Singapore’s next PM likely to be finance veteran

Singapore Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat has been appointed as the next probable Prime Minister. He brings to this post his extensive experience as Finance Minister and former head of Singapore's central bank.
Singapore Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat
Singapore Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat

The man likely to be Singapore’s next Prime Minister, Heng Swee Keat, will bring to this office his substantial experience as a senior finance official in the Southeast Asian financial hub.

On November 23, Heng, who is currently Finance Minister, was appointed first assistant secretary general of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), a post which Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong assumed before becoming Prime Minister, the PAP announced on its website on the same day.

Heng’s main competitor for the top post, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, was appointed second assistant secretary general.  

There is no complete guarantee that the PAP’s first assistant secretary general will become Prime Minister, since some who had held that post did not attain the premiership. However, Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University, said, “Barring any unforeseen circumstances, it is unlikely that Heng will not succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The fourth-generation leaders have decided that Heng would be first among equals and, unless there is a collapse of confidence in him, Heng will succeed Prime Minister Lee.”

Under the PAP, the next-generation leaders select among themselves their future Prime Minister as first among equals. The PAP has ruled Singapore since its independence in 1965 with three Prime Ministers in chronological order – Lee Kuan Yew, Goh and Lee Hsien Loong, the eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew.

At a press conference in Singapore on November 23, Heng said, "The younger ministers have chosen me to be their leader, and I've accepted."

The 57-year old Heng indicated he would be a team player, not a strongman or prima donna. He said, "Leading the party and governing Singapore are a massive and complex task. No one person can do it alone. I'm heartened I have the backing of a strong team."

Tan said, “One can expect Heng’s tenure as Prime Minister to be defined by embracing Singapore’s growing diversity, engaging people at all levels of society, and a greater emphasis on a fairer and egalitarian society."

Garry Rodan, a professor of politics and international studies at Murdoch University in Australia, predicted that if and when Heng becomes Prime Minister, he would extend "consultative authoritarianism" by expanding opportunities for individuals and groups to work with the ruling party.

Heng's tenure as Finance Minister has been marked by increased social spending and attempts to respond to public concerns about social inequalities, whiile holding the PAP's line against what the party termed "welfarism", Rodan said. "Heng politically managed this tension effectively."

Heng has been Finance Minister since October 1, 2015, and Education Minister from May 21, 2011 to September 30, 2015. Prior to that, he was managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) from June 1, 2005 to April 2, 2011.

When working in Singapore’s central bank, Heng has been tried and tested during the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, Tan said. “A safe pair of hands is probably how his peers regard him.”

Heng is experienced, having held key positions in Singapore’s Ministry of Trade and Industry, the civil service and police, Tan pointed out. Tan, who knows Heng personally, described Heng as “likeable”.

“He strikes me as being sincere, approachable, without airs, and possessing the common touch, could matter immensely in an age where politicians are expected to have greater sensitivity to public sentiments. He puts people at ease and is committed to consensus-seeking,” Tan added.

On March 6, 2017 and February 24, 2016, FinanceAsia ranked Heng as the sixth best Finance Minister among 12 Asian Finance Ministers. In an article on March 15, 2017, FinanceAsia described Heng as “a capable shepherd of one of Asia’s most stable economies” and “a safe pair of hands” with “a mind-boggling work ethic”.

Possible candidates to succeed Heng as Finance Minister include Singapore’s two Second Finance Ministers – Lawrence Wong and Indranee Rajah. Tan does not rule out the possibility that Singapore’s next Finance Minister may be someone besides Rajah or Wong.

Heng might have learnt a thing or two from Lee Kuan Yew, who passed away in March 2015, since he was Principal Private Secretary to then Senior Minister Lee from 1997 to 2000. However, the bespectacled, mild-mannered Heng appears to lack the tough streak of Singapore’s first Prime Minister, who once talked of giving “karate chops”. This may mean that if Heng becomes Prime Minister, Singapore will see a kinder, gentler rule.

There have been concerns over Heng’s health, since he collapsed of a stroke on May 12, 2016. At the press conference, he said he has made "a very good recovery" and the doctors have given him a clean bill of health.

Conspicuously absent in Singapore's leadership succession is Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. Many Singaporeans recently expressed on social media their wish for the 61-year old man to be their next Prime Minister.

Chew Kheng Chuan, a Singaporean man who is a long-time friend of Tharman, told FinanceAsia his opinion that Tharman was the most qualified to be the next Prime Minister.

Tharman has a track record as a finance official like Heng, as a current MAS chairman and former Finance Minister. Popular in his country, Tharman has international stature as chair of the G20 Eminent Persons Group on Global Financial Governance and chairman of the Group of Thirty, a consultative group of financiers and academics focusing on international economic and monetary affairs. 

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