Heng Swee Keat: Hard worker with a steady hand

Singapore's finance chief catches the eye for his Herculean work ethic rather than flashy policies ... and his safe and stable approach is just what the Lion City needs.

Heng Swee Keat has proved a capable shepherd of one of Asia’s most stable economies. He has also demonstrated a mind-boggling work ethic. 

Heng collapsed during a cabinet meeting in May, and was later diagnosed as having had a severe stroke. Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the deputy prime minister, took his place. But when Heng awoke from a coma six days later, he reportedly asked: ‘Is there a cabinet meeting today?’

But it's his policies as well as his attitude that have helped Heng to sixth place out of 12 in FinanceAsia's Finance Minister of the Year study. Reflecting his steady approach, it's the exact same position he held last year.

Heng returned to the office in August, and in his most recent budget adopted a cautious stance, saying the city-state was facing “deep shifts around the world” — pointing the finger particularly at Brexit and the election of US President Donald Trump.

Heng said Singapore would bring forward S$700 million of public sector infrastructure projects, pushing total government spending to around 5.2% of GDP. But since Singapore enjoys an enviable budget surplus — projected to be around 1.3% of GDP this fiscal year — he also pushed ahead with tax rebates.

The government will give back around S$310 million in 2017 and 2018, as well as giving a 20% rebate on individual income tax. The last measure was capped at S$500, which will hardly be a boon for Singapore’s wealthiest people. But for poorer members of society, the move is certainly good news — and could help boost consumption.

Singapore’s fourth quarter GDP expanded 12.3% quarter-on-quarter, which was much better than government’s initial estimate of 9.1%. As a result of that last-minute growth spurt, Singapore’s 2016 growth ended up being 2%. That is a shade of what some of the country’s neighbours can achieve, but for a mature economy like Singapore, it is certainly not a bad effort.

Heng is unlikely to be remembered for daring policies that have caused seismic shifts in the economy. 

But Singapore does not need such a swash-buckling approach. It needs a safe pair of hands — and Heng Swee Keat is certainly that.

We are releasing the results of the Finance Minister of the Year poll day by day, with the winner named next week. Tomorrow: a savvy reformer bows out.

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