Next S’pore PM should have ‘sufficiently long runway’ to master job: Heng Swee Keat

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat is stepping aside as leader of the People's Action Party's fourth-generation team.
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat is stepping aside as leader of the People's Action Party's fourth-generation team.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

SINGAPORE - Singapore's next prime minister should have a "sufficiently long runway" to master the demands of the job, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said on Thursday (April 8) in a letter to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Noting that he will be close to his mid-60s when the Covid-19 pandemic is past, he said this is why he is stepping aside as leader of the People's Action Party's (PAP's) fourth-generation (4G) team.

"The 60s are still a very productive time of life. But when I also consider the ages at which our first three prime ministers took on the job, I would have too short a runway should I become the next prime minister then."

What Singapore needs is a leader who will rebuild the country post-pandemic, as well as lead the next phase of the nation-building effort, he said.

Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew was 35 when he took on the job, his successor Goh Chok Tong was 49 and PM Lee was 52.

Mr Heng, who turns 60 this year, will stay on in his current roles as Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies. He will be giving up his finance portfolio at the next Cabinet reshuffle in about two weeks.

In his reply, PM Lee said he looked forward to Mr Heng carrying on his work as coordinating minister, and setting Singapore on the path to emerging stronger from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The cerebral, soft-spoken Mr Heng was chosen by consensus to head the PAP's 4G leadership team in late 2018.

He had asked Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing to be his deputy, with both men subsequently appointed the ruling party's first and second assistant secretary-general, respectively.

At the time, observers noted that Mr Heng's new position in the party hierarchy - just below that of PM Lee - set the stage for him to become Singapore's next prime minister.

The writing on the wall became even clearer six months later, when Mr Heng was formally appointed DPM. At the time, Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies Tharman Shanmugaratnam relinquished their appointments as DPMs and became Senior Ministers.

PM Lee said then that the changes were part of ongoing leadership renewal. He had originally intended to step down by the time he turned 70 next year, but said during last year's general election campaign that he intends to see the Covid-19 pandemic through.

Mr Heng joined politics in 2011 and stood in Tampines GRC, after stepping down as managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS).

His candidacy was publicly endorsed by founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who spoke of how his former principal private secretary had seen Singapore through the 2008 global financial crisis.

After being elected, Mr Heng was appointed Education Minister, a post he held until he became Finance Minister in 2015.

But less than a year after taking up the new post, Mr Heng suffered a debilitating stroke during a Cabinet meeting and underwent surgery before being hospitalised in Tan Tock Seng Hospital's intensive care unit.

He remained in a coma for six days. Among the first words he scribbled when he woke up were: "Is there a Cabinet meeting today? Where are the papers?"

Mr Heng was discharged on June 25, 2016 - six weeks after his stroke. Although he did not return to his office at The Treasury immediately, he still kept abreast of current events in what proved to be a challenging year for Singapore.

That conscientiousness has been a defining trait of his career, even before he entered politics. He grew up in a kampung, studied at Raffles Institution and subsequently obtained a police scholarship to read economics at Cambridge.

After his return to Singapore, Mr Heng spent 15 years in the Singapore Police Force before leaving the service as assistant commissioner. He moved to the elite Administrative Service in 1997, where he spent time in the Education and Trade and Industry ministries. He then moved to MAS, after which he began his political career.

In a surprise move ahead of last year's general election, Mr Heng moved to lead the hotly contested East Coast GRC, retaining the constituency with 53.41 per cent of the votes there.

He has delivered his share of Budget statements as Finance Minister, including a landmark five Budgets last year as Singapore rolled out emergency measures to help keep the country afloat during the economic crisis.

He was also the man, in 2018, to broach the unpopular topic of raising the goods and services tax.

Outside his finance portfolio, Mr Heng took the lead on the Singapore Together Movement, a national exercise to tap ground-up ideas and perspectives, as well as get Singaporeans involved in policymaking.

He also chairs the Future Economy Council, which oversees Singapore's economic transformation, and the National Research Foundation.

In his letter to PM Lee, Mr Heng said that having worked with him, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and Mr Lee Kuan Yew, he knows that the top job imposes "exceptional demands" on the office holder.

"In a very different post-Covid-19 world, the demands will be even more exacting. While I am in good health today, it is in the best interests of the nation for someone who is younger to tackle the huge challenges ahead," he said. "It will be for the 4G team to choose this person, and I stand ready to support the next leader."