Heng Swee Keat to bear more political responsibilities as Singapore's No. 2: PM Lee

Incoming deputy prime minister Heng Swee Keat will shoulder greater political responsibilities as Singapore's No. 2, and these would involve setting the agenda, setting out the Government's position and policies to the people, and building his team.

These are his key tasks, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at an interview with Singapore reporters in Beijing yesterday, when asked if Mr Heng would take on more leading roles, including in the general election that has to be held by April 2021.

Mr Heng, the Finance Minister, will be Singapore's sole deputy prime minister from tomorrow.

He told reporters on Sunday that as DPM, he would assist PM Lee on reviewing longer-term policies on issues such as the ageing population and economic restructuring.

PM Lee said yesterday that Mr Heng had "understated" his responsibilities. "He is taking on as DPM. He is not just a minister, but also carrying more of the political responsibilities. And that means setting the agenda, pitching the Government's stance and policies to the public, building the younger team, and being ready in all respects to take over from me and my older ministers as soon as possible."

The Prime Minister's Office had announced the widely anticipated reshuffle of the Cabinet last Tuesday, which saw Mr Heng promoted to deputy prime minister.

Both DPMs Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam will then become senior ministers.

 
 
 
 

WORKING TO TIMELINE

My preferred timeline is I have this thing cleared before the general election and within the next term, by the time I'm 70, I hope to have handed over to my successor. I'm working to that timeline.

PRIME MINISTER LEE HSIEN LOONG, on the handover.

During the wrap-up interview of his working visit to China, PM Lee said it was a "natural follow-up" for Mr Heng to be the deputy prime minister as he had already been appointed first assistant secretary-general of the ruling People's Action Party at its party conference last November.

He was picked by the 4G leaders to lead them, and these younger ministers have also endorsed his choice of deputy, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing, said the Prime Minister. It is a "strong position" to be in, he added.

Observers have noted that by appointing Mr Heng as the sole deputy prime minister, the Government was sending a clear signal he was the heir apparent.

Asked why there was only one deputy prime minister when the prime minister typically has two deputies, PM Lee said that across Singapore's history, there were times when the country had either one or two deputy prime ministers.

Singapore used to have one deputy prime minister until 1980, when Dr Goh Keng Swee was the deputy of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. Mr S. Rajaratnam was appointed second deputy prime minister in June that year.

Since then, there have been two deputy prime ministers in Cabinet apart from a two-year stretch from September 1993, when former DPM Ong Teng Cheong became president.

 

PM Lee also said yesterday that having one Deputy PM was a natural progression from recent changes to the party leadership.

“Sometimes we have had two, sometimes we have had one. Most of the time, we have had two,” he said.

“Right now, we have one. So it is a natural progression from the party leadership adjustments last year, but it is not the final position and we will make further adjustments as we go along.”

But that would not happen this year, which means there would be no second deputy prime minister before the year end.

"I usually make Cabinet adjustments or reshuffles every year so I don't think I will change it again by the end of this year," he said.

But he hopes the leadership transition will be settled before the next general election, reiterating his intention to hand over his post by the time he turns 70 in 2022.

"Within the next term, by the time I'm 70, I hope to have handed over to my successor. I'm working to that timeline," he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2019, with the headline 'Heng to bear more political responsibilities as S'pore's No. 2: PM Lee'. Print Edition | Subscribe