The PAP’s succession demonstrates Party’s ability to put S’pore above all else

And just like that, the PAP’s succession plan is back on track.

The momentous and historic decision regarding leadership renewal was made without drama or fanfare. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Mr Khaw Boon Wan and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong hosted a low-key media briefing on Saturday morning at the Istana to provide the media with more details regarding the process.

The Party’s approach, led by former Party Chairman Mr Khaw Boon Wan, placed the premium on “team-building”, which ensured that the 19 stakeholders could reach their respective decisions in a manner that was constructive, considered and impersonal.  Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described the process as one which encouraged “candor, introspection and objectivity, yet without impairing mutual relationship and trust amongst the team”.  

Most importantly, the 4G team made their decision with the interest of Singapore and Singaporeans as their principal consideration.

“Our over-riding objective is to promote unity and to ensure a strong 4G Team to lead Singapore forward,”  Mr Khaw explained.  PM Lee also took pains to explain the process, saying stakeholders should be in “a collected, dispassionate, almost Zen state of mind” when making their decision.

“If there are different views and different concerns, then their concerns can be surfaced without it being personalised – an “I like you” and “I do not like you” matter. And then people can think it over again, and maybe reconsider their conclusion, but we want you to be in a collected, dispassionate, almost Zen state of mind, when you said I think for Singapore, this is the best choice, putting aside personal preferences, ambitions and biases,” he said.

The ultimate decision taken by the 4G team was a collective decision that put Singapore and Singaporeans first, unaffected by any individual preference, ambition and bias.

Parliamentary Democracies

If you juxtapose this against any contemporary democratic parliamentary politics, the PAP succession process was really a non-event.

Take for instance, during the UK General Elections of 2019, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s campaign bid for the Conservative Party leadership became protracted, confusing and eventually evolved into acrimonious and bitter in-fighting.  Not only was talent lost in the process, relationships and trust between party colleagues were broken as members were forced to choose sides.  Alas, to the detriment of the people they are to serve.

Who can forget the high drama of the political arenas during election year in the US?  Hopefuls from the major parties are subject to lengthy party primaries, with candidates conducting highly adversarial and sometimes toxic campaigns against other candidates – members from their own parties.  And such things happen once every few years.  How they close ranks and reconcile thereafter remains a mystery. Or maybe they don’t, like Mr Donald Trump and Mr Mitt Romney: both continue to accuse each other openly of being a Republican in Name Only and worse.  

The outcome in such situations is not only a divided political party, but a troubled democracy and a fractured society.

Leadership Transition

Political atmospheres typically, and expectedly, become highly charged during leadership transitions and this is true since antiquity.  Oftentimes, it can be bloody and chaotic.

Even in Singapore, political parties from time to time have to manage internal stresses when selecting a leader.  In 2016, former WP chief Mr Low Thia Khiang fended off Mr Chen Show Mao’s challenge for the top job with a 61-45 vote, while Mr Chiam See Tong resigned as SDP chief in 1993 due to irreconcilable differences with some of his party colleagues.

Singapore and Singaporeans will be worse off if we have to contend with political drama every time a party chooses their leader.  That is why it was important for the PAP’s succession plan to be managed with care, patience and sensitivity.  

The outcome we have today is strengthened 4G team united by a common purpose to serve Singaporeans.

Whither Singapore

With Singapore at an inflection point and having to operate in an increasingly complex world, we will need a united team that devotes itself to tackling challenges and seizing opportunities when they arise.

That the succession process was uneventful is a good thing for the PAP, for Singapore, and indeed in modern politics. There are none of the backroom politics, shifting allegiances and secret alliances that continue to plague other democracies. 

That’s because the Party has never lost sight of the ultimate goal, which is to serve Singapore and Singaporeans.

As 4G leader Minister Wong put it at the press conference: “We can overcome all of these challenges only as a strong and united team with a single-minded focus to serve Singapore and Singaporeans. And that is why I value the contributions from everyone on the team, including our broader team of hardworking and dedicated party activists.”

Perhaps some observers read the result too closely : it doesn’t matter if the decision wasn’t unanimous (it would be strange and indeed unhealthy if it were) because even during the era of the Founding Fathers, Singaporeans have always voted for a package deal, a team to lead the nation forward.

After all, governing Singapore has never been a job for one man but one united team.  The 4G team is all set and ready to go.

Cover photo credit: MCI