Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong confirmed on Jan. 26 that he would not be naming a new Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) in the upcoming cabinet reshuffle.

PM Lee: I’d like to hand over to a successor after the next election

This was what he told the media at the end of his trip in India to participate in the Asean-India Commemorative Summit.

“First of all, I am not expecting new DPMs after the budget.”

Role of the DPM

The role of DPM is the second highest position in Singapore.

The holder sometimes assumes the role of Acting PM when the PM is away on overseas trip or on leave.

Below is an example:

Source: Prime Minister’s Office.

Since the mid-1980s, Singapore usually had two DPMs supporting the PM.

DPMs: The first 11

How exclusive is the DPM club?

There are only 11 DPMs in Singapore’s 52-year history.

Two alumni of this special group of 11 — Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong — had gone on to become the Prime Minister of Singapore.

Two — Ong Teng Cheong and Tony Tan — were elected as the President of Singapore.

Among the group, PM Lee was the longest serving DPM at 13 years. Our pioneer generation leader and first foreign minister S. Rajaratnam had the shortest stint at four years.

S Rajaratnam, Foreign Minister (1965 –1980).

Below is the list of all the DPMs who served Singapore:

1. Toh Chin Chye: June 5 1959 — Aug. 2 1968 (9 years, 58 days)

2. Goh Keng Swee: March 1 1973 — Dec. 3 1984 (11 years, 277 days)

3. S. Rajaratnam: June 1 1980 — Jan. 2 1985 (4 years, 215 days)

4. Goh Chok Tong: Jan. 2 1985 — Nov. 28 1990 (5 years, 330 days)

5. Ong Teng Cheong: Jan. 2 1985 — Sept. 1 1993 (8 years, 242 days)

6. Lee Hsien Loong: Nov. 28 1990 — Aug. 12 2004 (13 years, 258 days)

7. Tony Tan Keng Yam: Aug. 1 1995 — Sept. 1 2005 (10 years, 31 days)

8. S. Jayakumar: Aug. 12 2004 — April 1 2009 (4 years, 232 days)

9. Wong Kan Seng: Sept. 1 2005 — May 21 2011 (5 years, 262 days)

10. Teo Chee Hean: April 1 2009 — Incumbent (8 years, 299 days)

11. Tharman Shanmugaratnam: May 21 2011 — Incumbent (6 years, 249 days)

First DPM, Second DPM

Once upon a time, there was a unique way of addressing two DPMs — first DPM and second DPM.

It had only occurred once in Singapore’s history.

On Jan. 1 1985, Goh held a press conference at the Istana to announce the new Cabinet line-up.

Goh would be the first DPM and Ong would be the second DPM.

Source: NLB

This novel arrangement of having a first DPM and second DPM will last for five years before Goh became the PM.

What’s more significant about the 1985 new year announcement was that it marked the passing of the leadership baton from the founding generation of leaders to the second generation of leaders.

Two new DPMs were appointed to take over Goh (who stepped down as DPM a year ago) and Rajaratnam.

It was the only occasion that Singapore witnessed the appointment of two new DPMs at the same time.

Appointment of a younger DPM as the successor

When the reporter posed the question to PM Lee last Friday on whether Singapore “will be expecting to see one or two new DPMs”, his views were probably formed by the 1990 appointment of a younger DPM, ahead of an older DPM.

In his interview with Men in White: The untold story of Singapore’s ruling political party book, a tome on the ruling People’s Action Party, Goh disclosed that he appointed Lee as his successor when it was a choice between Lee and Ong. This was decided after Goh canvassed views from his team.

Goh also revealed that he chose Lee because he wanted a deputy who was younger, not older (Ong was five years older than Goh, while Lee was 11 years younger).

He said:

“It would not reflect well on our self-renewal drive if I picked someone older than I. That might mean I was protecting my position. As it turned out, he (Lee) was a very good deputy”.

DPMs not appointed on PM’s whims and fancy

For Singaporeans impatient to find out who the potential PM is, there was understandably some disappointment that a new DPM is not appointed early this year.

But PM Lee has not been slow in appointing DPMs. In fact, he has been very prolific, compared to his predecessors, in making DPM appointments.

For instance, PM Lee is likely to tie with PM Lee Kuan Yew for making the most DPM appointments among the three PMs — five — before the end of his premiership, when he appoints his successor.

How about the question posed by the reporter on whether PM will appoint maybe two new DPMs?

Looking at PM Lee’s past DPM appointments, one would notice PM Lee’s appreciation for leadership continuity and incremental changes.

Lee Hsien Loong was front-runner for PM in 2004. His speech then is still relevant today.

When PM Lee took over from Goh in 2004, he opted for a second generation leader (S Jayakumar) as his first DPM appointment, instead of a third generation leader.

This is in contrast to Goh, who chose a second generation and a third generation leader as his deputies.

In his past four DPM appointments, PM Lee’s preference is to appoint one new DPM during a Cabinet reshuffle, with a younger DPM to taking over an older DPM.

Hence, it is less likely that Singapore will see a change in having two new DPMs at a single Cabinet reshuffle in the near future.

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Top photo by AFP/Getty Images