The problem of political succession in Singapore

The decades of unique development have largely been enhanced by political stability in Singapore. Smooth political succession, when the Prime Minister was chosen several years prior to taking office, has nearly become the trademark of the city-state. Today, however, 4 years before Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s planned retirement the selection of the ideal successor is hindered by several factors, which might also influence the future of the country.

After Singapore gained its independence in 1959 and seceded from Malaysia in 1965,[1] the predictability of the political power has nearly become the trademark of the city-state. Keeping the rules of parliamentary democracy, the right centre People’s Action Party (PAP)[2] has won all the elections since 1959 and has been considered the only government party in the history of the country, obtaining 83 of the 89 mandates available at the last election held in 2015.[3] Over the past decades the policy of the party has allowed for the handling of Singapore’s economic and social issues as well as the unique development of the country. However, the stability of the political system has not only been ensured by the reign and broad authorisation of the governing party: the country has only had three prime ministers so far, and a decision on political succession was passed far earlier, which ensured the smooth transfer of power and the reassurance of economic agents. Nevertheless, although Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong does not plan to govern the country after the elections in 2021, the Singaporean leadership has met with several difficulties finding the appropriate successor, which might significantly influence the future of the country, too.

Selecting the appropriate person

According to the official opinions, the Singaporean electoral system offers an opportunity to the talented, as members of parliament might get into the government depending upon their results; and thereafter it is also decided who is suitable to fulfil the main position. The future prime minister will not be selected by his predecessor but the next-generation leaders on the basis of consensus. As everyone is aware of the responsibility, the party cannot be characterised with fights within the party, neither does the elite in power rival for the prime ministerial position.[4]

It is a fact that in Singapore the People’s Action Party takes the reforming of the political leadership seriously, and politicians undergo a well-established selection process, which also has negative aspects all the same. Most leaders come from the public service and the armed forces, so the chances of outsiders are limited. Since the party has no formal requirements regarding the election of the future prime minister, the decision is passed in private, behind closed doors, and one cannot exactly know who have decision rights in this issue.[5] According to certain opinions, greater publicity would be essential in the 21st century, in view of the fact that the general public has no voice in electing the prime minister.[6]

Electing the second and third prime ministers

Being most prestigious at global level, Lee Kuan Yew was Prime Minister of Singapore between 1959 and 1990. The eminent statesman, however, refrained from naming his successor; he only provided for the selection of 5 ministers but let the younger generation decide. Although Lee Kuan Yew did not espouse the election of the later successor Goh Chok Tong, he respected the decision made by the leadership in 1984 from beginning to end. After becoming Deputy Prime Minister in 1984, Goh gradually took over the lead of the country in the following 5 years, until Lee officially resigned in 1990.[7]

Some people suppose that Goh Chok Tong’s mandate as Prime Minister is only a temporary solution as Lee Kuan Yew is believed to have arranged that position for his son.[8] Lee Hsien Loong, who is the eldest son of the late Prime Minister, became Member of Parliament in 1984 and was Deputy Prime Minister from 1990 until his rise to power in 2004. In 2003 Goh announced his resignation but his successor had already been found long before.[9] As we can see, successors had several years to arrange the smooth transfer of power in both cases, so Singapore’s political, economic and social stability as well as its global power was hardly affected by the new Prime Minister’s taking office.

Lee Hsien Loong’s plans

The current Singaporean Leadership – headed by the Prime Minister – tried to make thorough arrangements in the question of succession as before, but his plans were foiled by chance in several cases. After the parliamentary elections held in 2015, Lee pointed out that the rejuvenation of the leadership will already be an urgent priority when setting up the next cabinet. After his announcement of resignation after the 2021 elections, the leadership tried to find his successor, too. Lee pointed out several times that he would let the next-generation leaders actually choose the person; at the same time, he presumably tries to use his influence on behalf of the candidate favoured by him.[10]

In early 2016, 54-year-old Minister for Finance and Chairman of the Committee on the Future Economy was considered the ideal candidate among the fourth-generation politicians, but Heng got a stroke and needed immediate surgery in May 2016. Despite his fast recovery (in August he already returned to his position) his rise to power seems unlikely for health reasons.[11]

Still, the preparation for the succession allows no delay, as the Prime Minister also suffers from various health problems. Diagnosed with lymphoma in the early 1990s he received chemotherapy, and in 2015 he was operated on for cancer of the prostate gland. However, in August 2016 he became unwell while delivering his annual speech on the state of the nation, and finally his doctors found serious dehydration. Although this case seems to have had no significant consequences, Lee confirmed that finding a prime minister candidate is a priority.[12]

Current alternatives

According to the analysts, several persons in the Singaporean cabinet might come into question as the prospective prime minister besides Heng Swee Keat. Their common characteristic feature is, however, that they have relatively inconsiderable political experience as they got connected with politics only a few years ago.[13] Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong, Minister in prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing and Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin all became known in the 2011 elections. However, in accordance with the Prime Minister’s intention, the latter became Chairman of the Parliament in 2017, which is evaluated as degradation according to some opinions.[14] Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills)  Ong Ye Kung, who was Principal Private Secretary of Lee Hsien Loong, and Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng entered into politics in 2015.

Fourth-generation Singaporean political leaders, all having a good chance of the prime ministerial position (source:

As is generally accepted politically, if no ideal candidate is found in the next few years and if it is the interest of the country, Lee Hsien Loong will have the opportunity to stay in his office temporarily, although the promotion of the current Deputy Prime Ministers has greater possibilities. Both Tan Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam are experienced politicians; the latter person would be an ideal choice in all respects, only his Indian origin may create an obstacle, as according to the general political opinion most of the Chinese would not accept him as the primary leader.[15]

Despite the numerous opportunities, it seems certain that the next prime minster will be chosen from the members of the present cabinet, which the Prime Minister himself has also confirmed in a recent interview.[16]

Dynastic ideals

When Singapore’s present Prime Minister took office, many people supposed that Lee Kuan Yew wished to pass on the leading of the country to his own family members, and in the summer of 2017 the question of the Lee dynasty came to light again. The internal strife broken out in the Lee family, which has negatively affected the Prime Minister’s prestige, too, might also influence the political future of the country. The Prime Minister’s siblings Lee Wei Ling and  Lee Hsien Yang accused their elder brother of not fulfilling their father’s last will because he refused to demolish the family home. In addition, they stated that the Prime Minister misused his power when he prepared the transfer of power for his son Li Hongyi. However, the person concerned, who works for the Governmental Technological Agency, denied having political ambitions.[17]

Lee’s family tree and chronology of family dispute (source:

Lee Hsien Yang has even raised the intention of going abroad, saying that he is not safe in the country any longer owing to his elder brother’s position.[18] The scandal has decreased the prestige of the name Lee; what is even more, the drawbacks of the Singaporean political system have also come to the foreground. Therefore, it can be stated that it is not only the leaders of the country but also the future of the city state that can be influenced by the case negatively, especially in this stage of the political succession process.

Challenges of the Singaporean policy

Finding the ideal prime minister candidate is also difficult because the country has to face significant problems both in domestic and foreign political terms. In the past, political stability used to grant the confidence of foreign investors, and economic development was spectacular and predictable. In today’s Singapore, however, besides political succession several other uncertainty factors have arisen, too. The Singaporean economy is under more and more severe pressure from China and other ASEAN States. The slowing down of economy, the stagnation of productiveness, the ageing population, the influx of foreign migrant labour force and the development issues of transport infrastructure have confronted the government with conditions that it cannot find an ideal solution to.[19] The political efforts, which have been applied for several decades, do not bring the desired effects any longer, so reforms are of pressing necessity. However, according to certain opinions, Singapore’s future can be granted by its leading role fulfilled in the 4th industrial revolution, that is, if it manages to promote the development+3t of not only the city state but the development of the entire Southeast Asia through the digitalisation, during which social and economic issues could also be handled.[20]

In foreign political terms, the relationship with China and the United States is decisive. As the Lee Hsien Loong Government has tried to counter the Chinese efforts the relationship of the two countries is not free from tension, while Beijing’s economic dominance can be felt more and more.

After all, it is not hard to see why the selection of Singapore’s next prime minister is pressing since, in addition to being expected to pass on earlier traditions, he also has to wrestle with the new challenges of the 21st century and maintain the political stability of the country.


[1] Between 1963 and 1965 Singapore became part of Malaysia voluntarily; still, it opted for independence owing to the ethnical and economic conflicts of interests.

[2] People’s Action Party (PAP)

[3] HOLMES, Oliver: Singapore’s ruling party batters opposition in huge election win. In: The Guardian, 11 September 2015 (01.10.2017.)

[4] WAN, Khaw Boon: Next PM will be picked by the young ministers. In: The Straits Times, September 4, 2016 (01.10.2017.)

[5] KWANG, Han Fook: Relooking leadership renewal in Singapore. In: The Straits Times, August 28, 2016 (2017.10.09.)

[6] MITTON, Roger: Let the succession games begin: The tussle for Singapore’s leadership. In: Myanmar Times, 08 September 2016 (12.10.2017)

[7] AU-YONG, Rachel: How the 2nd and 3rd PMs were chosen. In: The Straits Times, September 4, 2016 (12.10.2017)

[8] BALJI, P. N.: Singapore Succession a Troubling Issue. In: Asia Sentinel, August 30, 2016 (12.10.2017)


[10] YANQIN, Lin: Choice of next PM will be made by fourth generation leaders themselves: PM Lee., September 29, 2016 (12.10.2017)

[11] SING, Chan Chun: The next Prime Minister: 6 men to watch. In: The Straits Times, September 04, 2016 (12.10.2017)


[13] SING

[14] BALJI, P. N.: Singapore’s political succession plans in disarray., September 13, 2017 (12.10.2017)

[15] BALJI 2016

[16] SIM, Royston: Next prime minister likely from current Cabinet: PM Lee. In: The Straits Times, October 21, 2017 (2017.10.23)

[17] BARR, Michael D.: Dynastic demolition in Singapore? East Asia Forum, 22 June 2017 (12.10.2017)

[18] VASAGAR, Jeevan: Feud in Singapore’s first family raises questions of dynastic ambition. In: Financial Times, June 16, 2017 (12.10.2017)

[19] BALJI, 2017

[20] MAJID, Munir: Singapore predicament, Asean challenge. In: The Star Online, 29 July 2017 (12.10.2017)




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