Singaporeans will likely have to wait longer for a new leader to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who has ruled the island city since 2004. The potential successor that Lee had groomed, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, announced his resignation as a candidate for the premiership on April 8.
The devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are among the reason for Heng’s early exit, while there are also views that Lee himself is not fully prepared for the carefully choreographed succession.
According to the original plan, next year, Singapore’s fourth-generation (4G) leadership, with Heng as the leader, would end the third generation’s leadership under Lee. The second generation was under Goh Chok Tong, who ruled Singapore for 14 years and handed over the power to Lee Hsien Loong in 2004. The country’s founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who was Prime Minister Lee’s father, was in power from 1965 until 1990.
Heng’s announcement ended the long international perception that Singapore’s leadership succession always ran on schedule thanks to a detailed plan favorable to business communities and investors. The questions now are who will succeed Lee, when he will eventually leave office and whether he will let a younger figure take the baton.
Heng, who turns 60 today, will also relinquish his role as finance minister in the next Cabinet reshuffle, which is expected to be announced in about two weeks. He will stay on as deputy prime minister and coordinating minister for economic policies until a further Cabinet reshuffle.
His resignation comes as no surprise to many Singaporeans. According to the original succession plan, Heng would replace Lee when the latter turned 70 years old in 2020. That year should have been the turn for the 4G leadership to take charge of Singapore under the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Shortly after the July 10, 2020, general elections, however, Lee announced that he had changed his mind, telling Singaporeans that he would extend his premiership because of the devastating impacts of the pandemic.
Singapore’s economy contracted a record 5.8 percent last year, but has shown signs of recovery with 0.2 percent growth in the first quarter of this year.
Heng has been groomed since 2018, when he was promoted as the first PAP secretary general in addition to his official position in the Cabinet. In May 2019, Lee appointed Heng deputy prime minister. The result of last year’s elections, however, were disappointing for Heng as he only won 53.41 percent of the vote in his new constituency, the East Coast Group Representation Constituency (GRC).
Returning to the question above, who will be the next potential leaders? The 4G team, apart from Heng, comprises Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, 51, Transportation Minister Ong Ye Kung, 51, Education Minister Lawrence Wong, 48, and National Development Minister Desmond Lee, 44.
Will one of them will win Lee’s blessing to lead Singapore? Apparently no one knows. One thing is sure: that Lee will remain in power in next few years at least.