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Jakarta Post

Singapore’s succession plot

  • Editorial Board

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Mon, July 13, 2020   /   08:50 am
Singapore’s succession plot Voters wearing face masks wait to enter a school, temporarily used as a polling station, to cast their ballots during the general election in Singapore on July 10, 2020. - Wearing masks and gloves and being careful to observe social distancing, Singaporeans voted in a general election on July 10 as the city-state struggles to recover from a coronavirus outbreak. (AFP/Roslan Rahman )

Not only have the results of the July 10 general election disappointed Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, they could also spell trouble for Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat. The 58-year old People’s Action Party (PAP) politician won his parliamentary seat at the East Coast district, albeit with a relatively close margin.

The PAP still retains the majority at the Parliament, but Friday’s election marked the worst performance of the ruling party since 2011 when it won 60.1 percent of the vote. This time around, the PAP secured support from 61.2 percent of 2.65 million voters.

For Indonesia, the region and the world, the most pressing question is not only how this could happen but also how it will impact Singapore’s succession.

Many perceived the election on Friday as a referendum for Lee’s leadership, especially in handling the COVID-19 pandemic. Lee has indicated his plan to retire after leading the wealthy city-state since 2004 and prepared a transfer of power, like his father the late Lee Kuan Yew and his successor Goh Chok Tong did, by declaring Heng the most potential candidate for the PM seat. There is also speculation that Lee will leave office next year.

The prime minister is clearly unhappy with the election results, which he said “reflect the pain and anxiety that Singaporeans feel in this crisis, the loss of income, the anxiety about jobs”.

He also pointed out that “this was not a feel-good election but one where people are facing problems and expect more rough weather to come”.

The new mandate is not as strong as Lee had expected and could change the course of his succession scenario, which he says follows meritocratic considerations. There is no clear answer why Lee’s heir-apparent could only lead to the PAP retaining the East Coast district with a small margin of 53.41 percent of the votes. Some wonder if the lackluster feat has something to do with his controversial remarks in July last year that Singaporeans were not ready to have a non-Chinese prime minister.

It is very likely, however, that the election results manifested voters’ strong demand for the ruling party to involve them, particularly the young generation, in a crucial matter like succession, which will define their future. Young, millennial Singaporeans want a stronger and more effective mechanism for checks and balances and refuse to give a blank check to the government.

“What we are trying to deny them is a blank check and that is what I think this election is about,” said Jamus Lim of the Workers’ Party in an online election campaign debate.

He won the Sengkang district on the day when the opposition party secured 10 Parliament seats.

Lee will likely announce his new Cabinet lineup within a few days or weeks. People are eager to know what portfolio Lee will entrust to Heng, whom many deem a world-class finance minister. Lee and the ruling party may have no choice but to make him pay for his less convincing win on Friday.