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'We should not change horses in midstream': Jayakumar says in latest book

FORMER senior minister S Jayakumar is glad that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has given himself flexibility on the leadership succession timeline for the People's Action Party (PAP) - even if it means staying beyond the next General Election (GE), due by 2025.

In his latest book Governing: A Singapore Perspective, he writes: "In my view, however capable the 4G leaders, we should not change horses in midstream."

Prior to Covid-19, PM Lee had indicated he hoped to step down by age 70, or by 2022. Following the pandemic's onset, and during the thick of GE 2020 campaigning in July, he appeared to shift his stance.

Speaking to voters tuned into the PAP's Fullerton Rally, PM Lee said he had not expected to encounter such an "overwhelming crisis" in the last stretch of his premiership, and pledged: "I will see this through."

Now, in his book, Prof Jayakumar asks if PM Lee would be prepared to revisit his earlier intention not to lead the party in the next GE, should Covid-19 be prolonged.

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"If the crisis persists, I believe many Singaporeans will want him to reconsider that aspect of his timeline as well, and hand over only after Singapore has turned the dangerous corner," he writes.

Speaking to the media on the book's release, the 81-year-old former minister and diplomat said: "We are in a very perilous and dangerous situation in our history as a country. I cannot remember any other situation so dangerous."

Prof Jayakumar served as a Cabinet minister under all three prime ministers to-date, including as deputy prime minister from 2004 to 2009, before retiring from politics in 2011. He had entered politics in 1980, as part of a wave of leaders that included Goh Chok Tong, Tony Tan and Ong Teng Cheong. Prior to politics, he was a senior diplomat.

Though his political and diplomatic career spans some four decades and several crises, including the global financial crisis and Sars, Prof Jayakumar told reporters the ongoing pandemic is "unprecedented" in his recollection, with severe impact on many fronts for Singapore.

Should PM Lee remain in office longer than originally planned, Prof Jayakumar said, the silver lining is more time for the next generation of political leaders to work with more experienced ministers, "in the same way that I benefitted from working with leaders like Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee".

"I have not spoken to the 4G leaders, I do not know their views," he said. "But I am sure they will be guided by the main consideration of what is best for Singapore's interests."

Elsewhere in his book, Prof Jayakumar makes a case for longer-term political stability. He reveals that he got in touch with an unnamed Cabinet minister several days after GE 2020 - in which the PAP saw its popular vote share decrease to 61.24 per cent, and the Workers' Party (WP) captured two Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs).

"We should not be beguiled by WP's stance that they only want to check the government," he told the minister, according to the book's account. "As I see it, the camel has gotten its nose into the PAP tent. It will want to occupy the whole tent in two, three or four elections down the road."

Musing on scenarios that could unfold in the coming decades, he argues a need for a strong and stable government, with leaders of high calibre - whether from the PAP, or otherwise - confident enough in its mandate to focus on long-term issues.

A "revolving door" system, in which one party competes constantly against an opposition party, or a coalition of such parties, would be a weak and populist government, he warns.

But he stops short of assessing the likelihood of such a scenario materialising, only urging Singaporeans to reflect on what they want for the future.

Prof Jayakumar's book was launched on Friday, by Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen. It is available for S$35 (including GST) at major bookshops and stbooks.sg. Royalties will be donated to the Rainbow Centre.

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