Singapore’s process for selecting our PM, unscrambled (sort of)

TL;DR – “From the group of new candidates will have to emerge future ministers, who will then have to decide among themselves who is primus inter pares, first among equals.”

DPM Tharman broke our hearts recently. The pain was so deep that it drove some people to say some really stupid things. Here are a couple of examples:

Singaporeans decide who to be PM

Electorate choose

Why are these stupid things to say? 

Because those people are confusing Singapore with the USA. Unlike the USA, where Americans get to pick their President indirectly through the *electoral college, Singaporeans DO NOT get a direct say in choosing our PM. Instead, every few years, we choose the party that forms the government. The leader of that party becomes the PM.

That’s as much say as we get in choosing our PM. We don’t get to decide who becomes the leader of any political parties.

If that’s the case, then how is our PM chosen?

After each election, PM announces all the political office holders. Presumably, the PM decides on these political office holders after discussing with the more senior party members. Usually, he would introduce a few new political office holders. Some of these new political office holders would likely become cabinet ministers.

And it is the younger cabinet ministers who will select the new PM. This is no earth-shattering news, mind you, as early as back in 2008, the PAP’s organising secretary (special duties) Ng Eng Hen had already said this in an interview,

“From the group of new candidates will have to emerge future ministers, who will then have to decide among themselves who is primus inter pares, first among equals.”

via Straits Times

via Straits Times

The most complete and official answer on the PM selection process can be found in a recent reply from Mr Khaw Boon Wan, Chairman of the People’s Action Party (PAP), in response to a Straits Times article on relooking leadership renewal in Singapore.

“… As with both ESM Goh Chok Tong and PM Lee Hsien Loong, the next prime minister will be chosen by the next generation of leaders from among themselves. If all goes well, they will make this choice by consensus. Older ministers, including the current PM, will stay out of the deliberations. This is as it should be, for it is the younger ministers who will have to work with the new PM and help him succeed.

The new leader will also have to be elected into the PAP’s Central Executive Committee, and become the party’s secretary-general. And constitutionally, the Prime Minister must enjoy the confidence of the majority of Members of Parliament. This means he must have support of the party cadres as well as the parliamentary party. And he will not have either if he fails to unite Singaporeans and win elections…”

What did PM Lee and DPM Tharman say?

via Straits Times

via Straits Times

PM Lee had said this in response to media questions last Friday when he was in Japan on an official visit:

“They have to decide because they have to support him, and help to make the system, make the team work… I’ve said (before that) very likely the next PM will come from amongst the younger members of my Cabinet. Who, (that) is up to them to work out among themselves and I hope in good time – I’m sure in good time – a consensus will develop among them as to who the next leader will be.”

This is how our previous two PMs were chosen. From amongst the cabinet ministers by the cabinet ministers. Given our history, it is strange why some Singaporeans would still think that we have a direct say in choosing our PM.

Even Tharman shed some (or rather, the same) light on the selection process when he spoke with the press about how he’s our man for the PM post last Thursday,

“There are a few fourth-generation leaders who could be first amongst equals during the next term of government.

We all have our sense as to who has the potential to be the first among equals and it doesn’t lessen the contributions of the others.”

via Straits Times

via Straits Times

But this current process does raise interesting questions. Such as…

How does cabinet choose the next PM?

How do the younger ministers reach the consensus of who the next leader will be? Is there a checklist that they tick off? Do they have a secret conclave where they vote? It sounds like a rather collegial process. But is it really? Is there any politicking? How much say and influence do the older cabinet ministers and the current PM have?

And of course, while that’s the way things are done now, we still need to evaluate if this is indeed the best way to choose our PMs. If it is, it would be useful for PM and the government to explain why this way is better than the other possible options.

So perhaps we should get this conversation going.

(Updated 5th Oct*) Americans determine the number of representatives each candidates has in the electoral college which then determines which candidate gets elected as the president.



Author: Jake Koh

Recovering sushi addict, I'm a man of mystery and power, whose power is exceeded only by his mystery.


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