Singapore’s scandalous summer stokes unease over succession planning

Corruption investigations tarnish ruling party’s clean reputation as it plots generational transfer of power

Singapore has long prided itself on its government’s stability and predictability. But that reputation has been shaken by a series of recent scandals that have put the ruling party on the back foot.

A senior minister has been ensnared in a corruption investigation alongside a billionaire property tycoon. The speaker of the house was caught swearing on a hot mic, an incident that undermined his impartiality – and was closely followed by the public disclosure of his extramarital affair with another ruling party lawmaker, leading both to resign.

Two other MPs were questioned in parliament after online criticism prompted a corruption investigation into their renting of state-owned mansions. Both were exonerated.

By the standards of most democracies, these might seem minor breaches that would not jeopardise public confidence in the government. But in Singapore, where the government has justified its decades-long rule – and tight social controls – by maintaining an image of competence and reliability, they represented a threatening rupture for the city-state of five million people.


Prime minister Lee Hsien Loong last week stepped in to reassure citizens that his People’s Action Party (PAP), which was founded by his father Lee Kuan Yew and has governed uninterrupted since before Singapore became a republic in 1965, was as strong and reliable as ever.

Visibly frustrated with criticism of the country’s anti-graft body, which reports to the prime minister, Lee declared the organisation “has to answer to somebody. It cannot answer to God”.

While Lee promised to “protect the integrity” of the government in a National Day address on Wednesday, last month’s events underscored the perceived opacity in the decision-making of the long-ruling party, just as it is preparing for its first leadership change in nearly two decades.

“There are a lot of conspiracy theories because nobody can really tell what is going on within the PAP and with the internal workings or decision-making,” said Chong Ja Ian, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore. “The accumulation of these events does create a sense of bewilderment and unease on the direction of travel and as Singapore faces new leadership in a more contentious world.”

For critics, the turmoil last month also called into question the PAP’s ability to effectively manage domestic politics at a crucial juncture for the city-state. Singapore is juggling growing challenges at home including a backlash against foreign workers, rising costs and inequality, tensions between the US and China and a shift away from the globalising forces that boosted its open, trade-reliant economy and made it a global financial centre.

One of the main issues undercutting public confidence has been the lack of visibility of the next generation of leadership, critics said. The PAP last year picked Lawrence Wong to succeed Lee, who has led Singapore since 2004.

Critics say the 4G leaders, so called because Wong would be only the fourth prime minister in Singapore’s history, have not offered a vision for the city-state’s future at a time when the drivers of its past growth are expected to face mounting headwinds. The timing of Lee’s handover also remains unclear.

“Where are the 4G leaders? By rights, Wong should be prime minister by now but I think Lee will now hold on until the next election,” which must be held by 2025, said Michael Barr, associate professor of international relations at Flinders University in Adelaide and author of The Ruling Elite of Singapore.

Lee postponed a plan to step aside before he turned 70 in 2022 so he could hand over Singapore “intact” after the pandemic. In the 2020 election, the PAP earned one of the lowest shares of the popular vote in the country’s history.

Adding to the intrigue around inner party workings, many regard the PAP as becoming more, not less, sensitive to criticism. Politicians have wielded the country’s fake news law to silence online criticism, experts said.

In July, authorities invoked the Protection Against Online Falsehoods Act against the prime minister’s estranged younger brother Lee Hsien Yang, who resides overseas, over a Facebook post criticising the government’s handling of the spate of recent scandals.

“This does not help the PAP in navigating a complex and turbulent global environment. The last thing Singapore needs are these sorts of issues which erode trust in government and fuel the impression that the rich and powerful look after themselves,” said Donald Low, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and a former civil servant in Singapore.

“When people can’t criticise, they channel that unhappiness and resentment into the kind of areas that have driven Brexit and the rise of [Donald] Trump,” he added.

The events have raised the stakes for the presidential elections in September. While the role is largely ceremonial, the poll will provide a rare gauge of public sentiment, experts said.

“None of these scandals, even in aggregate, are a body blow for the party,” said one Singapore official with knowledge of PAP thinking. “But I would say September is definitely being closely watched as a dry run for the general election” in 2025.

The PAP has put forward one of its most prominent figures, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, a statesman and former deputy leader whose popularity outstrips that of Lee.

“The PAP will not want to obviously draw a link between the scandals and the election,” said Flinders University’s Barr, suggesting that “anything less than 65 per cent of the vote” would be a disappointment given Tharman’s qualifications and popularity.

“They will pay a lot of attention to the results.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023