provided a detailed explanation for his choice of successor, having "taken quiet soundings from Ministers and MPs on whom they would choose".
Following the announcement, the Government's public relations machinery went into full-steam mode. Tomes of news reports featured DPM Lee in a variety of local, regional and international media.
Almost every day after the announcement, the man in the street got to know something positive about DPM Lee, his family, his background, his achievements or accomplishments and his trials and tribulations; including his choice in clothes. Since he is Singaporean, red and white, naturally, were his choice colours!
The climax to this exercise came when PM Goh announced that PAP MPs would be asked to consider who the next PM (and his own successor) should be. He explained on various occasions the rationale for consulting PAP MPs: The choice had to be made transparently and openly.
In February, his office informed a newspaper: "The PM must command the confidence of his fellow MPs (from the same party)." In an interview with CNN in January, PM Goh had emphasised: "Lee Hsien Loong, who will be my successor — his promotion or his appointment, his selection, will be done on a transparent basis. He will be selected, not by his father, not even by me. He has to be selected by his colleagues, the Members of Parliament."
Nevertheless, some political commentators saw this as a key attempt to assimilate those reasonable individuals who disagree with PM Goh's choice into the camp that supports the choice.
These commentators described the move as no more than a legitimisation process, akin to the President's Assent after Parliament passes a piece of legislation. Others thought it was part of a greater scheme to boost DPM Lee's moral authority to be PM.
Constitutional law experts argued there was nothing wrong, legally,with the move since Article 25 of the Constitution provides: "The President shall appoint as Prime Minister, a Member of Parliament who, in his judgment, is likely to command the confidence of the majority of the Members of Parliament and shall, acting in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister, appoint other Ministers from among the Members of Parliament."
PM Goh essentially wanted to move beyond taking "quiet soundings". So, here arose a golden opportunity for a PAP MP to make known his or her reservations, if any, about DPM Lee. But really, could any PAP MP have argued credibly against the PM's choice? Perhaps.
However, many political observers felt otherwise. Any MP would have found it difficult to argue credibly against all that positive information available about DPM Lee; even if such an MP had a valid point to make; since the current leadership does welcome constructive criticism.
This is amplified further by there being no better alternative to DPM Lee.The Singaporean chief executive of a British company best put it when he told me: "DPM Lee is, to me, a leader who can and will charge up the (most) arduous of mountains with an unwavering resolve. I don't see any other leader in Singapore, apart from SM Lee (Kuan Yew) and PM Goh, with the ability and will to do the same."
Additionally, the way the PAP has run itself in the last three decades means there has always been one clear leader. Unlike the Malaysian ruling party, key executive positions in Singapore's ruling party are rarely a point of contention. Resultantly, SM Lee, among our Old Guard, was the natural choice.
Then, PM Goh stepped in. And next change will be DPM Lee. One can perhaps qualify that SM Lee had other "leaders-in-waiting" to PM Goh: DPM Tony Tan and the late President Ong Teng Cheong were two possible alternatives.
Similarly, PM Goh could have considered grooming other possible successors. But he had less time than SM Lee had, since the latter was PM for a longer period. In any case, these arguments are all purely academic now. History will now be the best judge of PM Goh's choice of successor. Meanwhile, the "quiet soundings" have evolved into "loud cheers", whose echoes will soon reverberate through the corridors of our legislature.
DPM Lee's mandate to run Singapore as its next PM is now entrenched. The people of Singapore should respect the choice of our legislators. We will, no doubt, miss the political hero of my generation: PM Goh.
Most importantly, it is now time to ask what our expectations, hopes and aspirations are from a Government led by the future PM Lee. After all, at a community event recently, DPM Lee said transition was not simply about one person taking over the political leadership of a country. It represents "a generational succession".
He has also emphasised: "I am myself. I am not my father. I'm not the Senior Minister. I'm not Mr Goh Chok Tong. I am myself and people will have to take me for what I am and for what I am able to do for them … It's the Singaporeans' opinions that count and if they think I'm up to the job, then it's my duty to show that I will be able to do it."
Singaporeans should thus ask what we would like from our next generation of leaders; this will decide if the future PM Lee is really up to the job.