ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

What Lies Ahead for Singapore’s Succession Dynamics?

This year’s iteration of the prime minister’s National Day Rally speech was scrutinized for a sense of the country’s political future.

Erin Cook
What Lies Ahead for Singapore’s Succession Dynamics?

A previous photo of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Credit: Flickr/Karen

Singapore’s annual August 9 National Day celebrations are typically a feat of red, white, and glory. Flyovers, fireworks, and colorful performances celebrate the country’s independence, which occurred following its separation from Malaysia in 1965.

But it’s the National Day Rally speech given by the prime minister a week or two afterwards that gives Singapore and the world the clearest idea of what to expect in the year ahead for the Lion City. With an election expected to be called any minute now, the address had taken on extra significance this year.

A widely shared text message purporting to be from the Election Department declaring poll day next month spread prior to the address by current premier Lee Hsien Loong, which had been scheduled for August 18. While it was quickly debunked by the agency as a hoax, it showed pre-election speculation at fever pitch. The election, which must be held by April 2021, was avoided in Lee’s speech itself, leaving the rumor mill to continue churning.

This month’s address is expected to be one of the prime minister’s last if succession plans go as hoped. Lee seemingly approved of Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat as successor late last year following negotiations among the so-called 4G and his ascension to the upper echelons of the governing People’s Action Party, which has ruled Singapore singe independence.

As Singaporean journalist Kirsten Han wrote earlier for the Lowy Institute, a key indicator that an election is imminent in the city-state is if the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee has met. This body is tasked with redrawing boundaries prior to every vote and must be finalized before the campaigning period begins. Han notes that as of July, the committee had yet to meet suggesting a poll date is unlikely within the immediate future.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Taking its time is a wise, if not obvious, strategy for the Singaporean government as recession looms over the city-state. Lee danced around the topic in his address, preferring instead to hone in on policy announcements. For instance, an increase in the retirement age was widely expected and will see a gradual increase from the current 62-years-old to 65 by 2030. Lee directly linked this to Singapore’s boast of the longest life expectancy in the world, adding that “we don’t want to spend more years idle in retirement.”

Young Singaporeans can expect greater financial support with higher education fees for lower income students to be dropped from next year. A drop in bursar fees for eligible university students will see government contributions cover 75 percent of fees, up from the current 50 percent, while polytechnic students can expect up to 95 percent of fees to be covered from next year. According to Channel News Asia, a regional media outlet, three out of five students are eligible to receive subsidies of some description.

This will no doubt be a relief to some of Singapore’s best and brightest as the global economy begins to bite. Singapore is particularly affected by the U.S.-China trade war, with the tensions blamed for contracting growth in the second quarter of the year. Growth estimates for 2019 have dropped from 1.5 to 2.5 percent to just 1 percent at best.

“GDP growth in many of Singapore’s key final demand markets in the second half of 2019 is expected to slow from, or remain similar to, that recorded in the first half,” a Trade Ministry statement said earlier in the month following the announcement of the figures. If those numbers change Prime Minister-in-waiting Heng Swee Keat’s announcement that the Finance Ministry is not expecting a full year recession, he is yet to say so.

But rather than focusing on the comparatively short-term economic crisis, Lee spoke emphatically on the much larger existential threat of climate change. Rising sea waters threaten the island’s stability, so much so that Lee has committed S$100 billion to engineering and other measures over the next century. He’s flagged expansion of the controversial land reclamation projects, as well as infrastructure projects at the ports and Changi airport.

“Climate change may seem abstract and distant for many of us, but it is one of the gravest challenges facing humankind,” Lee said during the address. He went on to link recent hotter weather and heavier rainstorms to climate change, saying destructive changes are a matter of “when” not “if” and would be treated accordingly.

Lee’s National Day address is not the type one would expect to see elsewhere in the world on the eve of an election announcement: working later in life and the doom and gloom of climate change hardly sets voter hearts on fire. But in Singapore, where the PAP is effectively guaranteed to continue its unbroken streak of governance, laying out a long-term commitment to shaping the country for the years ahead offers a peek into how the campaign will be run — whenever it’s announced.