Heng Swee Keat steps aside: A timeline of a Singapore political succession that wasn’t to be

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat has taken himself out of the running as Singapore’s next prime minister. — TODAY file pic
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat has taken himself out of the running as Singapore’s next prime minister. — TODAY file pic

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SINGAPORE, April 8 — The news today that Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat was taking himself out of the running as Singapore’s next prime minister marked an unexpected turn of events that began in 2018.

That year, he was named the first assistant secretary-general of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), a role that analysts said put him in the almost-certain position of becoming Singapore’s next premier.

Here is a look at the events that have unfolded since and that culminated in today’s announcement:

Nov 2018: Heng is appointed first assistant secretary-general of the PAP at the party’s annual convention at the age of 57. Chan Chun Sing, the Minister for Trade and Industry, is named second assistant secretary-general.

Nov 2019: In a high-profile debate, Heng crosses swords with Workers’ Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim in Parliament, after tabling a motion calling on Aljunied-Hougang Town Council to require Lim and former secretary-general Low Thia Khiang to recuse themselves from all financial matters related to the town council.

Feb 2020: With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Heng unveils Budget 2020 to steer Singapore through a period of uncertainty. By the end of the year, he will have announced four more budgets to deal with the unprecedented crisis.

June 2020: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong calls for a General Election to be held on July 10.

July 2020: In a surprise move, Heng, who had previously helmed the team at Tampines Group Representation Constituency (GRC), is fielded in East Coast GRC.

A speech he makes on Nomination Day goes viral on social media after he stumbles on his words when talking about the East Coast Plan.

During election campaigning, Lee says he will stay on through the Covid-19 crisis and hand over the country “in good shape” to the fourth generation (4G) of political leaders before retiring.

After the election, he reiterates that the crisis might mean he would have to stay on as prime minister even past the age of 70, despite his earlier stated hopes to have stepped down by then.

PAP wins 83 out of 93 seats and secures 61.24 per cent of the popular vote.

In Heng’s battleground of East Coast GRC, PAP prevails over WP, getting 53.39 per cent of the vote, a drop from the 60.73 it got in the 2015 election.

After the election, Lee announces a new Cabinet line-up, with Heng taking on an extra appointment as coordinating minister for economic policies.

At a press conference on the reshuffle, a question is posed about whether the 4G leaders has discussed or reviewed their position on backing Heng as leader.

Chan takes the question at PM Lee’s prompt and says: “We are entirely focused on helping our country overcome the economic challenges and saving the jobs at this point in time.

“We have no plans to do otherwise and we have no plans, no discussion on any changing (of the) plan.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan later says the 4G ministers are in “complete unity” in their backing of Heng as their leader.

“We are — all of us, in complete unity — behind the leadership of Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, so there is no need for any discussions or questions on that. We are in absolute unity under his lead,” Dr Balakrishnan says, stressing that he is speaking on behalf of the 4G leaders.

April 2021: Heng announces that he is taking himself out of the running for prime minister and will also relinquish his role as finance minister, while staying on as deputy prime minister and coordinating minister for economic policies. — TODAY

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