What's next for PAP and S'pore with DPM Heng stepping aside as 4G leader

Members of the PAP's 4G leadership team after a press conference at the party's headquarters in Bedok in 2018. From left: Mr Christopher de Souza, Mr Sitoh Yih Pin, Dr Maliki Osman, Ms Indranee Rajah, Mr Chan Chun Sing, Mr Heng Swee Keat, Dr Vivian B
Members of the PAP's 4G leadership team after a press conference at the party's headquarters in Bedok in 2018. From left: Mr Christopher de Souza, Mr Sitoh Yih Pin, Dr Maliki Osman, Ms Indranee Rajah, Mr Chan Chun Sing, Mr Heng Swee Keat, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan (back to camera) and Ms Grace Fu. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

SINGAPORE - Singaporeans' social media accounts and chat groups have been busy since news broke last Thursday (April 8) that Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat would step aside as leader of the People's Action Party's fourth-generation team.

What are the implications of his move? We tackle the key questions.

1. How did the 4G get its name?

From the 1G to the 4G, the "G" was coined by political observers to denote each generational change in leadership for different prime ministers' Cabinets.

The term is inexact, given that each of Singapore's three prime ministers so far has had a mix of ministers who were new to politics and young, as well as older and more experienced. Several ministers also served in the Cabinets of more than one PM.

Founding PM Lee Kuan Yew's team was the 1G leadership, though that term is seldom used. Mr Lee's key Cabinet colleagues, more commonly referred to as the Old Guard, included Messrs Goh Keng Swee, S. Rajaratnam and Toh Chin Chye.

In the latter half of the 1970s, Mr Lee - who became PM at the age of 35 - brought into his team younger people whom he hoped to test out to form the next generation of leaders, such as Mr Goh Chok Tong, Dr Tony Tan and Mr Ong Teng Cheong.

Mr Goh became PM in 1990 when he was 49 and stepped down in 2004. His generation of leaders became known as the 2G.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who entered politics in 1984 and became PM in 2004 at the age of 52, would go on to form his 3G team of key ministers, including Mr Teo Chee Hean, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Mr Lim Hng Kiang.

2. Who are in the 4G?

Key 4G leaders include Mr Heng Swee Keat, Mr Chan Chun Sing, Ms Grace Fu, Mr Lawrence Wong, Mr Ong Ye Kung, Mr Desmond Lee and Mr Masagos Zulkifli.

Mr Heng and Mr Chan are the first and second assistant secretaries-general, respectively, of the People's Action Party's 36th and current central executive committee (CEC), the party's top decision-making body.

The composition of the CEC after its 2018 internal elections signalled to observers that 4G leaders were coming into their own, with then deputy prime ministers Teo and Tharman no longer standing for election.

The role of secretary-general of the PAP is traditionally held by the PM. Mr Heng's appointment as first assistant secretary-general indicated that he was the PM-in-waiting.

3. What are the implications of DPM Heng stepping aside?

The PAP's leadership transition has been set back and the succession question blown wide open with Mr Heng bowing out as successor to PM Lee - an unprecedented move, and which came 2½ years after ministers and Members of Parliament issued a joint statement of support for him.

Speculation is rife as to the reasons for Mr Heng's decision.

PM Lee, in a letter to Mr Heng, said: "I thank you for your selfless decision to stand aside. Your actions now are fully in keeping with the spirit of public service and sense of duty that motivated you to step forward when I asked you to stand for election in 2011."

Mr Heng had cited the long-term and profound challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, his age, the demands of the top job and the need for a younger leader with a "longer runway", as reasons for stepping aside. But some wonder if a lacklustre 2020 General Election showing played a part.

The last elections saw Mr Heng making a last-minute move from Tampines Group Representation Constituency (GRC) - where he had been an MP since 2011 - to East Coast GRC. The latter has been one of the most hotly contested seats in recent elections, and was won by the PAP in 2015 with 60.73 per cent of the vote.

A stumble in a speech he made on Nomination Day about plans for East Coast went viral and dogged his campaign. The PAP's five-member team he led clinched 53.41 per cent of the vote against the Workers' Party, holding on to the seat, but more narrowly than some had anticipated.

Mr Heng has denied that the election outcome shaped his decision to step aside, saying it had more to do with his sense that the post Covid-19 world, with all its changes, would call for a younger leader with a longer runway to take the country forward.

Political analysts say the front runners for the 4G leader post are (clockwise from far left) Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung, National Development Minister Desmond Lee and Education Minister Lawrence Wong. PHOTOS: KELVIN CHNG, LIANHE ZAOBAO, DESMOND FOO, SGINNOVATE

4. How did the PAP's 4G team respond to DPM's decision?

The key question now is how quickly the 4G leadership team can band together and act decisively to choose PM Lee's successor.

The 4G leaders said they respect and accept Mr Heng's decision, and that he "made the decision with Singapore's long-term interests at heart".

In a statement last Thursday, they said they will need more time to select another leader from among themselves, and that the foremost priority is to tackle immediate challenges and ensure the country emerges stronger from the Covid-19 crisis.

They also asked PM Lee to stay on in his role, saying that the unexpected news is a "setback for our succession planning".

"We recognise that Singaporeans will be concerned. We seek your support and understanding, as we choose another leader for the team," they added.

"We will continue working as a team to serve our people, and to earn the confidence and trust of all Singaporeans."

5. When will they decide on their new leader?

PM Lee, who had said last year that he would see Singapore through the pandemic, has agreed to stay on until such time when the new 4G leader is chosen and ready to take over.

"I think (the 4G team will) take longer than a few months, but I hope that they will reach a consensus and identify a new leader before the next general elections. I have no intention of staying on longer than necessary," he said.

The next general election must be held by November 2025.

The sooner the 4G team decides on its new leader, the longer the runway he will have to work with PM Lee towards the next general election.

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6. Who are the front runners?

As PAP second assistant secretary-general and Mr Heng's chosen deputy, Mr Chan Chun Sing, 51, will once again be among the front runners to lead the 4G team.

Political analysts consider Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung, 51, Education Minister Lawrence Wong, 48, and National Development Minister Desmond Lee, 44, as the other contenders.

Mr Chan was asked at a press conference last Thursday if he - as Mr Heng's deputy - would be next in line to succeed him. In response, he said the 4G team has to relook the question of succession "holistically".

Noting that a collective decision on the next 4G leader would be made in due course, Mr Chan said leadership succession plans go beyond just choosing a leader, to finding and forming the strongest possible team for Singapore.

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Mr Ong said this process of developing a strong team and rallying around the first-among-equals leader takes some time. "What we have just learnt is a big change, a big reconfiguration. So we seek your understanding and support to give us some time to regroup," he added.

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7. How does this affect Singaporeans?

A Cabinet reshuffle will be announced in about two weeks' time, which will see Mr Heng relinquish his portfolio as finance minister.

The decision on this was discussed last year, when PM Lee and Mr Heng decided on Cabinet appointments following the July 10 General Election.

There will also be "consequential moves" in other ministries, said PM Lee.

Observers say Mr Heng's decision should not affect the timeline for implementing key policies - from the goods and services tax hike between 2022 and 2025, to post-Covid-19 industry and workforce transformation. These are expected to be carried out in the long-term national interest, regardless of changes to the team.

The various national initiatives that Mr Heng shepherded to help workers master new skills and capabilities, as well as build new industries and sectors for the future, will continue.

In his letter to Mr Heng, PM Lee wrote: "I look forward to you carrying on this work as Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies, and setting Singapore on the path to emerging stronger from Covid-19."

Mr Heng also spearheaded the Singapore Together movement, where Singaporeans partner the Government to co-create policy solutions. This will continue under 4G ministers such as Mr Desmond Lee.

Mr Heng said he and his team in East Coast GRC remain committed to serving their residents in the coming years, and that they would fulfil promises made when they were voted in at the polls last year, including working to build a vibrant, caring and green East Coast.

8. Will the economy and investor confidence be affected?

Business confidence does not seem to have been rattled, and Singapore's economy is on track to grow in tandem with global recovery.

For the whole of last year, the Republic's gross domestic product contracted 5.4 per cent. It is forecast to grow 4 per cent to 6 per cent this year.

Said Mr Chan: "We will continue to work hard to distinguish ourselves as a safe harbour for investors to mobilise their capital, aggregate their talent, protect their intellectual property amid the global uncertainties."

Industry observers say Singapore will have little trouble retaining its top-notch sovereign credit ratings, so long as its economic fundamentals remain sound and there is policy continuity and political stability.

"Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and senior members of his cohort are likely to remain in advisory positions in Cabinet and help guide the next generation of leaders, making up for the likely significant lack of experience the fourth PM will have compared to their predecessors," said Fitch Solutions in a report last Friday.

The market seems to agree. The Singapore dollar was steady following the announcement last Thursday, made after the close of trading in the stock market.

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