NDR 2016: A scary reminder of our leaders’ mortality

Aug 21, 2016 10.49PM |
 

by Kwan Jin Yao

IT WAS a wobble that shook a nation.

For a few brief seconds, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took a stumble onstage during the National Day Rally speech tonight (Aug 21), it was a scary reminder that our leaders are mortal – and that it wasn’t so long ago that another leader – Mr Heng Swee Keat – had taken a tumble during a Cabinet meeting.

Thankfully, Mr Lee is fine – and so is Mr Heng, as Mr Lee himself said in his speech earlier. In fact, Mr Heng seems to have made a great recovery from his stroke in May earlier this year. A “miracle”, as PM Lee put it. After six weeks in hospital, Mr Heng was discharged and will be returning to the Cabinet, but not yet to his community and grassroots work, because he has to avoid contact with crowds to minimise the risk of infection.

Mr Heng’s sudden collapse and absence from his duties was a point raised by PM Lee at the rally after suddenly taking ill himself.

Health issues have plagued some members of the present Cabinet. Such as when PM Lee had his prostate gland removed after being diagnosed with prostate cancer in February last year. In the same month, Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin was diagnosed with pleural tuberculosis, which infected the area between his lungs and ribcage, before he made a full recovery in October. Then there was what happened six years ago in May 2010, when the Minister for Transport, Mr Khaw Boon Wan – then the Health Minister – underwent a heart bypass operation.

With these concerns in mind, PM Lee stressed the importance of building up leadership and preparing for succession. “Nothing that has happened has changed my timetable, or my resolve to press on with succession,” he said. “In the next [General Election], we will reinforce the team again, and soon after the next GE, my successor must be ready to take over from me.”

“岁月不留人” (time waits for no man), he added.

With what happened tonight, the question of the prime minister’s health will be the talk of the town tomorrow, but succession and the question of Singapore’s fourth Prime Minister have always featured prominently in the past two election cycles in 2011 and 2015.

Ahead of the elections in 2011, at the Kent Ridge Ministerial Forum in the National University of Singapore, Mr Lee then also stressed the need for leadership succession, “so that by 2020, we will have a younger team ready.”

And after the victory of his People’s Action Party (PAP) last year, Mr Lee assembled a new Cabinet with the aim of developing and readying a team for the next GE and beyond. He wanted his ministers tested, developed, and exposed and known to the public, he added, “so that within the team, they know who can do what, how they can work together, and who can emerge as a leader of the team”.

Mr Lee will turn 65 in February next year, and will be 69 in 2020. During a parliamentary debate on civil service salary revisions in April 2007, he had said that “Singapore should not have a 70-year-old Prime Minister”. Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew stepped down at 67 (32 years as prime minister). Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong at 63 (14 years as prime minister).

Mr Lee is also the oldest individual in the Cabinet, which has an average age of 55 (a median of 56). Of the 20 ministers, five are under 50, nine in their 50s, and the remaining six are 60 years and above.

Together, they will continue to set Singapore’s direction in education, economic restructuring, and social policies, and at the same time they will also have the task of convincing Singaporeans to enter politics. Or to join the PAP. It seems a hard task.

Whether Mr Heng is still in the running to be Singapore’s next prime minister will depend on how he recuperates, and how he performs when he resumes full operational responsibilities as Finance Minister. Four years is a long time in politics. But will it be enough time for Singapore to find its fourth prime minister?

 

Featured image a screenshot of the National Day Rally live stream from Toggle

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