PM Lee says he will hand over leadership to DPM Wong by Nov 2024 if all goes well, before next GE
Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong will lead the People’s Action Party in the next general election, taking over the reins from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong ahead of the polls.
PM Lee said on Sunday: “Lawrence has told me that he is ready... I have full confidence in Lawrence and his team, there is no reason to delay the political transition.”
He was speaking at the party’s biennial convention held at the Singapore Expo Convention and Exhibition Centre, addressing more than 1,000 party members.
He said that while he did not manage to pass on the baton before his 70th birthday as hoped, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, “if all goes well, I will hand over by PAP’s 70th birthday next year”. The party was set up on Nov 21, 1954.
The next GE has to be held by November 2025.
PM Lee noted that the ministers had already chosen DPM Wong to be their leader, a choice endorsed by the PAP MPs.
The major decision that was left to make was when the handover should take place, before or after the next GE.
Handing over to DPM Wong before the GE would mean he would be the one leading the party in the campaign, and would win his own mandate and take the country forward with the full backing of the nation, said PM Lee.
“Leadership transition for any country is always tricky. Many things can go awry. Both Singaporeans and people outside Singapore, near and far, are watching very closely. Everything depends on the success of this third transition in our history,” he added.
He said that he had thought over the decision carefully and discussed it thoroughly with DPM Wong and ministers from the 3G and 4G.
He acknowledged that DPM Wong and the 4G team have been serving for many years now, and have taken on greater responsibilities.
They are preparing well to take the helm and earned their spurs during the Covid-19 pandemic, he added.
Increasingly, they are setting the national agenda, such as through the Forward Singapore exercise, he said.
“Therefore, I intend to hand over to DPM Lawrence before the next GE,” said PM Lee.
“After that, I will be at the new PM’s disposal. I will go wherever he thinks I can be useful,” he added.
“I will do my best to help him and his team to fight and win the next GE, and to fulfil their responsibilities… I want to help him fulfil his responsibilities, leading the country, so that Singapore can continue to succeed beyond me and my 3G minister colleagues, for many, many more years to come.”
Fighting back tears, PM Lee said: “It has been my great fortune and honour to have served the country, first in the SAF, and then in the party and government, for all of my adult life.”
As he paused to compose himself, loud cheers erupted around the hall as party members stood to applaud him.
Noting that Singapore and the PAP have been thoroughly transformed through his time as PM for almost 20 years, he added: “Some things never change… We remain dedicated to Singapore, we still feel the call of duty to serve the people, we still have a duty to future generations to keep this island safe and secure.”
“These things have not changed under my watch, and they will not change under the 4G team. I ask each of you to give Lawrence and his team your full support, help them win a strong mandate, and work with them to take Singapore to greater heights.”
DPM Wong, in his speech earlier, spoke of how he had been working hard to get ready to receive the baton from PM Lee.
“I will not be in this alone. I will have a team of 4G leaders whom I have worked closely with over the years. We are ready to lead,” he said, adding that he is ready for his next assignment.
On his leadership approach, DPM Wong said he does not start with the assumption that he knows everything or has all the answers.
Instead, he prefers to begin by listening to a diverse range of perspectives and views and staying open to different ideas.
“I’ve been in Government long enough to know that I cannot please everyone. But I will do my best to explain my decision, to be upfront about the problems and trade-offs, and win the support of the broad majority of Singaporeans,” added DPM Wong.
Three young party activists also spoke on various topics. Associate Professor Elmie Nekmat, branch chairman of the Sengkang Central division, stressed the need to address the segregation and fragmentation brought about by digital technologies and social media.
Organising secretary of the Young PAP Chua Wei-Shan spoke on the challenges for a political party to self-rejuvenate, which involves attracting committed and forward-thinking individuals as well as fostering a conducive environment for diverse perspectives.
Assistant branch secretary of the PAP’s Jurong Spring division Hamid Razak added that recognising and valuing different perspectives can lead to more comprehensive policy solutions, and called for more collaborative decision-making.
At the event, 415 activists also received party awards as recognition for their dedication and service to Singapore.
In his speech, PM Lee also spoke of the need for high quality leadership for the PAP to govern competently, keep clean and win elections.
Right now, the party has a strong and capable top team that is in touch with Singaporeans, that has shown what it can do, he said.
“Singapore needs an outstanding ‘First Team’ of leaders – who, on top of mastering the politics, can deliver good government for Singapore,” he said.
Singapore has a good public service, noted PM Lee.
“Sometimes people argue that Singapore civil servants are so good, that we don’t need ministers who are so competent or experienced... It’s a crazy argument,” he said.
“The civil service didn’t create itself out of thin air. We have a good civil service precisely because we have had good political leadership who built up a world-class civil service.”
Civil servants can only deliver good results if led by competent ministers who understand the issues, make good decisions and command their respect, said PM Lee.
Only then can ministers guide and complement the civil servants in their work and deliver on their political promises, he added.
He likened it to an orchestra, which could be composed of the best musicians in the world, but without a good conductor, it cannot produce good music.
“In fact, if the players are not impressed with their conductor, they may leave the orchestra to perform under some other maestro’s baton, and we will be left with a mediocre orchestra,” he said.
This was seen vividly in the pandemic, where ministries and agencies performed magnificently, but without the ministers to make big, risky decisions and take political responsibility, Singapore would not have come through as it did, said PM Lee.
“Remember - if we have ordinary political leaders, we’re going to have an ordinary public service, and this is going to become an ordinary country. For other countries, it’s fine,” he said.
“But if one day this little red dot no longer shines brightly and is exceptional, if it cannot stand out compared to other countries in the world, you are nobody, you are sunk.”
PAP will work harder to win votes from Singaporeans
PM Lee also spoke of how conviction, support and votes are now harder to win.
While the party’s policies may be working and arguments may be logical, Singaporeans must be convinced that the PAP is on their side.
The party must engage widely, present and communicate its policies well, and help Singaporeans understand how they can benefit from them.
It also needs to counter opposition moves to undermine the government, show them up when they are less than upfront, and defeat their tactics to create doubt and sow confusion, said PM Lee.
Describing briefly the party’s history, PM Lee noted that the PAP was not born dominant, but has won every election since independence decisively.
“But with each successive election, the PAP’s task has become harder… Singaporeans’ expectations have evolved. They hope to do much better for themselves, they expect much more from the government,” he said.
He acknowledged that “quite a few” hope to see more alternative voices in Parliament, even though an overwhelming majority agree that the PAP should continue to govern Singapore - “in fact, even the opposition parties think so, and say so”.
The PAP hence faces a unique political quandary, said PM Lee.
While an overwhelming majority want - and expect - the PAP to form the government, a significant proportion also wants the party’s opponents to do better, he said.
In working harder to win elections, the party’s politicians will have to spend more time and energy on politics, inevitably at the expense of policies, he added.
While constructive and responsible political debate is good and necessary, actual debate in Parliament does not always reach this ideal, said PM Lee.
“Not infrequently, it becomes a political brawl. The opposition tries to score political points, the government does its best to explain its considerations and constraints, and why the opposition’s proposals may not work. And so it goes, in a repeated cycle,” he said.
While some of this is to be expected, if it goes too far, more energies will be spent debating and manoeuvring for political advantage, leaving problems unsolved and society divided, said PM Lee.
“Having more opposition MPs doesn’t necessarily make for a better government,” he said.
He noted how other countries, even those who call themselves “mature democracies”, have seen increasingly polarised politics.
For example, the United States was recently at a political stalemate when the previous Speaker of the House was kicked off his role, and the election for a new speaker saw bitter political infighting among the Republicans.
“As Singaporeans, we must manage our politics better, and at all costs we must avoid running into such problems,” said PM Lee.
Emphasising his experience in government for almost 40 years, PM Lee said there was no way PAP governments could have planned for the long-term and adopted tough but necessary policies if they had to constantly worry about being around after the next election.
“Today’s Singapore could not have been built by a weak government hanging on to power by a slim majority, or with the governing party and policies chopping and changing after each election,” he said.
“This is a nation of lions led by lions. If we have a nation of lions disunited and led by unworthy leaders, we would have come to grief a long time ago.”
He acknowledged that the possibility of the PAP being challenged is always there, and must always be there, as the essence of democracy.
Hence the party must continue to do a good job and make sure Singaporeans continue to have a good choice when they cast their votes.
While opposition parties may tell voters not to worry as they do not aim to form the next government, and that the PAP can continue to think long term even with a majority of just one seat, or that neighbours will not think the country is weak - “with lives and futures at stake, voters must worry”, said PM Lee.
“Give (your vote) to the party you trust to keep us together, to build a Singapore fit for your kids and that will be there for their kids.”