Heng Swee Keat to lead key council with younger ministers

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat at the Annual May Day Rally at Our Tampines Hub on May 1, 2017.
Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat at the Annual May Day Rally at Our Tampines Hub on May 1, 2017.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Future Economy Council's transformative task a chance for 4G leaders to work as a team: PM

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat will take over the helm of a national council overseeing skills and innovation from Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the change in his May Day Rally yesterday. The Council for Skills, Innovation and Productivity (CSIP) will also be renamed the Future Economy Council.

Also on the council are Minister for Trade and Industry (Industry) S. Iswaran, National Trades Union Congress secretary-general Chan Chun Sing, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung, Minister for National Development and Second Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, and other ministers and ministers of state - especially the younger ones.

"I am putting them in charge of this strategic effort. It is a deep transformation. It will take time. It will extend beyond this term of government," Mr Lee said.

"It is an opportunity for the younger ministers to work closely together as a team, strengthen their bonds with employers and unions, and with each other, and show Singaporeans what they can do. It is their generation of leadership who will have to work with Singaporeans to take the country to new heights."

Observers said the team of 4G or fourth-generation ministers that Mr Lee has put in charge of Singapore's economic transformation - a hot-button issue amid slowing growth and concerns over jobs - will be key members of the next leadership.

Mr Heng was the intuitive choice for council chairman, said Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan. Having chaired the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE), Mr Heng is familiar with its recommendations which outlined strategies to acquire skills, innovate and transform in a more challenging economic landscape.

Associate Professor Tan added: "Mr Heng can be regarded as the economic czar in the 4G leadership and so he's best placed for the task of engineering the transformation."

Observers said the appointment also signals that Mr Heng, who suffered a stroke in May last year, is back in the thick of things.

The Future Economy Council is also expected to be a valuable platform for younger leaders to cut their teeth on economic matters.

ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Norshahril Saat said the council and the latest Cabinet changes, are "the strongest indication yet of leadership renewal picking up pace".

He noted that finance and trade and industry are among the most important portfolios, and that both Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and Mr Lee have overseen these areas.

Mr Lee is also signalling that the future economy endeavour is one where Singapore cannot fail in - hence the strong team of ministers to get the job done, said Prof Tan. "It's an attempt to enhance confidence of employers, unions, and investors that Singapore is determined to be the economy of choice," he said.

The tripartite CSIP was set up last year to lead efforts to develop skills for the future, and boost productivity and innovation. The CFE, co-chaired by Mr Iswaran in Mr Heng's absence, has also consulted widely and released its report.

Mr Lee said the CFE's recommendations, including Industry Transformation Maps for how businesses and workers in 23 key sectors can thrive, need to be implemented to take Singapore's economy forward.

Mr Heng told reporters yesterday that the council will look at how the ideas in the CFE report can best be implemented. More details will be announced when ready.

He said the council will focus on two areas: tackling issues that can uplift the entire economy, such as in the areas of skills and productivity, and innovation and internalisation; and tailoring responses to the needs of each industry.

"To transform the economy, we will need everyone - workers, employers, Government - to work closely together," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2017, with the headline 'Swee Keat to lead key council with younger ministers'. Print Edition | Subscribe