November 6, 2023
SINGAPORE – Now that it has been announced that Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong will take over the reins ahead of the next polls, the next milestone to expect is Cabinet movements, said political observers.
When this happens, DPM Wong will likely play a key role in the decision-making, they added.
The announcement by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday answered a key question many have been asking: When will DPM Wong and his fourth-generation (4G) leadership team take over?
At the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) convention, PM Lee said he would hand over the baton by the party’s 70th anniversary, which falls on Nov 21, 2024.
Political observer and former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin told The Straits Times that he expects a reshuffle “sooner rather than later”. “The starting gun has been fired, you’ve got to start running,” he said.
Explaining his thinking, Mr Zulkifli said the 4G leadership will need enough time and exposure to win the confidence of Singaporeans. It will also need enough experience to anchor group representation constituencies, especially those that are expected to see a tough fight in the next general election, like Marine Parade and West Coast.
The election has to be held by November 2025.
Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan said the reshuffle could happen even before the end of 2023, with no more movements from then until after the election.
This would give ministers and other key political office holders about a year to roll out policy changes, especially those related to Forward Singapore, he said.
Forward Singapore, a nationwide engagement exercise led by DPM Wong, culminated in a road map for Singapore’s future, the details of which were released in end-October.
On whether the leadership transition announcement has thrown up any clues on when the election may be held, the political pundits concurred that there was no ideal time for this.
Political observer Felix Tan said there is a high chance it could be called in 2024, though the exact date would still depend on when the handover takes place.
Professor Eugene Tan said an election could be called as early as the first half of 2024 after the Budget, or in the last quarter of the year.
An election held after Budget 2025 cannot be ruled out either, though that would be the last viable window, he added.
Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a senior international affairs analyst at Solaris Strategies Singapore, said it is possible that DPM Wong could take over after PM Lee delivers his swansong National Day Rally in 2024. This would then leave the new leader to set the election date.
Having an election so soon after the leadership transition, though, may not be the most prudent, so there needs to be some runway to prepare for the election, he added.
Mr Zulkifli said it would not be in the PAP’s interest to delay the election, given that economic conditions are unlikely to improve in the next one to two years.
“There’s no such thing as good timing for elections any more. Contestation and appetite for opposition are stronger than in the past,” he said.
On what could derail PM Lee’s plans for a handover by November 2024, the experts pointed to worsening geopolitical tensions, a severe economic downturn, a health crisis, or a major security incident such as a terrorist attack.
Another question that has now come up is who DPM Wong will appoint as his deputy or deputies when he takes up the top job.
Dr Felix Tan said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung and Education Minister Chan Chun Sing, who were both in the running for the prime minister post some time back, could be possibilities.
“But we might also see our very first female DPM”, he said, without naming anyone.
DPM Wong may also want to select from the current 3G leaders to ensure some continuity in leadership despite the transition, he said.
Prof Eugene Tan said that apart from Mr Ong and Mr Chan, Minister for National Development Desmond Lee’s name is also in the mix.
While Sunday’s announcement reiterates PM Lee’s confidence in the 4G team, the observers said DPM Wong still has his work cut out for him in getting Singaporeans’ buy-in.
“It is very likely that PM Lee wanted to be certain that DPM Wong’s vision for Singapore and the PAP is well established and clearly articulated – through the Forward SG report – before handing over the reins,” said Dr Felix Tan.
Dr Gillian Koh, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, said it is important for DPM Wong to stay connected to the ground during the transition process.
This is important as he seeks the trust of Singaporeans to implement the Forward Singapore agenda and help everyone ride through the difficult conditions that the world and therefore Singapore will see in the days ahead, she said.