The Succession Problem Is One of LHL’s Own Making and Suits Him Just Fine
Six days ago I wrote a blog about Heng Swee Keat’s decision to remove himself from the succession to LHL entitled “PAP in Disarray? Much More Likely That LHL Is Moving the Pieces Around the Chessboard To Ensure His Son Is There To Succeed Him When He Finally Retires”
A few days ago state media hack Han Fook Kwang wrote an op-ed in the State Times entitled “Search for new PM: Start with a rethink”. Some hailed this an incisive and independent analysis. However Singaporeans endlessly misunderstand the nature of the dynastic totalitarian state they live in and imagine that there can be anything that has not been approved from the very top down published in the state-owned media or that journalists are allowed to have their own opinions. In the same way they fail to understand that the state owns much of the economy, which in practice means that Lee Hsien Loong and his wife control it. Even Xi Jin Ping, China’s paramount leader, does not have the same degree of absolute control. We can have no doubt that whatever Han writes is submitted to his master, LHL, for approval and rewriting if necessary.
Nevertheless Han performs a useful role in guiding Singaporean public opinion. He confirms what I said in my blog article a week ago, that LHL is not ready to relinquish power any time soon, at least not till he has established a clear path for dynastic succession. Thus Han says that while a generation earlier one might expect a leader to step down at 70, in today’s world with longer life expectancy there is no reason why someone should not be leader into their late 70s and early 80s. I mentioned Biden, who is almost 80, but closer to home there is the example of Mahathir, who became PM again in his 90s and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that he could do so again. So LHL is using Han as a mouthpiece, to get Singaporeans used to the idea that he will be staying on till he is at least 80 and maybe beyond. From October his wife will be free to embark on a political career openly (though she has long abandoned all pretence of neutrality which she should be required to maintain as a civil servant) and they can work together to bring their son in.
Of course vacating the office of PM does not mean that LHL will relinquish power, any more than his father did when he stepped down in 1994 to allow Woody Goh to succeed him for a ten year interregnum before it was judged acceptable for his son to take over. GCT clearly took his orders from LKY, as shown when he declined to refer to CPIB the clear case of corruption involving the sale of houses at Nassim Jade. However becomes 4G PM will continue to defer to the wishes of LHL and his family in all major decisions.
This will be reinforced by the inculcation in Singaporeans of the myth that new leaders need to be groomed for at least ten years, preferably twenty, starting in their 30s and 40s, before they ascend the throne. This cult of youth, unsupported by any objective evidence, which of course does not apply to LHL and his family as they are gods and “natural aristocrats”, not mere mortals, helps to reinforce his control. Leaders do not emerge because of their popularity, they have to be selected and their skills have to be endorsed by LHL and the PAP leadership. There is a long time during which the contestants in Singapore’s Game of Thrones, have to prove their loyalty to LHL, rather like the long period of probation my brother underwent to prove that he would not follow in his father’s footsteps before he was allowed to become “one of us” and share in the Government’s largesse available to the PAP elite, culminating in appointment as a Judicial Commissioner. Heng Swee Keat must feel particularly aggrieved at falling at the last hurdle, as he spent so many years as Lee Kuan Yew’s Principal Private Secretary, which it would be an understatement to say cannot have been an easy job. The 4G leaders accept this because as gray apparatchiks of a totalitarian system they have no independent popularity with the electorate, only the state mechanisms of coercion and control behind them which can be withdrawn at a moment’s notice.
Yet this interminably extended apprenticeship has not produced good candidates but ones of increasing mediocrity, which Han points out. Even academically, which in LKY’s day used to be the gold standard by which future leaders were judged, the candidates are of declining quality. Heng and Chan are Cambridge graduates but Lawrence Wong is from a non-Ivy League US university. And there are no women and no Indian or Malay candidates on the list, a fact that Han, reflecting the views of his master, finds wholly unremarkable. Perhaps this is because LHL wants his son, Hongyi, to shine by comparison with these grey men, making it easier for him to keep the succession in family hands.
There may even be another reason. By highlighting the poor quality of home-grown candidates, is Han/LHL laying the groundwork for the PAP to bring in a foreigner to run the country (who will not have done NS but will be given instant citizenship) in much the same way as Temasek and GIC are largely run by foreign management? This might seem far-fetched, even ludicrous, but with the PAP harping on about how Singapore must remain open to foreign talent, not totally beyond the bounds of probability. But would Singaporeans accept it? The ending of Animal Farm might provide an answer.