All hail the new first assistant secretary-general!
READERS OFTEN grumble that Singapore’s high commissioner to London (a public servant of great intelligence and charm) wastes inordinate time penning letters of complaint to The Economist, usually over any hint that Singapore is in effect a one-party state. Banyan once argued that the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), with 82 out of 89 elected parliamentary seats, had maintained its uninterrupted rule since 1959 not only by governing competently, but also through gerrymandering, harassing opposition figures, cowing the media, threatening spending cuts in districts that vote against it and “inculcating the absurd notion that its survival and that of Singapore itself are synonymous”. The high commissioner duly responded: Singaporeans vote for the PAP “because it continues to deliver them good government, stability and progress”. One reader promptly called out the “delicious irony”: surely such claims are for the PAP to make, not “the ambassador who represents the very state she insists is not synonymous with its ruling party.”
This column returns to the one-party theme, because years of speculation over who the next prime minister of Singapore will be would appear to have been settled. Lee Hsien Loong, eldest child of Singapore’s late independence leader, Lee Kuan Yew, has run the country since 2004. But he will step down ahead of his 70th birthday in 2022.
Never say that Singapore is a hereditary state, like North Korea. The fact that Lee family members occupy high positions in state bodies has nothing to do with nepotism but with talent and selfless energies. Admittedly, Lee Kuan Yew occasionally allowed that superior genes might have something to do with it. But those genes are not flawless. Their inheritors have indulged in an unseemly family squabble, played out in social media, over the great man’s will. That may have tarnished the family somewhat in Singaporeans’ eyes. At any rate, there is no strong family candidate to take over the reins.
On November 23rd came news instead that Heng Swee Keat, the 57-year-old finance minister, will be Singapore’s next leader. The PAP didn’t put it quite like that: it announced that he had been appointed its first assistant secretary-general. But media with ties to the government, such as the Straits Times, lost no time inferring it.
So comparisons with China may be more apt. Its Communist Party loves to send signals through appointments to obscure positions within its hierarchy. It refers to party “cadres”—just like the PAP. It emphasises “collective” leadership, or did before the rise of Xi Jinping. And it talks in terms of “generations” of leaders since “new” China’s founding in 1949: Mr Xi is of the fifth. Mr Heng’s elevation was supposedly a collective decision of the PAP’s “4G” (fourth-generation) cadres. No intra-party democracy there.
Another parallel: for all the talk of a new generation taking over, the oldies never fade away. For 21 years after stepping down as prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew remained in the cabinet. And years ago Lee set up Mr Heng by saying that his bright former private secretary was destined for greatness. Deng Xiaoping also ruled from beyond the grave. Well before his death in 1997, he had picked out Hu Jintao, Mr Xi’s predecessor, who held power from 2002 to 2012.
The late Mr Lee’s only regret was that Mr Heng, at around five feet six inches, “is not of a big bulk, which makes a difference in a mass rally”. But then the PAP loves a technocrat. Mr Heng, who has run the education ministry and the central bank, is nothing if not that.
Popular sentiment also surely counts. Singaporeans like Mr Heng’s soft-spoken humility, and sympathise over a stroke he suffered two years ago. Ad nauseam, the Straits Times and others praise his propensity to “listen”. That has come to matter since the PAP’s poor electoral showing in 2011 suggested it had lost touch with ordinary Singaporeans.
A second assistant secretary-general was also appointed: the trade minister, Chan Chun Sing. A scrappy politician, you can imagine him thriving in any full-throated democratic system, unlike Mr Heng. He makes much of his humble origins and subsequent success, including scholarships and a brilliant army career. That grates on many Singaporeans, but there is no denying his ambition. And so, a final parallel with the Chinese Communist Party: might a populist challenge upset succession plans, just as Bo Xilai’s dramatic bid nearly did for Mr Xi in 2012? Best to leave any speculation about that to the high commissioner.