Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat has taken himself out of the running for the top job, two-and-a-half years after emerging as the frontrunner to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Conveying his decision in a letter to PM Lee today, a copy of which was sent to newsrooms, Heng, who is also finance minister, said that he would have too short of a runway — given that he would be near his mid-60s when he takes over as prime minister after the Covid-19 crisis is over.
It would thus be in Singapore’s best interests for a younger member of the Cabinet to steer the country forward.
Heng, who turns 60 this year, will also relinquish his finance minister portfolio at the next Cabinet reshuffle, which is expected to be announced in about two weeks. He will stay as deputy prime minister and coordinating minister for economic policies.
In his reply to Heng, PM Lee said he understood and respected Heng’s decision, and was glad that he has agreed to stay in the Cabinet.
In a separate statement, the next generation of leaders — known as the fourth-generation (4G) leadership — said that they would “need more time to select another leader from among us”, given their foremost priority to tackle the country’s pressing immediate challenges and ensure that Singapore emerges stronger from the Covid-19 crisis.
“We have therefore requested PM Lee Hsien Loong to stay on as Prime Minister until such time when a new successor is chosen by the team and is ready to take over. We are grateful that PM has agreed to our request,” the statement added.
In a press conference today, PM Lee said: “They (the 4G team) and I are very conscious that succession remains an urgent task and cannot be put off indefinitely.”
Even so, he stressed that he had “no intention of staying on longer than necessary”.
The 4G leaders would take “longer than a few months” to decide on the next leader and he hopes that they would reach a consensus and identify a new leader before the next General Election, due by 2025.
At the press conference, which was attended by several 4G ministers, Heng reiterated his reasons for stepping aside, adding: “Singapore politics is not about self but what is good for Singapore, and I have been constantly thinking of what is in the best interests of Singapore and Singaporeans.”
In November 2018, Heng was named first assistant secretary-general of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), after the 4G leaders picked him as their frontman, opening the way for him to succeed PM Lee as head of government.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic struck. PM Lee, 69, has said that he would see Singapore through the public health crisis before handing over the reins to the next generation of leaders.
In his letter today, Heng said that Singapore’s top priority was to deal with the Covid-19 crisis and keep its people safe, and he thanked PM Lee for committing to stay until the pandemic ebbs.
But as the crisis is expected to drag on, Heng reiterated that he would be close to his mid-60s when it draws to a close.
“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,” he wrote.
“We need a leader who will not only rebuild Singapore post-Covid-19, but also lead the next phase of our nation-building effort.”
The late Lee Kuan Yew became Singapore’s founding prime minister at age 35 in 1959, and his successor Goh Chok Tong took over in 1990 at the age of 49. PM Lee was 52 when he succeeded Goh.
In 2016, Heng was forced out of action for several months after suffering a stroke during a Cabinet meeting but has since made a full recovery.
Having worked with all three prime ministers, he said that the top job imposes exceptional demands, which will be even more exacting in a post-pandemic world.
“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 that he arrived at the decision after careful deliberation and discussions with his family, so that a younger leader can take over.
“It will be for the 4G team to choose this person and I stand ready to support the next leader.”
The next prime minister, Heng noted, should have a sufficiently long runway to master the demands of leading Singapore, formulate and see through longer-term strategies to take the country into the future, and win the confidence and support of Singaporeans.
In his reply, PM Lee commended Heng’s “exceptional work” as finance minister, especially this past year in the trying circumstances of the pandemic.
“Within 12 months, you delivered an unprecedented five Budgets that supported Singaporeans and their families, helped businesses to survive, and kept everyone safe.”
He said that Heng did not hesitate to take up the challenge of heading the Ministry of Finance in 2015, at a time when Singapore had to overcome fiscal challenges, strengthen its social safety nets and transform the economy, and put his heart and soul into the task.
Heng also co-chaired the Committee on the Future Economy, which set out the strategies for Singapore’s growth. He now helms the Future Economy Council, which is overseeing the roll-out of the committee’s recommendations, which cover areas such as the development of skills and capabilities as well as innovation and productivity.
PM Lee said: “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.”
The prime minister added that he was confident Heng would continue contributing actively to Cabinet deliberations and to PAP’s work, beyond his portfolio responsibilities. Heng will remain as PAP’s first assistant secretary-general.
“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,” PM Lee said.
“Together with the senior ministers, you will help me mentor the younger ministers as the team develop and identify from among themselves another leader, in order to make a smooth and timely leadership transition.”
Before he made his foray into politics in 2011, Heng was managing director of Singapore’s central bank, the Monetary Authority of Singapore.
Just weeks after the 2011 election, he was made a full minister to helm the Ministry of Education — a portfolio he held until 2015, when he moved to head the Ministry of Finance.
He has taken part in three General Elections, leading the PAP team to victory in Tampines Group Representation Constituency (GRC) and East Coast GRC in the most recent election last year. — TODAY