How to Become Singapore’s Prime Minister, Explained in 7 Steps.

Last week, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat announced that he was giving up his position as prime minister-designate, shocking many Singaporeans. For a party that prides itself in meticulous planning and fuss free leadership renewal, the People’s Action Party (PAP) now finds itself in uncharted territory: uncertainty. 

All eyes are now on the remaining candidates – Mr. Chan Chun Sing, Mr. Lawrence Wong and Mr. Ong Ye Kung – with Singaporeans and political pundits alike trying to decipher the identity of the republic’s fourth prime minister. The issue with this, however, is that leadership renewal is a rather opaque process in Singapore. Considering the PAP’s electoral dominance, and its discipline in keeping to the party line, succession planning is largely viewed to be an internal matter, kept away from the public eye until its time. 

The average Singaporean, hence does not know how the PAP chooses its leaders, the metrics it uses to judge said leaders and more generally, how succession works. So, in today’s explained, we want to answer a singular question: how does one become Singapore’s prime minister? In general, we think that there are 7 steps.

Step 1: 

In order to become the prime minister, one needs to be an elected Member of Parliament (MP) and a member of the majority party. Considering that the PAP has formed the government, and has won every election since 1959, this article is going to assume that it is easier to rise to power with the PAP. 

But before even entering politics, certain factors increase the probability of success for someone with ministerial aspirations. A recent study of Singapore’s current ministers and their educational background found out that a typical minister is one who has:

  • Studied at an Independent or SAP secondary school
  • Went to Raffles, National JC or Hwa Chong for their tertiary studies
  • Read business or economics as an undergraduate
  • Gained a postgraduate degree, most commonly at the Harvard Kennedy School

Hence, candidates that follow this route seem to have a statistical advantage. 

Mr. Chan Chun Sing (left) featured in a newspaper article after being awarded the President’s Scholarship. (Source)

In addition to this, the government’s dominant status and its access to the Public Service Commission – which gives out Singapore’s most prestigious scholarships – allows it to recruit scholars into politics. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew conceded as much, saying that “a person who has done well in Singapore’s scholarship system will eventually be spotted and headhunters from the party will look for him”. This focus on educational attainment seems to be grounded in the belief of Singaporean vulnerability. In other words, for a country where prosperity is “a result of a continuing act of will” the PAP believes that educated and capable leaders are able to come up with plans and measures to cope with a unique set of problems. An article in the Economist also contends that the PAP avoids the types of corruption seen in other one-party dominant states precisely because it constantly recruits, and in the process turfs out established figures “ruthlessly”.

Step 2:

Usually, if a person is interested in political office in other countries, they would register with a party, rise up the rank and file, and form relationships with already existing political players. This level of intra-party mobility cannot be seen in the PAP. The party doesn’t overtly prioritise loyalists and grassroots members for promotion into political office. Instead, candidates are talent spotted and recommended by PAP leaders, corporate players, MPs and other civil servants to a PAP recruitment committee. The people recommended are often the top of their cohort from many sectors and industries – be it from the civil service, legal and banking sector or the military. These acts of dropping people from outside the party into political office, without having the need for them to work their way up is what Singaporeans colloquially call ‘parachuting’ or ‘helicoptering’. So for all intents and purposes, it is likely that the party will approach potential candidates, instead of it being the other way around. 

Step 3:

After being contacted by the PAP, the next hurdle that potential candidates have to cross are the tea sessions and the interviews. In these tea sessions, groups of six to eight candidates meet with ministers in discussions that last between 60 to 150 minutes. Around 100 candidates get invited to these sessions every year, which are now held around the world considering the large number of Singaporeans living abroad. After going to these introductory sessions, short-listed candidates undergo two formal interviews by a high-level panel at the PAP headquarters. “(The interview) was no small matter,” said Minister K. Shanmugam in a Tamil interview recently. A panel of ten ministers, headed by the elder Lee, questioned and cross-examined him for about 45 minutes. Beyond his answers, much attention was placed on his facial expressions and body language to ascertain whether he was lying. “They say that ‘the young calf knows no fear’, and similarly because of my young age I wasn’t too scared. I just said what I thought,” he said, quoting a Tamil proverb. Only about one in three (in the 1997 GE) of interviewed candidates turn out to be successful. These individuals are then invited to meet the cabinet ministers and the more promising ones amongst them are identified for higher office. 

This small group of potential ministers then proceed to the next stage.

Step 4:

Another peculiar quirk of the PAP recruitment system is that it places importance on a test. Selected candidates from the interviews deemed to have ministerial qualities will go through an additional stage of psychological tests with more than 1,000 questions that lasts one-and-a-half days. The test’s origin traces back to the 1980s, when Lee started placing increasing focus on leadership renewal. While he talked to many business leaders about talent recruitment, he was particularly impressed by Shell’s recruitment process.

“I was intrigued by the ability of Shell to have its talent pool spread over a hundred countries, and yet pick the right people for promotions. So I spent time discussing it with Shell managers and directors. I found that they had a panel that regularly went around and rated (employees). In other words, the same panel visits umpteen different places and rates each person, in the early days, what they called the H.A.I.R. qualities,” 

Lee Kuan Yew at Shell’s 120th anniversary celebrations in 2011. 

The H.A.I.R. qualities gauged in candidates stands for:

  • H: High level vision from a Helicopter, or the ability to view wider trends etc. 
  • A: Power of analysis in candidates.
  • I: Imaginative ability of candidates.
  • R: Sense of reality, or how they perceive themselves, others and situations.

Lee praised the system for its simplicity and clarity of focus. Instead of “ticking 30-40 boxes” for the officers under him, which was required in a system inherited from the British, he could now sum up the Current Estimated Potential (CEP) of a person by looking at five categories. “It gives a fair indication of what kind of person (the candidate) will be, as you look ahead,” he said. However, he also acknowledged that the assessment could not be fool proof as it was very difficult to gauge a person’s character and motivation, but that it could help reduce errors. In each election, five to six candidates are identified to have ministerial qualities after these tests and are groomed for higher office.

Step 5:

Weeks before an election, selected candidates are ‘parachuted’ to various constituencies to shadow their MP-mentors. The candidates are also sent for courses on public speaking and communication skills to handle the media and questions thrown at them during the election. If the ministerial candidate wins their contest, they are then carefully watched to see how they discharge their duties. If they continue to perform well, they will be promoted to a junior minister after a term, then a full minister.

The PAP’s 35th CEC. (Source)

At the same time, fellow party members carefully watch the new ministers to see if they are suitable for the PAP’s Central Executive Committee (CEC). To make it into the CEC, the party’s highest ruling committee and its “inner circle”, candidates have to impress party members called cadres. Unlike other countries, where all members can vote on matters of party leadership, in Singapore, most political parties have adopted the cadre system, where long serving grassroots leaders and members are chosen by the CEC to vote for the new CEC.  This “closed system” has been compared to the process of electing a new pope, in which “the cardinals appoint the pope and the pope appoints the cardinals”. In other words, since the cadres are selected by the ruling elite, they are unlikely to radically dissent against them. It also means that ministers who aspire for the top job need to get in the good books of the current party elite.

In an interview with ChannelNewsAsia, PAP cadres (whose identities are a secret) talked about what they looked for in CEC candidates. These individuals must have leadership traits, be people oriented, and most importantly have empathy. One cadre, who leads the youth wing in an eastern PAP branch said that candidates’’ performance in their constituencies are equally important. . “If the individual cannot connect with his or her constituents, then there is no point to even be in the CEC,” he added.

Step 6:

By this point in the process, a group of young ministers are identified publicly as the next generation of leaders. These potential contenders are appointed to hard ministries like defence and finance to be tested. After a while, the core group of ministers are encouraged to pick a leader amongst themselves – a Primus Inter Pares or a ‘first among equals’. The reason for the older ministers keeping out of this decision is explained by Lee:

“I’m going to give my opinion, but you choose. I’m not choosing because if I choose, you may not support the man and then there’d be big trouble. You choose… and the leader you have chosen, you have to support him. That was my logic and I think the logic worked”

In his lifetime he had observed how Mr. Deng Xiaoping had failed with his appointees, and how Mr. Antony Eden, chosen by Mr. Winston Churchill failed as well. For a leader to succeed, it was his opinion that he should have the support of his peers. To his credit, Lee followed through with this promise. Although he had preferred Mr. Tony Tan to succeed him (and publicly stated so), he had respected the younger ministers’ decision of having Mr. Goh Chok Tong be the next prime minister. Typically, the younger group of ministers confirm this decision in an informal meeting. On December 30 1984, Tan rounded up the key second-generation leaders and got them to go over to his Bukit Timah house. There, over coffee and orange juice, they picked Goh to be the next prime minister. 

About two decades later, in a lunch arranged by Mr. Wong Kan Seng, Mr. Lee Hsien Loong was selected as the leader of the third generation of PAP ministers. This time around however, Goh formalised a three-step process for prime minister selection. It begins with a meeting of the ministers to nominate a leader based on consensus. Then, another meeting is held for all PAP MPs to show their support for the cabinet’s nomination. At this meeting, MPs are permitted to nominate other candidates, if they disagree with the cabinet’s nomination. The MPs’ nomination will then be considered by the party’s CEC in a separate meeting. The CEC would still remain the final arbiter, deciding who becomes the next prime minister. According to Goh, this formalisation of procedure was important because it provides a mechanism to mediate the possibility of an internal split or leadership challenge. 

Step 7:

Once this consensus is reached, the process becomes relatively straightforward. The anointed one is promoted to be the First Assistant Secretary-General within the CEC and starts his apprenticeship as a Deputy Prime Minister. 

The successor also rises to prominence during this period, by laying out his vision for Singapore through speeches and presentations. Prime Minister Lee, for example, gave a speech called “Building A Civic Society,” four months before assuming the premiership. The speech was covered by regional papers and even The New York Times, which called it “his vision of a more open society”. Similarly, in 2019, when Heng was still tipped to be the next prime minister, he gave speeches that outlined how the fourth generation of PAP leaders would govern: by building a ‘democracy of deeds’. Originating from Mr. S. Rajaratnam, Singapore’s first foreign minister, the term was used by Heng to describe the broadening of citizen involvement in policy making. This was set to be his vision and promise for Singapore. 

When the time is right, which is generally two to three years after a general election, the old prime minister will tender his resignation to the president. In the letter, the outgoing premier would also advice the president that the incoming leader commands the confidence of the majority of Members of Parliament and asks that he be appointed as the next Prime Minister. Consequently, the President would invite the incoming leader to form the next government. A few days after this, the incoming leader would be invited to receive his instrument of appointment and take his Oath of Allegiance and Office in a televised ceremony. 

Issues and questions

Looking at Singapore’s leadership renewal process, a few issues and questions arise. 

Academics = good leaders?

Most importantly, there’s a question about who we want our leaders to be. The PAP’s method of recruitment ensures that its leaders are well-educated and capable intellectually. But does educational attainment equate necessarily to good political leaders? Last year, Professor Bilveer Singh told Kopi that by ‘helicoptering in’ politicians, the PAP is engaged in a dangerous trade-off between technocratic competence and the hearts and minds of the citizenry. Without having the time needed to plant their seeds in the grassroots to earn genuine affection from the public, PAP politicians are at risk of Singaporeans turning against them. “There is no love, only transaction, between the PAP government and the Singaporean electorate now. Lightning cannot strike three times at the same place… thus the PAP cannot afford to be complacent. It must work harder and harder from now on,” he said. The elder Lee contested this charge, arguing that it’s possible for politicians to create bonds with their constituents and learn how to be effective communicators with time. 

Faking good

(Source)

There is also the possibility of some ‘faking good’ in the psychometric tests that are supposed to define candidates character profiles, intelligence, personal backgrounds and values. While Lee said that many of these people who ‘fake good’ get weeded out during face-to-face interviews, the Ivan Lim fiasco of last year’s general election raises questions about whether this is adequate. It is also unknown what test results are prioritised. For example, do people who are more pragmatic get a better shot at making it to the next stage, as compared to those who are empathetic and soft-spoken? 

Intellectual Inbreeding

Lee was also afraid of ‘intellectual inbreeding’ in PAP politicians. If a significant proportion of leaders come from similar schools and academic backgrounds, it is possible that they view problems and solutions in similar ways. This is why the PAP sometimes co-opts activists and prominent opponents of the PAP regime into the system. Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, for example, was a vocal critic of the regime before joining the PAP. Similarly, Mr. Louis Ng was the activist who founded Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES), an animal protection organisation.  However, considering that a majority of ministers (24 out of 34) studied at either Raffles Institution, National Junior College or Hwa Chong Institution, the question then becomes: is the PAP doing enough? In a 2017 National Day dinner held at his constituency, Mr. Goh Chok Tong acknowledged this shortfall, urging the new generation of PAP leaders to  “try their utmost to bring in potential office-holders from outside the Singapore Armed Forces and public sector to avoid group-think”.

Punishment?

While the previous two leadership transitions have generally followed the process dictated in this article, it is important to note that succession planning isn’t institutionalised or written down as code. This means that no one would get punished for not following the process. For example, while Goh formalised a three-step process for prime minister selection in the early 2000s, the steps don’t seem to be in use in the ongoing succession. “As it stands, it seems that either (a) everyone has forgotten about GCT’s 3-step procedure, (b) those who remember the procedure don’t believe it is in their self-interest to recall it now, or (c) it is even difficult to get to step 1 of cabinet consensus in the first place,” said Assistant Professor Elvin Ong, a political scientist at NUS. All of this makes it harder for the average Singaporean to comprehend what is happening in terms of succession as processes can be rather fluid, and internal party conflicts might be kept a secret. 

Heng’s announcement last week was shocking precisely because it happened so far along the succession process. He had been appointed to the CEC, made speeches about how he wanted to run Singapore and was poised to take over in the upcoming year or so. Now, however, with him stepping aside, there is a renewed urgency to find a new leader. With this newfound urgency, it will be interesting to see if the PAP continues to stick to its current mechanisms for succession or develops new ones. 

After all, the party isn’t just picking a leader, it’s also defining what Singaporean politics and governance will look like in the upcoming decades.

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