Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat has taken himself out of the running for the top job. His decision is coming only two-and-a-half years after emerging as the frontrunner to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Thus, it would be in Singapore’s best interests for a younger member of the Cabinet to steer the country forward.
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 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. PM Lee hopes to reach a consensus and identify a new leader before the next General Election, due by 2025.
DPM Heng named frontman in 2018
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. This decision opened 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. He thanked PM Lee for committing to stay until the pandemic ebbs.
Heng reiterated that he would be close to his mid-60s when the crisis is over.
Concern over his age
“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. We also need one who will lead the next phase of our nation-building effort.”
“It is in the best interests of the nation for someone younger to tackle the huge challenges ahead.”
He said that he decided after careful deliberation and discussions with his family.
“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 first to master the demands of leading Singapore. Secondly, formulate and see-through longer-term strategies to take the country into the future. And finally, to win the confidence and support of Singaporeans.
The late Lee Kuan Yew became Singapore’s founding prime minister at age 35 in 1959. His successor, Goh Chok Tong, took over in 1990 at the age of 49. PM Lee was 52 when he succeeded Goh.
DPM Heng’s political career
Heng was managing director of Singapore’s central bank, the Monetary Authority of Singapore, before joining Singapore politics in 2011.
Just weeks after the 2011 election, he was made a full minister helm the Ministry of Education. He held this portfolio until 2015. After that, 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.