For months, Singaporeans had been kept in the dark guessing about a crucial leadership transition inside the People’s Action Party (PAP), the wealthy city-state’s long ruling political party.
But while Prime Minister and PAP leader Lee Hsien Loong’s likely successor finally came into clearer view this week, the country’s political direction is still less than certain amid signs of a gathering clampdown on dissent.
Heng Swee Keat, Singapore’s current finance minister, was late last week named as the PAP’s first assistant secretary-general, a clear pathway to the premiership when Lee steps down from power. The 66-year-old Lee has indicated that he will retire before the age of 70.
A long-time civil servant who once served as principal private secretary to the late former premier Lee Kuan Yew, Heng is part of the PAP’s so-called fourth generation, or 4G, of leaders, reference to the ruling party’s uninterrupted hold on power since 1959.
The PAP’s newly elected central executive committee contains many 4G Cabinet ministers, underscoring the transition from a third generation of leaders.
“Mr. Heng’s political ascent can be attributed to his distinguished public sector career and to his likable public persona – the combination of which his peers probably regarded as best representing the ruling party and the government under the 4G,” said Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University.
Soon after the announcement, the PAP-loyal mainstream media rushed to highlight Heng’s positive qualities, citing his “open and consultative leadership style” and devotion to his work. Heng beat out Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, 49, who was previously seen as the frontrunner.
But not all analysts are convinced that Heng’s rise was due to his stellar work ethic and winning attitude.
Michael Barr, associate professor of international relations at Flinders University and author of “The Ruling Elite of Singapore: Networks of Power and Influence”, believes Heng will serve mostly as a place sitter until Lee’s son Li Hongyi comes of age and eventually enters politics.
Li, who has said previously he is not interested in the premiership, previously served as an officer in the Singapore military and is currently the deputy director at the Government Technology Agency of Singapore under the Prime Minister’s Office.
“I believe that Lee prefers and chose Heng over Chan precisely because Heng is the weaker candidate and – perhaps even more important – the older candidate,” he wrote in an email to Asia Times.
“A 49-year-old Chan in robust health with a quickly improving capacity to relate to the electorate could easily have been in the role for 20 years,” Barr wrote.
“This would have been a long time for Li Hongyi to wait his turn. A 57-year-old Heng, not a great communicator and who has already had one stroke, will be easier to shift gently to one side after 10 years, if not less.”
Heng suffered a stroke in May 2016 during a Cabinet meeting, but has since recovered and been given a clean bill of health.
Li’s possible eventual entry into politics was a sore point in a high-profile feud within Singapore’s first family in 2017. Lee’s siblings, Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, alleged at the time that the premier and his wife “harbor political ambitions for their son, Li Hongyi.”
Li responded to the furor in a Facebook post: “For what it’s worth, I really have no interest in politics.”
Apart from the family drama, the pending transition has triggered worries in Singapore’s civil society circles. Many fear a clampdown on dissent could be underway to stifle criticism and ensure a smooth transition for the PAP’s 4G leaders.
Those concerns have been heightened as speculation swirls that a snap election will be called in 2019. New elections must legally be held by 2021.
“Not only is the government persecuting and harassing its critics through lawsuits and the abuse of police power and the laws, it is also taking advantage of its parliamentary majority to arbitrarily pass legislation which stifles free expression, and intimidate civil society groups into submission,” civil rights activist Jolovan Wham told Asia Times.
Wham is facing multiple charges for contempt of court and allegedly organizing illegal public assemblies. Singapore maintains and enforces strict laws against holding protests without prior police permission.
Academic Tan is less sure a crackdown is imminent but notes that “it is…often the case that during transitions activism and dissent see a spike with politicians, activists, and dissenters testing waters and pushing the envelope vis-a-vis the putative leadership.”
He adds: “It should not surprise us if the government decides to err on the side of caution and take a no-nonsense approach towards what it regards as unlawful conduct. Any strong action taken will be accompanied by copious explanation of why the action was needed and justified.”
That justification has been wanting in the recent legal harassment of The Online Citizen, popularly known as TOC, one of the city-state’s leading independent online news sites.
On November 20, five police officers showed up at the home of site’s chief editor Terry Xu and presented him with a warrant to seize his property as part of an ongoing investigation for alleged criminal defamation.
His electronics, including two desktop computers, two mobile phones, three laptops, two tablets, three hard drives and other storage devices, were taken as evidence in the probe. Criminal defamation convictions carry two year penalties and possible fines in Singapore.
The alleged offense concerned a reader’s letter published by TOC in early September that alleged “tampering of the Constitution” and “corruption at the highest echelons” of the PAP leadership—accusations that clearly struck an official nerve. The letter writer is also under investigation.
The InfoComm Media Development Authority of Singapore (IMDA) ordered Xu to take down the letter on the grounds the content was “prohibited” because it was “objectionable on grounds of public interest.” Although Xu complied, the agency nonetheless filed a police complaint.
For Xu, the legal harassment and police action isn’t just about impending elections, but also concerns anti-fake news legislation that the Lee administration is keen to introduce and activists fear will lead to more media censorship.
“In order for all this to happen, you need all these cases, for TOC, for [States Times Review], for [The Independent Singapore], all to have offences, or background for them to justify why you need this particular thing,” Xu said, referring to other websites that have recently fallen foul of the government or government-linked entities.
Government authorities did not respond to Asia Times’ questions on the situation.
The Monetary Authority of Singapore, meanwhile, recently filed a police report against the tabloid website States Times Review for criminal defamation.
The NTUC Foodfare, operated by the government-linked National Trades Union Congress, also recently sued The Independent Singapore news site for defamation for articles it published about stall operators in a food court the cooperative runs.
Wham, for one, doesn’t see much cause for comfort in the PAP’s political transition to 4G leaders.
“If activism is clamped down, self-censorship will be further entrenched and fewer Singaporeans will be interested in participating in human rights work, advocating for causes they care about and joining opposition politics,” he told Asia Times.
“This is exactly what the PAP wants.”