Heng Swee Keat says succession is all about teamwork

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat in his first interview since returning to work after suffering a stroke in May.
Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat in his first interview since returning to work after suffering a stroke in May. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

His name has often surfaced as a front runner to take over when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong steps down. So when Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat had a stroke, it inevitably stoked discussion about his role in the future leadership team.

During an interview last Tuesday, Mr Heng declined to discuss who would lead Singapore next.

"That is a hypothetical question. I will not go into that," he said when asked if he would accept the position if picked.

He, however, suggested that steering Singapore is about teamwork.

"A lot of it is really to make sure that we all pitch in and we all support one another, not just the fourth-generation leaders among ourselves, but also with all fellow members of the Cabinet and with the broader institutions in Singapore," he said.

Succession planning took on a renewed urgency after PM Lee repeated several times his plans to retire some time after the next general election, which must be held by April 2021. Concerns were raised when Mr Heng had a stroke in May and PM Lee almost fainted when delivering this year's National Day Rally speech in August.

 
 

Mr Heng said the younger ministers have been getting their feet wet in the various ministries they have been rotated through, part of the preparation to take over. "I think they have all done well."

Mr Heng himself held the education portfolio before his current appointment, and was also put in charge of key assignments such as the 2013 feedback exercise Our Singapore Conversation, the SG50 celebrations last year, and the Committee on the Future Economy, tasked to come up with strategies to prepare the workforce and economy for upcoming challenges.

"It's not just about your individual work, but it is how we connect with Singaporeans and how we do the right things to make sure we have the right policies that will enable us to navigate to a better future," he said.

In the ruling People's Action Party, each generation decides among itself who will lead its team. Both prime ministers after the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew - Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and PM Lee - had taken on the premiership with the support of their peers.

PM Lee said as much when he pointed out that the fourth prime minister will be chosen the same way. Just three years after taking over, he had said he would not anoint his successor.

Besides Mr Heng, others identified as core members of the next team include Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and labour chief Chan Chun Sing, Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin and Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong.

Asked if the team had started discussing who should be PM, Mr Heng was tight-lipped. Breaking into a slight smile, he said firmly: "I shall not veer into this." But ultimately, he said, what matters is the trust and confidence Singaporeans have in the team that will lead the country. "If we are united and cohesive and have a sense of direction, we can get there."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 18, 2016, with the headline 'Heng coy on succession, says it's all about teamwork'. Print Edition | Subscribe