What Singapore teaches us about succession planning

  • The Bitter Truth
  • Tuesday, 12 Nov 2019

THREE years ago, while delivering a live televised National Day speech, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shocked audiences when he started to keel over.

Lee, then 64 years old, was quickly rushed backstage where a team of doctors attended to him.

He returned to the rostrum almost 90 minutes later, to a standing ovation, and the cancer survivor attributed the episode to fatigue and heat.

He continued his speech and highlighted that what the audience witnessed was a stark reality of everyone’s mortality and the need to be prepared.

“What just happened makes it even more important to talk about succession,” he said.

Lee and the People’s Action Party (PAP), the ruling party in Singapore, quickly put in place a succession plan where it was decided at the party level to anoint Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat as successor.

Heng was elected deputy president of PAP and Lee appointed him the country’s sole deputy prime minister – the prime minister designate – doing away with the traditional two deputy premier posts.

This sent the message to party members, Singaporeans and investors that should there be a sudden vacancy at the top, there will be someone – a specific person – to step in and take over the reins.

These calmed investors and the Singapore Stock Exchange saw improvements.

Heng, a stroke victim himself, was also assured of a capable team to assist him during and after the transition. This was seen in the Cabinet reshuffles and party endorsements.

Lee also demonstrated that he was empowering Heng for the top job by stepping out of the spotlight at national and international meetings and events to allow his successor to shine.

This includes giving way to Heng to co-chair the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC) between Singapore and China, an annual forum that maps the direction of Singapore-China relations.

This not only would help Heng to ease into his role as prime minister but also allow the public, businesses, investors and foreign leaders to be familiar with Heng and his style.

“I think it is very important to try to plan ahead and to arrange for orderly political succession,” Lee had told a global forum recently, adding that he plans to hand over the reins within 18 months after the next election.

This timeline, he said, was to give his successor the time to build his team as well as the confidence of the people.

Lee’s neighbours in the north are having their own muddled version of a succession plan.

The man set to take over as the eighth prime minister is not yet in Cabinet.

The current Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, continues to give mixed messages over his commitment to hand over the reins to Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

Dr Mahathir, who is six years shy of a century in age, has said on many occasions that Anwar will take over, although this commitment has been peppered with caveats.

And most recently in an interview with The Financial Times on Nov 8, he said he will not step down until he has resolved the problems facing the country.

This is extremely vague. Which country has no problems?

And he repeats the mantra: there is no actual date or time mentioned for him to step down.

Despite constant reassurances that “Anwar will succeed me” (a similar statement he made 20 years ago), Dr Mahathir went6 on to tell the Times that: “I have made many mistakes in appointing my successors, so I don't want to make another mistake this time”.

READ ALSO > Dr M reiterates: It’s Anwar and not Azmin next

With such mixed messages it is no wonder that corporate Malaysia, investors and Joe Public have been engaged in the unhealthy pre-occupation of speculating who would be the next prime minister.

To be absolutely clear, the premiership is not Anwar’s birthright. What it is about is preventing the ensuing chaos and uncertainty if Dr Mahathir does not wake up one day.

READ ALSO > Anwar: I'm in no hurry to take over as PM

The Good Doctor should put us at ease, at least by explaining a succession plan should there be a sudden vacancy at the top. For example, will Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail succeed him? Will Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin – the president of Dr Mahathir’s party – become her deputy?

Right now, the Prime Minister is seen as more focused on powering up his party Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) by engaging with other Malay parties such as Umno and PAS.

He is also perceived to be securing Bersatu’s war chest by bringing nine government-linked companies (GLCs) under the purview of ministries controlled by Bersatu – as observed alarmingly by economist Prof Terence Gomez.

There is also the view that he is emaciating the Finance Minister, the DAP’s Lim Guan Eng, by reducing him to a glorified accountant with many crucial decisions such as the sale of toll concessions and GLC revamp being placed under the purview of unelected people in Menara Ilham.

In the meantime, the ringgit is the worst performing currency in Asean, and investor confidence has dropped 100 points.

It would be misplaced to compare the succession plan in the Pakatan Harapan ruling coalition to the PAP. The latter is not made up of complex agreements and handshakes as Pakatan, which is a motley crew of strange bedfellows who were a means to an end – to bring down Barisan Nasional and former premier Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

Now that that end has been achieved, the responsible thing would be to chart a clear transition path.

Dr Mahathir can take a leaf from the past when his own shock resignation announcement at the Umno General Assembly in 2003 resulted in the stock market tumbling. But it rebounded following the announcement of a transition plan with Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to take over and the latter also taking over key positions to ease him into the eventual role as prime minister.

Dr Mahathir can lead by Lee Hsien Loong’s example of clarity or by his own example of 16 years ago.

Terence Fernandez is an award-winning journalist and communications consultant.

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Terence Fernandez

Terence Fernandez

Terence Fernandez is an award-winning journalist and communications consultant.


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