Singapore PM Succession Setback

What are the consequences of Heng Swee Keat’s decision to step aside as 4G leader-in-waiting?

On April 8, the designated successor of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, announced his decision to step aside as the next leader of the city-state. He said it would be in the best interest of the whole nation to have a leader with a sufficiently long runway – long enough to “not only rebuild Singapore post-COVID-19, but also lead the next phase of our nation-building effort.”

The question of who would succeed Lee had been a question until Heng was appointed as deputy prime minister two years ago. Now, his decision to quit the line is a setback. The move raises a series of questions on the timing and implications of the move, including the big one: Who will follow Lee as prime minister?

Before we look at why Heng announced his decision at this moment, it is reasonable to point out that he might not have relinquished his leadership ambitions if there was no pandemic. Indeed, COVID-19 has brought tremendous changes and challenges to all countries, and Singapore is no exception. In 2020, Singapore’s GDP shrank 5.4 percent. Though that was better than expected, the performance is still the worst ever.

Led by Heng, who is also the minister of finance, Singapore crafted four budgets in 2020 to avert the country’s economic losses. These budgets totalled to SG$92.9 billion. Recently, Heng has announced annual budget for 2021; the total expenditure is expected to be SG$102.36 billion. Leading the charged to draft all these budgets is no easy task. Heng needed to convince his fellow ministers, members of the Parliament, as well as the public that spending this large amount of money is a must.

Besides his work in the ministry of finance, Heng also chairs the Future Economy Council (FEC), which is responsible for driving the growth and transformation of Singapore’s economy for the long term. The FEC’s task was crucial for Singapore even before the outbreak of the coronavirus. Since the epidemic has plunged the country and the whole world into a deep recession, figuring out how to revive and transform the economy becomes not only critical but extremely urgent. As the chairperson of the FEC, Heng has shouldered a massive new pressure and responsibility.

Singapore PM Succession Setback
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat speaks during the Press Conference on Leadership Transition, Apr. 8, 2021.Credit: Screenshot of Video from Singapore Prime Minister’s Office

As Heng has mentioned in the Press Conference on Leadership Transition, he has been thinking about whether he has the ability to shoulder all these tasks since he was chosen as the successor in 2018. If there was no pandemic, the task would be relatively easier; presumably, he would have become the prime minister this year. However, the ongoing pandemic has not only made Heng’s work more challenging but also disrupted the original succession plan. It is unclear that for how long Lee will remain in power, even if this is solely determined by the development of the pandemic. Throughout the whole year of fighting COVID-19, Heng must have been aware of how difficult his task is – and would be as prime minister.

The previous prime ministers of Singapore have all served more than 10 years (Lee Kuan Yew served 25 years, Goh Chok Tong 14 years, and Lee Hsien Loong has served 17 years). Given that, the expectation is that the next leader of Singapore will stay for a long term to better rebuild the lion state in the post-pandemic era. However, Heng will turn 60 this year and he had a stroke in 2016. It seems that his age and health history make him less able to serve for a long tenure. Therefore, after finishing the work on 2021 annual budget and before the regular cabinet reshuffle of the year, Heng announced his decision to step aside.

Although a new successor will be appointed, it is unlikely to bring any inconsistency or change in the government’s policy. In other words, the change of succession plan will not have a huge impact on Singapore’s future development. First, Lee Hsien Loong is still the prime minister of the country. Lee repeated that he has no intention of staying on longer than necessary; however, it remains unclear what timeframe he means by “necessary.” Even though his staying in power is solely determined by the readiness of the fourth generation (4G) leadership team or developments in the pandemic, it is likely that he will remain as prime minister for several more years. Given Heng’s decision, Lee may stay longer than planned.

Second, Heng’s decision to relinquish his chance at the top leadership slot does not mean that he is quitting the 4G team. On the contrary, expect him to continue to play an active role in government. He will continue to be the deputy prime minister, coordinating minister for economic policies, chairman of the National Research Foundation, and co-chair of the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation between China and Singapore. In the People’s Action Party, he remains as the first assistant secretary-general. What’s more, Heng even confirmed that he will compete in next general election, which will take place in 2025. Last but not least, since the core members of 4G team remain unchanged, the change of successor is not likely to cause any big shifts in policy.

Scholars and observers have pointed out that there are four main contenders for the new successor: Chan Chun Sing (51 years old), the minister of trade and industry; Ong Ye Kung (51), the minister for transport; Lawrence Wong (48), the minister of education and second minister for finance; and Desmond Lee (44), the minister for national development and minister-in-charge of social services integration. All of them are much younger than Heng. Chan and Ong were both considered before Heng was finally selected as leader-in-waiting two years ago.

Some opine that Chan is the favorite among the four. However, Singaporeans have polarized views on him. In the petition website, change.com, more people signed up to support “Say NO to Chan Chun Sing for PM!” than those who voted for “Say YES to Chan Chun Sing for PM!”Critics complain that Chan lacks maturity, intelligence, communication skills, and empathy for the common people. Among the four candidates, Wong and Lee are relatively new to the public, but it’s worth noticing that Wong spoke in the Press Conference on Leadership Transition as the representative of the 4G team. He provided the briefing on the discussion over Heng’s decision.

The answer to who will be the new successor may take a while to be clear, but the cabinet reshuffle two weeks from now will provide us some hints. Since Heng will not be minister of finance anymore, the identity of the new minister of finance may provide useful information on the issue.

By Li Xirui (S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University) and Dingding Chen (Intellisia Institute) – THE DIPLOMAT

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