The road to Singapore’s political succession

Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat at Parliament House. — TODAY pic
Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat at Parliament House. — TODAY pic

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SINGAPORE, Nov 26 — Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat has emerged as the frontrunner among the next generation of government leaders to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, putting to rest years of speculation.

On Friday, Heng, 57, was named the first assistant secretary-general of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), paving the way for him to succeed Lee, 66, as secretary-general as well as prime minister after the next General Election (GE), which is due by April 2021.

TODAY looks back on the events leading up to Heng being the choice pick among the potential contenders:

SEPTEMBER 2012: Asked in an interview if he sees himself staying on as prime minister beyond 70 years old, Lee, then 60, says: “I hope not.”

"70 is already a long time more. And Singapore needs a prime minister who is younger, who has got that energy, and who is in tune with that very much younger and very much different generation," he adds.

MAY 2015: During the May Day Rally, Lee talks about leadership renewal being the most important issue in the coming GE.

He says: “It’s about who will lead Singapore into the future — and it is our future at stake, and our children’s future.”

Four months later — weeks after the GE — Lee unveils sweeping changes to his Cabinet and a line-up that will take Singapore into its next phase, post-SG50, with half the office-holders aged 50 and below.

OCTOBER 2017: Mr Lee tells American news network CNBC that he is “ready” to step down in the next few years and Singapore’s next prime minister is “very likely” already in the Cabinet.

Political observers narrow the race to three frontrunners: Heng, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, 49, and Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, 49.

DECEMBER 2017: Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who served as prime minister from 1990 to 2004, says the country’s fourth-generation leadership is an “urgent challenge” he would like to see settled.

He hopes that the identity of Singapore's next prime minister will be decided in six to nine months, and be formally designated before the end of 2018. He adds that whoever is chosen, the team will have to "work together, bring in others and gel to form a cohesive fourth-generation Cabinet”.

JANUARY 4, 2018: Sixteen fourth-generation leaders release a joint statement on political succession, saying they are aware of the urgency and "will settle on a leader from among us in good time".

JANUARY26, 2018: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong signals that there will be a significant Cabinet reshuffle after the national Budget statement in February, to expose the fourth-generation leaders to new responsibilities. But he adds that it could take them “a bit longer” than nine months to pick a leader among themselves.

“I would not be able to say for certain that it will be settled in the next six to nine months, but it would have to be done in good time,” Lee says.

MAY 2018: A major Cabinet reshuffle puts fourth-generation leaders at the helm of nearly two-thirds of government ministries. Heng continues to head the Finance Ministry, and Mr Chan — who served as secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress — is appointed to head the Trade and Industry Ministry.

Ong, who was Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills), is named Education Minister overseeing the entire ministry.

SEPTEMBER 2018: Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam says the line-up of the PAP’s new Central Executive Committee (CEC) — to be elected in November — will provide a clue about the identity of Singapore’s next prime minister.

“Look out for the slate of candidates elected. Look at the positions they hold and that should give you an indication of where the transition process is,” he says.

NOVEMBER 11, 2018: PAP cadres vote for the party’s next CEC. A day after, TODAY reports that Education Minister Ong is out of the running to succeed Lee as he is not deemed a core leader within the ruling party.

He was not among those recommended by the outgoing PAP CEC to be voted into the next committee.

NOVEMBER 22, 2018: TODAY reports that the PAP is set to name Heng as its first assistant secretary-general, and Chan as the second assistant secretary-general.

The first assistant secretary-general is expected to succeed Mr Lee as the PAP’s secretary-general, and to be named prime minister after the next GE.

NOVEMBER 23, 2018: The PAP announces its slate of office-bearers, confirming Heng as its first assistant secretary-general. — TODAY

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