Don’t Scold Tea-Leaves Readers. Singapore’s Government is the Problem.

Don’t Scold Tea-Leaves Readers. Singapore’s Government is the Problem.
Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

What you need to know

An editorial in The Straits Times warned Singaporeans that “it’s not the time to read tea leaves.” It misses the point.

Years of speculation about Lee Hsien Loong’s successor was supposedly settled in 2018, when Heng Swee Keat became the first assistant secretary-general of the ruling People’s Action Party. Now, we’re back to the drawing board.

On April 8, 2021, Heng announced that he would step aside as the leader of the PAP’s fourth generation, or “4G,” team, meaning that he will no longer be in the running to be Singapore’s next prime minister. He cited his age as the main reason for his decision, saying that, since Lee is now staying in the top spot to see the Covid-19 pandemic through, there would be an insufficient “runway” for him to be premier before having to hand over the reins again. He claimed that the 53.41% vote-share his PAP team of candidates won in their eastern Singapore constituency was not a factor, but the result had been seen as embarrassingly low for a supposed future prime minister, and talk of the PAP dumping Heng as their future leader had been floating around ever since.

Regardless of what Heng says, some believe that he was told to take a step back. Perhaps some PAP insider will one day write a tell-almost-all memoir that will refute or confirm this, but for now, Singaporeans and Singapore watchers are mostly concerned with the likely successors to Lee.

Could it be Chan Chun Sing, the party’s second assistant secretary-general, who had been seen as a hot favorite before being vanquished by Heng before? Or maybe Lawrence Wong, who’s gained more of a profile over the past year as the co-chair of Singapore’s Covid-19 multi-ministry task force? But what about Ong Ye Kung, the former Minister for Education and current transport minister, once described as a dark horse in the race for the position?

Heng is keeping his position as the coordinating minister for Singapore’s economic policies, as well as that of deputy prime minister, but he also said in his announcement that he would relinquish the Ministry of Finance portfolio. Lee Hsien Loong has since conducted a new round of ministerial musical chairs, shuffling seven ministers into new positions.

Singaporeans naturally treated the reshuffle as an important data point in this high-stakes guessing game; so far, it looks as if Lawrence Wong, who will take over as finance minister, is poised to be Singapore’s Next Top Minister. (Chan, meanwhile, has moved from the Ministry of Trade and Industry to Education, and Ong shunted from Transport to Health.) The establishment, though, has tried to tamp down speculation. An editorial by The Straits Times’s senior political correspondent warned Singaporeans that “it’s not the time to read tea leaves” and jump to conclusions based on the new distribution of ministerial portfolios.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
Cabinet ministers arrive for the National Day Parade in Singapore, August 9, 2020.

It’s true that there’s no guarantee that Wong will turn out to be the next prime minister. But if Singaporeans don’t read tea leaves, what else are we going to do?

The leadership of major political parties in any country is usually of great interest and relevance, particularly to citizens who’ll likely feel the effects of their power. But the leadership of the PAP is of outsized importance to Singaporeans because the PAP enjoys such overwhelming dominance in the local political landscape. Unless there’s a major electoral upset or miracle at the next general election, the person who takes over as leader of the PAP will be the country’s next prime minister.

Yet not much is known about the way the PAP selects its leadership. The party has a closed loop cadre system, in which only cadre members selected by the party’s central executive committee, can vote people into that central executive committee. But even the cadre members don’t get to decide the positions of these committee members. Instead, they vote a number of people into that committee, then those people go away and decide among themselves the posts that they will assume. There’s no transparency, not even for party members, about how all this works.

Every political party will have its secrets and private maneuvers, and no one is saying that absolutely everything needs to be aired openly. But in countries like the United Kingdom — the model for much of Singapore’s political system — there are at least open leadership contests, through which party members and the public find out more about each individual candidate, learning more about what they stand for and getting a sense of the sort of leader they might be. Jeremy Corbyn, for example, rose to the top of the Labour Party through such a process, although he’s since been replaced by Keir Starmer. There’s none of this in Singapore, particularly in the PAP. In the absence of clear information and data points, people will obviously start speculating, reading tea leaves, and gazing into figurative crystal balls. It’s not like Singaporeans aren’t used to doing this; in fact, we’re seasoned veterans.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks at the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit in Singapore, November 12, 2018.

The PAP leadership process isn’t the only thing in this country that happens in a black box. Many things, from issues of national importance — like when and how an election is called — to individual issues, like applications for visas or certain government schemes are decided for reasons unknown. We’re often told that “multiple factors are taken into consideration,” or that “each case is assessed on its merits on a case-by-case basis,” but not given much clarity about what these factors or merits are, and how they’re assessed. So we just have to try to fill in the blanks ourselves, if only to brace ourselves for what might happen.

This isn’t a desirable state of affairs. It’s in such information vacuums that malicious rumors, false allegations, and other sorts of misinformation thrive. It also does harm to our collective psyche to constantly feel like we’re shut out, not just in participation, but in being able to know what’s going on. It damages citizens’ sense of being valued and legitimate stakeholders in our own country.

Experienced though many of us might be, the reading of tea leaves is a highly unreliable method of information-seeking for a citizenry. As the ruling party’s elite continue with whatever they’re doing being closed doors, Singaporeans should be asking why we’re constantly left to play guessing games.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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