This is the last of five in a series on Singapore’s prospective next prime minister. If you have enjoyed this series, please consider making a donation here to support my future work.
The pandemic has been tragic. Yet the assorted losses and disruptions to ordinary life have also prodded many Singaporeans to think about better ways of doing things, of living the good life.
Some are enjoying more time with old friends and family; others have opened their hearts (and wallets) to migrant workers they hitherto ignored.
Many have used new technologies to reinvent traditional forms of work: the scores of home bakers and group-buy champions, for instance, or live performers like Jack and Rai who have made a seamless transition to the online world.
And all those individual actions have together pushed our collective imagination on larger issues. How do we reconfigure our economic model to improve the livelihoods of migrant workers? If remote work is here to stay, how do we reshape our city? With nature again blooming, with the planet so evidently benefiting from the respite, is it time for Singapore to recalibrate its approach to development, perhaps push the pause button on projects?
(Watch that dreamy drone video of the Clementi forest that has been earmarked for residential development.)
These are questions many around the world are asking. Moreover, events of 2020 have also forced Singaporeans to confront a fundamental existential issue, one that enthralls democracies around the world but has always been very much a non-issue for independent Singapore: who is going to lead us?
And in that same spirit of pandemic-inspired fresh thinking, this leadership crisis presents Singaporeans an opportunity to consider alternative leaders and leadership models. As much as the crisis is cause for concern, it should also spark wonder, in the hope that Singapore might emerge from it all the stronger.
This series ends, then, on an optimistic note with a brief discussion of two dark horses: Lawrence Wong and Pritam Singh. They are necessarily brief because unlike the other candidates, prior to 2020 neither Lawrence nor Pritam had ever been seriously considered as potential leaders of Singapore. I have not had the benefit of years of deliberations about them with insiders and observers. Do treat these more as conversation starters rather than well-contemplated analyses.
Lawrence Wong, 48, minister for education
2020 has been a fabulous year for Lawrence Wong’s political career. Many have long regarded him as a relatively quiet, insignificant bit of Singapore’s cabinet, a bookish scholar who quietly and efficiently keeps the engine purring behind the scenes.
However, as one of two co-chairs of Singapore’s COVID task force, Lawrence has been pushed into the spotlight by the pandemic. He has exuded a cool, measured charm in front of the cameras, boosting confidence among ordinary Singaporeans in our collective “war” against the virus.
“…words are not sufficient to express our appreciation for so many Singaporeans going all out to fight the virus”, Lawrence said last March, the one time he broke down on television, what many saw as a moment of genuine empathy and vulnerability.
Lawrence’s candidacy for party leader is now discussed openly by many, including journalists; Inderjit Singh, a former PAP politician; and Bilveer Singh, a political scientist.
An important caveat and disclosure here is that it is tougher for me to discuss Lawrence, largely because I do not have the benefit of distance or neutrality. Lawrence is the only person in this series whom I might call a friend, in the sense that we have history, we have hung out together socially.
We first met at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, MA in the fall of 2003, when Lawrence was about to start a one-year mid-career programme and I a two-year degree. We did not meet regularly over that year, but I certainly remember the times: chatting at Singapore socials; him coming to my apartment for dinner with his (I think) then girlfriend, in those days when the only dish I could really make was Indian chicken curry; and seeing him in those feisty case-study classroom discussions (at Michael Porter’s country competitiveness class, I believe).
Since then we have met and communicated a few times. At the 2013 Singapore Writers Festival, Lawrence made a nice gesture in public towards me. The year before, Singapore’s National Arts Council (NAC) had decided that it would not support my first book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore, because it claimed that the book had the potential to “undermine the authority of the Singapore government”. (Go figure.)
After his guest-of-honour speech Lawrence, who was then the minister for arts, called out to me in the crowd as he was walking away from the stage, saying something to the effect of: Why didn’t we support your book? It’s totally fine!
Many around us heard. I just smiled and shrugged.
Importantly, Lawrence must have been aware that the bureaucrat who had made the assessment the year before was standing right next to him. Said bureaucrat just stared coldly into space with that I-don’t-need-to-explain-myself condescension. (Or was it embarrassment?)
Some senior civil servants and politicians had long told me that in Singapore exists the same resistance to change one finds in any old successful bureaucracy—with some progressives at the top frustrated that those below them aren’t moving as fast as they might like. That moment in 2013 was, perhaps, my first direct experience of that.
Aside: another reason I remember the moment is that Jack and Rai were standing nearby, having been part of the opening ceremony. They, and other musicians I know, have told me that Lawrence is a pretty handy guitarist. He has said that his father gave him a guitar when he was eight, and that his preferred genres are rock, blues and soul. He likes Eric Clapton and also jazz singers such as Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald.
The last time I saw Lawrence was at a Sunday late afternoon party over a year ago. Our wives were there, and I’m glad the four of us got to chat. It was a private event, obviously, but I feel comfortable sharing one observation.
There were a few Americans who work broadly in the policy and international affairs space. Not all of them recognised Lawrence, who was then minister for national development. I overheard one asking: “So what do you do?”
Lawrence responded: “I work in government.”
The conversation went on, and I think the American finally realised that he was speaking with one of the most politically powerful people in Singapore. But Lawrence’s first answer was indicative of his unassuming nature.
Perhaps because of that, I have never really envisioned Lawrence as the top dog. He is not somebody who seems to inject that sense of urgency into every waking moment, like a Heng Swee Keat. He is not somebody who will floor you with brilliance or rhetoric, like a Tharman. And he is not somebody overflowing with self-confidence, like an Ong Ye Kung.
Lawrence seems to be more contemplative, nondescript and measured in his methods. This perhaps gives him the element of surprise in any race, the underdog’s advantage. I have heard that his ascent up the governmental and political ladders has caught some of his peers unawares.
Unlike most of Singapore’s political elite, Lawrence did not attend top-tier schools like Hwa Chong or Raffles. He went to Tanjong Katong Secondary Technical School and then Victoria JC before winning a government scholarship to study economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (where he busked with his American roommate).
He was first mentioned as a possible candidate in 2016, when the establishment narrowed the field to six male Chinese scholars. (The only viable phenotype, clearly.)
Yet insiders suggest that by that point there were really only three likely candidates—Heng, Chan Chun Sing and Ong Ye Kung—with the rest lumped in simply to make up the numbers, to present the facade of fierce competition for an electorate still wondering “Why not Tharman?”
Yet events since then, including an apparently successful cadre revolt in 2018 when it seemed like Chan would get the nod over (the more popular) Heng, and now this latest post-election round of candidate perturbations, which has seen Lawrence floating up again, together indicate that succession planning within the PAP is being democratised.
The old wise men at the top have less control. Not only are the 3,000-odd voting cadres themselves more influential in the process—not as malleable and obedient as before—but arguably so is the PAP’s supporting cast, including the mainstream media.
That is the first reason why Lawrence’s re-emergence as a potential future prime minister gives me hope in Singapore’s political evolution. The second has to do with leadership styles, what one friend has called Singapore’s preference for heroic leadership models versus team leadership ones.
There are many here who believe that small, “vulnerable” Singapore forever needs a strong, decisive leader. Yet there are also many of us who think that, at this stage of our socio-political development, somebody with a more collaborative, consensual style is needed to manage the contestations within an increasingly diverse society.
Lawrence’s fans would say that he represents that shift from hero to team. So would those of my next and final profile, Pritam Singh.
Pritam Singh, 44, leader of the opposition
Nine years is a long time in politics.
In 2011, the PAP lost a GRC for the first time to a Workers’ Party (WP) team led by Low Thia Khiang, the Teochew-speaking opposition stalwart in parliament since 1991. Despite the palpable excitement among Singaporeans disillusioned with the PAP’s hegemony, Low and the WP were still seen mostly as bastions of the Chinese heartland centred in the Aljunied-Hougang area.
The WP’s older history includes leaders like founder David Marshall, a Jew, and JB Jeyaretnam (JBJ), a Tamil. But in 2011 the WP was not considered a broad-based political movement that might appeal to all constituent groups. Any suggestion that the WP would in 2020 be led by a young South Asian would have been met with derision.
Yet here we are. While the PAP has botched its own succession plans, Low, 64, has executed a seamless leadership transition to Pritam Singh, 44. This represents both an ethnocultural and generational shift (as Low describes here). In the process the WP has shown that Singaporeans are far less race- and colour-conscious than the PAP claims.
Social media videos of WP fans celebrating on July 10th (election night), with groups of Chinese chanting “Pritam Singh! Pritam Singh!”, was the most buoyant, energising display of Singaporean multiculturalism I’ve watched in recent times. It was unique in its spontaneity and verve, quite the opposite of the soporific, manufactured pageantry of government-sponsored initiatives like Racial Harmony Day.
The WP’s successful elevation of Pritam is a rebuke to the PAP’s sidelining of Tharman. While the PAP doesn’t even have the confidence to appoint Tharman, a Tamil from the dominant South Asian ethnic group, the WP has anointed, as one friend jokes, a “minority within a minority within a minority”.
Pritam is a South Asian (minority in Singapore) who belongs to the Sikh faith (minority among South Asians) but does not wear a turban (minority among Sikh leaders, if not all Sikhs.)
Indeed one of the major political stories of 2020 is how quickly Pritam’s star has risen, particularly in relation to Tharman’s seeming decline. Many Singaporeans I meet, from old political junkies to students only just feeling an awakening, are now closely following Pritam’s every action and word. To them Tharman is just so yesterday.
Like Lawrence, Pritam does not come armed with a CV full of brand name schools. Following his PSLE, he entered the “Normal” stream at Saint Thomas Secondary School before he, in his words, “bumbled” his way to Jurong Junior College and then the National University of Singapore (NUS). He later completed a Diploma in Islamic Studies from the International Islamic University Malaysia.
Always keen on law, Pritam then completed a juris doctor degree at the Singapore Management University (SMU) and qualified for the bar in 2011, the same year of that seminal election, a juggling feat that SMU crows about on its website: “survived the second and final year of law school, running for parliamentary elections at the same time”.
Several recent incidents have offered proof that Pritam is blossoming into an ideal leader for his party, and quite possibly Singapore. First were his comments in the wake of 2019’s brown face brouhaha, which saw a Chinese actor painting his face brown for a government-sponsored advertisement.
While the PAP’s Janil Puthucheary and K Shanmugam could only muster somewhat tepid responses, Pritam managed to capture the complexities and tensions that exist in a society with such varying definitions of racism. He showed a capacity for empathy and nuance that is so often missing from Singaporean politicians, but that has become the hallmark of popular young leaders around the world, such as New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern.
Second, Pritam’s show of solidarity and support towards fellow WP candidate Raeesah Khan ahead of the last election won him many plaudits, including from PAP fans like Clement Chio: “He [Pritam] didn’t throw anybody under the bus. He didn’t write it off by telling people to let her ‘prove herself’. He didn’t comment from a distance saying she should ‘come out and clarify these comments’.“
Chio, and others, were drawing parallels to the PAP’s (and perhaps Tharman’s) rather ambivalent attitude towards Ivan Lim, who had been forced to drop out of the election after heavy criticism of his character by former colleagues and acquaintances.
The irony is that the PAP and its fans had attempted to smear Raeesah for old social media posts in which she attacks the perceived privilege of rich Chinese and Whites in Singapore; but instead all they did is provide Pritam an opportunity to prove his leadership chops and demonstrate the seemingly greater cohesion within the WP.
Third was Pritam’s parliamentary performance in September, in which he responded with clarity, guile and gusto to Lee Hsien Loong’s awful characterisation of a segment of opposition voters as “free riders”. Pritam expertly managed to lure Lee into misappropriating a basic microeconomics concept. (I explain Lee’s error here.)
It was the sort of verbal jousting that other party elders like Low and Sylvia Lim have, for different reasons, never been able to do. Not since JBJ, I think, has an opposition politician managed to get under Lee’s skin like that. (Video below.)
After the recent election, many analysts had wondered if Singaporeans would remain engaged in political life or if, as is tradition, we would return to a sort of post-election apathy. The intense interest in Lee vs Pritam was perhaps one clue that ordinary voters are more plugged-in than ever before.
I’ve always liked Pritam but can’t say I was ever a big fanboy, more a mellow follower. But that was the day I really sat up and took notice. He’s finally coming into his own, I remember thinking.
Though the WP still has a comparatively small parliamentary presence—with just ten of the ninety-three elected seats—for the first time in our history, Singaporeans actually feel there is a real credible alternative to the PAP in the making. Everything from the party’s electoral machinery to Pritam’s growing assertiveness in parliament inspire confidence.
Even if the PAP remains in power for a long time more, the presence of a viable backup will boost Singapore’s political resilience.
This is something to cheer.
top image: Nike’s new campaign for the Singapore Lions, our football team. And yes, Lawrence and Pritam are both football fans.
This is the last of a five-part leadership series. See here for the first. If you have enjoyed this series, please consider making a donation here to support my future work.
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Watch Pritam’s brilliant rebuttal to Lee’s awful “free rider” smear at 1:45:30
On the Leader of the Opposition. After the election Lee gave Pritam an official title, Leader of the Opposition (LO). Though in keeping with parliamentary practices elsewhere, this is the first time independent Singapore has had an LO.
The impact of this move—the mainstreaming of the opposition—should not be underestimated. Foreign diplomats and firms have told me that it is now much easier, in terms of optics, for them to openly meet Pritam and other WP members. And also much more important; anybody wanting to understand the future of Singapore’s political dynamics and policy debates can no longer ignore the WP. We now see the beginnings of a two-party state.
Why did Lee so quickly award Pritam the title of LO? The charitable view is that he also sees the value of a stronger opposition in terms of Singapore’s resilience.
Yet there is little evidence of this. Lee’s comments over the years suggest that he is a firm believer in a one-party state, and considers the opposition to be more of a nuisance than a contributor to Singapore.
Other theories I’ve heard point to a more calculated electoral strategy by Lee and the PAP. The first is a desire to co-opt Pritam into the ranks of establishment high-earners. This possibly explains the grating annoyance among many PAP members when they found out that Pritam was going to give away half his post-tax LO increment.
“They tried to ‘buy’ him out,” one analyst told me. “And he threw the money back in their faces.”
The second has to do with co-opting the WP and thus ostracising the other opposition parties. In many ways, the PAP and WP are the two parties closest to each other on the ideological spectrum—the WP just “half a step to the left” of the PAP, in Vivian Balakrishnan’s memorable quip.
By mainstreaming the WP, the PAP has been etching the outlines around what it considers to be an “acceptable” opposition. Nothing too radical, nothing too fiery.
“Why does the PM get to decide who the leader of the opposition is?” one long-time supporter of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) complained to me. “Pritam is not my leader.”
The easy response to that is that the SDP isn’t in parliament. The LO is thus not its leader, but only of those inside, including two NCMPs from the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), who for practical matters seem to accept his position. Yet it does speak to the fact that currently the LO is not an institutionalised role, but completely at the discretion of the PM. There today, it could be gone tomorrow. (Good way to keep ‘em in check?)
In any case, by driving a wedge between the WP and the other opposition parties—seemingly an ongoing process for many years now—the PAP reduces the risk that it might be booted out of power. If in a future election the PAP fails to secure a parliamentary majority, the most likely scenario is that it forms a minority government or some loose alliance with the WP (as treacherous as that must now sound to both PAP and WP loyalists).
What seems far less likely to me is an opposition alliance, for example between the WP, SDP and PSP, that would keep the PAP out of power. The awarding of the LO may further reduce the risk of this to the PAP.
Finally, with the creation of the LO post, the burden of responsibility on its holder increases dramatically. Pritam is probably going to be scored on a new report card, one fundamentally different in structure to every previous opposition leader. Perhaps a WP shadow cabinet will have to show fair scrutiny of each and every policy.
“See, we gave them the title and the money, and what do they have to show? You can’t trust them with power.” It seems likely that the PAP will ask some variant of this ahead of the next election.
Personally, I was a bit disappointed when Pritam gave away the money. I felt he should have directed it all towards strengthening the party, perhaps even deeper policy research. For years I’ve heard comments about the WP not having sufficient resources to do all it wants to—so why give away money now?
That said, I suspect that the WP’s growing brand recognition has made it easier for it to attract money and talent. So, for now, as a fan, I’ll assume Pritam knows best.
From his Facebook post on the matter:
“After putting the girls to bed, my wife and I knew there were some things we wanted to talk about arising from the LO appointment. Amongst other things, we spoke about what the salary increase would mean for our family. Both of us felt strongly that a percentage of the salary should be used for a greater purpose.
Accordingly, I will allocate 50% of the LO salary, after taxes, for the following purposes:
1. To assist low-income residents in Hougang SMC, Aljunied GRC and Sengkang GRC through the WP Community Fund (WPCF) and/or the WP Grassroots Committee; or
2. Community programs in Hougang SMC, Aljunied GRC, Sengkang GRC; or
3. Charitable or worthy causes; or
4. Workers’ Party specific needs.”
On meritocracy, recruitment and candidate selection at The Workers’ Party (WP). One old saying I’ve heard, perhaps half in jest, is that WP members must walk the ground for three election cycles before they can be considered as political candidates. This points to the great influence within the party of older cadres and long-time volunteers.
But that was in the past. In recent years there are many signs that the party is professionalising its recruitment and striving for merit-based promotions. The elevation of Pritam as leader is one sign. The rise of Nicole Seah, fielded as a candidate only a few years after joining the WP, and now a part of the party’s central executive committee (CEC), is another.
While newbies still have to be tested on the ground, of course, there is relatively less emphasis on longevity. Presumably this shift could not have been easy, with some old-timers sidelined. Kudos to Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim for overseeing it.
To think of all this another way, even as meritocracy seems to be on the wane at the PAP (see Tharman, see Ivan Lim), it seems to be on the rise at the WP.
This has occured, of course, in tandem with the electorate’s growing enthusiasm for the WP. For a young aspiring politician—their own ideologies aside—the WP probably today appears like the much more attractive vehicle.
On my grad school years, 2003-05, the time I met Lawrence. Separately, that was also the period when I, during holidays, first got involved in grassroots work, assisting Vivian Balakrishnan with his meet-the-people sessions at Ulu Pandan.
That experience gave me the benefit of interactions with the people at the bottom of this Darwininan society, those whom Singapore was (and is) failing, people whom I’d never ordinarily meet while trapped within my elite school bubble.
On pointing out Lawrence’s and Pritam’s flaws. One criticism from readers of these two profiles is that they are less balanced than the ones before. Because I don’t talk enough about the Lawrence’s and Pritam’s flaws.
Guilty as charged. As I alluded to at the top, aside from one or two random anecdotes (like “Lawrence is neither collaborative nor consensual”), I don’t have enough to go on. Hopefully by the time of the next election I will.
The closest I’ve come to a critique, I guess, is satirising Lawrence’s comments, when Singapore first separated the pandemic’s “Community cases” from “Dormitory cases”.
…and to round off the series, three final thoughts unrelated to the profiles above
A break from the Lees. Arguably the best thing that can happen to Singapore is for us to see the back of the entire Lee family: Hsien Loong to leave politics; Ho Ching to leave Temasek; and Hongyi never to be considered. (Nor, for that matter, Hsien Yang or Shengwu.)
I do of course hope that Singapore finds a place for all of them, as well as Lee Suet Fern. There are numerous ways that they all can and should keep contributing—universities, museums, etc.—without being near the levers of real power.
This is an essential part of the country’s socio-political transition. Among many other reasons, society needs to have a frank discussion about Lee Kuan Yew and his legacy.
Indeed, many of my pro-PAP readers repeatedly tell me to push this narrative. Many in the party agree with this but feel they cannot say it.
The fact that the leadership crisis necessitates Lee staying on is a cause of great consternation to many.
(I consciously say “break”, rather than “end”, because like the Parks in South Korea or the Kennedys in the US, the Lees might produce politicians for generations to come. But do give us a break. No “minister mentor”, “Temasek mentor” or other cute workarounds, please. Just give us a proper break.)
The PAP’s intra-party factionalism. “…the PAP is not rigidly factionalised along personality lines. Such factionalism can often stymie the ability of reformists to enact reforms from within. The PAP does not suffer from this structural disadvantage…”
– Cherian George and Donald Low, in “PAP v. PAP: The Party’s struggle to adapt to a changing Singapore“
There aren’t too many times I’d disagree with Cherian and Donald, but here I must. While factionalism is not as apparent as in parties elsewhere, it appears to be growing dramatically.
I have been writing about Singaporean politics publicly for twelve years now. Though I have always had fans within the PAP, they have never, aside from the odd laudatory or critical note, revealed personal preferences to me.
That changed this year. Alliances and preferences are more obvious. So are agendas. That doesn’t necessarily mean a “split” is coming, but simply that cohesion among the leaders may be weakening.
When the tide was turning against Josephine Teo last April, for instance, I heard many PAP supporters calling for her head, lobbying for commentators to turn up the heat against her. Many in the party believe her to be plainly incompetent based on her perceived mishandling of the migrant worker dormitory situation.
It was effectively her call, apparently, to keep the workers working and mingling and mixing, because she was afraid to crimp Singapore’s economic engine, to tarnish Brand Singapore. She apparently ignored numerous warnings of the impending disaster.
It may be years before we find out if all this is true or whether others are simply scapegoating her.
Singapore’s leadership models. Friends want me to delve much deeper into this, but unfortunately it is beyond the scope of my series. I will flag two of the many important questions here.
LKY built this rigid party and political system into which successors have to fit. Is it time to re-examine the system itself? Related issues about the PAP’s Leninist structure, democratic centralism, the administrative state, Hero vs Team leadership models, the virtues of bureaucrats (like Heng and Lawrence) versus others.
Is it time for Singapore to embrace a leader, like Lawrence or Pritam, who does not come from the Hwa Chong/Raffles cabal? Related issues about Chinese male scholars as the most viable phenotype.
8 thoughts on “Singapore’s leadership crisis: Lawrence and Pritam”
The previous leaders of WP – Marshall and JBJ were non-Chinese. So, I won’t characterize it as a bastion of the Chinese heartland, even if Low was able to muster support with his Teochew oratory.
Of course. Was referring in original article to recent times. Will add a clarification! Thank you.
Thanks for an entertaining and insightful read, as usual. For what it’s worth, I think proportional representation is a much fairer system. I’ve been amazed at the gerrymandering in Singapore. Almost as bad as the USA!
On an unrelated note, is there any cheaper online payment you can get? Ever thought it setting up a Patreon or similar?
Keep up the good work. I’ll get over the 4% fee someday and donate.
Hi Sudhir, I really enjoyed reading your blog. We all functioned from our own biased view point. For me I don’t think democracy can really work in Asia. Look at India and Indonesia or perhaps the Philippines. What about USA and Europe, they are starting to breksown. The saying the pen is mightier than the sword. I hope to see you write about how we can united and not devided. By the way the LGBT is not weak as you described them.
Keep writing. Hope to see more balance view.
Hi Sudhir, I enjoyed reading your work. Interesting that you mentioned Pritam. I never had a good impression of him. He came across as a noisy firebrand politician (remember that time when he refused to answer any questions relating to ahpetc in parliament?). But I grew to like him. When he raised his hand and took the stage to debate PM Lee, I felt slightly nervous for him. Now that he was formally recognised with a parliamentary role, standards expected of him were high. Would he crumble under the pressure of being Singapore’s first ever Leader of the Opposition? But when he took on PM Lee with such conviction and gusto, I thought to myself, “wow, Pritam is actually going toe-to-toe with the Prime Minister.”
Pritam as Prime Minister is a long shot really. The PAP still remains an enormous political machinery for many decades to come. But one thing is for sure, Pritam will set a high bar for future Leaders of the Opposition. I’m young and I will be following Pritam’s and the WP’s politics intently.
Hi Sudhir, thanks for your work. Interesting that you mentioned Pritam. I never had a good impression of him. He came across as a noisy firebrand politician (remember that time when he refused to answer any questions relating to ahpetc in parliament?). But I grew to like him. When he raised his hand and took the stage to debate PM Lee, I felt slightly nervous for him. Now that he was formally recognised with a parliamentary role, standards expected of him were high. Would he crumble under the pressure of being Singapore’s first ever Leader of the Opposition? But when he took on PM Lee with such conviction and gusto, I thought to myself, “wow, Pritam is actually going toe-to-toe with the Prime Minister.”
Pritam as Prime Minister is a long shot really. The PAP still remains an enormous political machinery for many decades to come. But I’m sure Pritam will set a high bar for future Leaders of the Opposition. I’m young and I’ll be following Pritam’s and the WP’s politics intently.