SINGAPORE – Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, 57, has been picked as first assistant secretary-general of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), making him the most likely candidate to be Singapore’s next prime minister.
With Mr Heng’s appointment, the party’s 4G leaders provided the answer to the pressing question of who will succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to lead the country.
It also confirms media reports on Mr Heng’s pole position in the party leadership, which was announced on Friday (Nov 23) when the PAP unveiled the slate of office-holders for its top decision-making body ahead of a press conference at its Bedok headquarters.
Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing was selected as second assistant secretary-general, while the Central Executive Committee (CEC) picked Health Minister Gan Kim Yong as party chairman. PM Lee remains party secretary-general.
Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli becomes party vice-chairman, while Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam assumes the post of treasurer.
Education Minister Ong Ye Kung is assistant treasurer, while Culture, Community and Youth Minister Grace Fu and Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee are both organising secretaries.
Mr Desmond Lee is one of four members co-opted to the CEC. The others are National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, and backbenchers Sitoh Yih Pin and Christopher de Souza.
PM Lee said the election of the new CEC is “a major step forward in our political renewal”.
The younger ministers and political office holders have been meeting in recent months to discuss who should lead them, he wrote in a Facebook post on PAP’s page. “They have reached a consensus that Heng Swee Keat will be their leader. In turn, Heng Swee Keat has asked Chan Chun Sing to be his number two,” he said.
Mr Lee said that leadership transition is always a complex and delicate matter.
“The younger ministers themselves must decide who is to lead them, as they have done in this process. This way, they will give their full support to the leader whom they themselves have chosen.
“I support the decision of the younger team, and am happy with this outcome,” he said.
On Mr Heng and Mr Chan, PM Lee said he has watched them grow in their different responsibilities. “They have complementary strengths, and make a strong pairing.”
He added: “A smooth transition to the new team to lead us beyond the next elections is important not only for the PAP, but also for Singapore’s future. The older Ministers and I will do our best to help the new team succeed. As I told the Party conference, I will announce Cabinet changes in due course.”
Mr Heng’s political future had come under serious doubt when he suffered a stroke during a Cabinet meeting in May 2016. But he made a miraculous recovery and resumed his duties as Finance Minister more than three months after the stroke.
Political analyst Mustafa Izzuddin reckons Mr Heng ultimately pipped Mr Chan to the post of first assistant secretary-general due in part to his seniority and greater experience.
Leadership succession in the PAP has typically seen the first assistant secretary-general rising to eventually become the prime minister.
Both prime ministers who came after founding PM Lee Kuan Yew had occupied the post. They are Mr Goh Chok Tong, who was Singapore’s second prime minister, and current PM Lee Hsien Loong. Their deputies subsequently occupied the post of first assistant secretary-general when they moved up to lead the party and country.
Mr Heng and Mr Chan, both of whom will fill the posts vacated by Deputy Prime Ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, were among those whom cadres voted into the party’s CEC at its biennial election two weeks ago.
They were also among seven names the outgoing CEC had listed as being its top choices for the party leadership going forward.
The urgency of leadership succession in the PAP came to the fore late last year, when Emeritus Senior Minister Goh wrote in a Facebook post on New Year’s Eve that he hoped the 4G cohort could pick a leader among them in six to nine months’ time.
Mr Goh also wanted to see PM Lee formally designate his potential successor by the end of 2018.
Responding several days later, the 4G leaders said they would pick a leader among themselves “in good time”.
At that time, observers had said there were three front runners to succeed PM Lee: Mr Heng, Mr Chan, and Mr Ong.
PM Lee had earlier said in October 2017 that he intends to hand over the reins of government to his successor by the time he turns 70, which will be in 2022.
This means Mr Heng, as the likely prime minister-in-waiting, will have the shortest run-up phase. Set to be named deputy prime minister at the next Cabinet reshuffle, he will have fewer than five years to prepare to be the Prime Minister.
PM Lee was deputy prime minister for 14 years, while Mr Goh spent five years as first deputy prime minister.
Mr Heng, a former public servant, entered politics in 2011 and was elected MP in Tampines GRC at the general election in May that year.
He was made education minister and held the portfolio until 2015 when he became finance minister.
Before joining politics, he was the managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, where he helped navigate Singapore’s financial system through the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.
He had an eminent career in the public service and held, among other roles, the position of permanent secretary of the Trade and Industry Ministry, chief executive of the former Trade Development Board, and principal private secretary to then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
In his 2013 book One Man’s View Of The World, the late Mr Lee described Mr Heng as the best principal private secretary he ever had.
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