Singapore Heng Swee Keat has delivered a shock by withdrawing from the leadership. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

SINGAPORE – Singapore’s leadership succession plans were thrown into disarray on Thursday (April 8) when Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat told a press conference he was taking himself out of the running to be the Southeast Asian city-state’s next prime minister after being chosen for the role less than three years ago.

Heng, 59, said he decided to step aside as leader of the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) fourth-generation, or “4G,” team to allow a younger person to lead the country once incumbent Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong retires. Heng cited his age, the governance challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the exacting demands of the top job.

“I do not want to take on any job which I cannot deliver,” Heng told reporters, adding that he had questioned whether he was the right person for the role and that his decision was taken after careful deliberation and discussion with his family. “I think it is better for someone who is younger, with a longer runway, to take on this job.”

Like a bolt out of the blue, the widely unexpected announcement took observers by surprise. After what many regarded as an indecisive and drawn-out selection process that resulted in Heng being chosen as the 4G’s leader and Lee’s designated successor in late 2018, the PAP now finds itself back at square one and facing uncomfortable questions.

“This has been a very bumpy and unpredictable leadership succession and it will cast doubts on the robustness of the much-vaunted leadership selection process,” said Eugene Tan, a veteran observer of local politics and a law professor at the Singapore Management University (SMU). “But it is more a setback than a leadership crisis.”

Heng was appointed as the PAP’s first assistant secretary-general in November 2018, a designation that put him on course to become Singapore’s fourth prime minister, after emerging as primus inter pares, or the first among equals, in an internal selection process undertaken by the 4G team, the bulk of whom – Heng included – entered politics in 2011.

Lawrence Wong was previously seen as a possible successor to the prime minister. Photo: AFP/Jason Quah/Singapore Press Holdings

His announcement was made with Premier Lee and seven other 4G ministers present, including ministers Chan Chun Sing and Ong Ye Kung, both 51, who were earlier touted as contenders for the role of Lee’s successor. Younger ministers Lawrence Wong, 48, and Desmond Lee, 44, both now seen as prospective aspirants, were also in attendance.

In a statement, the 4G team described Heng’s decision as a “setback for our succession planning” and said it would need more time to select another leader from among themselves. They had also asked Lee, 69, to stay on as premier until a new successor is chosen and ready to take over, to which they said he had agreed.

Heng, in a letter to the prime minister made available on social media, said the country’s next leader “should have a sufficiently long runway to master the demands of leading our nation [and to] formulate and see through our longer-term strategies” in order to lead Singapore into “the next phase of our nation-building effort.”

“Changes in leadership within Westminster-style systems should not come as a surprise,” said Ja-Ian Chong, a political scientist from Singapore. “However, the sudden nature of the announcement of Heng’s stepping back seems jarring to many observers, given the PAP’s persistent claims about having an orderly, planned transition.”

In comparison to Singapore’s past generational changes in leadership, the transition from the PAP’s third to fourth generation teams hasn’t been smooth. Prior to Heng’s de facto designation as successor, speculation about internal wrangling had stoked elite misgivings, with former premier Goh Chok Tong publicly nudging Lee to settle the matter.

Goh, who led Singapore from 1990 to 2004 after succeeding its first premier and late modern founder, Lee Kuan Yew, who is the incumbent premier’s father, described the transition as an “urgent challenge” in a Facebook post in December 2017 and called on the 4G team to select a successor within six to nine months.

Lee responded by saying his predecessor was “speaking with the privilege of watching things rather than being responsible to make it happen.” Almost 11 months later, the 4G team reached a consensus to elevate Heng, whose decision to withdraw from contention has set a discordant precedent, the implications of which remain to be seen.

“One of the ostensible benefits of the PAP’s system of elite governance is that it would deliver a smooth, predictable leadership succession,” said Donald Low, a professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “While I think we will still get that eventually, the fact that this has been delayed again isn’t a good look for the party.”

Heng is set to remain in Cabinet as deputy premier and coordinating minister for economic policies, though will relinquish his role as finance minister, a portfolio he has held since 2015, in a cabinet reshuffle expected to take place in about two weeks. Lee said there would be “consequential moves” in other ministries as part of the reshuffle.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will turn 70 next year. Photo: AFP/Sergey Guneev/Sputnik

Lee, who has continually held office since 2004, had previously aimed to hand the reins to his successor by the time he reaches 70 in February 2022. But the premier said in July, when Singapore held its most recent general election, that he would see through the Covid-19 crisis and hand the country over “intact and in working order” to his successor.

The pandemic has meant that “political realities [are] now vastly different” from when Heng initially emerged as prime minister-designate, said academic Tan. “The political runway has been abruptly shortened not only for DPM Heng, but for the 4G leadership as a whole. Putting it bluntly, he’d be too old to have any meaningful tenure,” he added.

“In his mid-60s [by the time the crisis ends], DPM Heng may not be in the best possible position to envision and implement his plans for Singapore. In fact, a short-tenured prime minister may work against Singapore’s best interests,” Tan added. “I believe Covid-19 has upended the best-laid plans, changed people’s outlook and reset expectations.”

Heng faced questions about his health after suffering a stroke due to a brain aneurysm during a Cabinet meeting in 2016, though he made a full recovery. While seen as an exceedingly capable technocrat, his genial and unassuming disposition led some to question his political vigor and ultimately his suitability for prime ministerial leadership.  

Speculation about whether the PAP was quietly rethinking its succession plans arose following the results of last year’s general election, which saw Heng underperform relative to other 4G leaders, clinching 53.4% of the vote in the East Coast group constituency, one of the most closely watched contests of that year’s polls, compared to 60.7% in 2015.

The 4G leaders were asked whether Heng’s position was under review during a press conference in August when a new Cabinet line-up was announced after the election. Chan, who is the second-most senior 4G leader after Heng, said: “We have no plans to do otherwise and we have no plans, no discussion on any changing [of the] plan.”

Though impossible to independently corroborate given the lack of transparency around the internal decision-making processes of the PAP, which has continuously governed Singapore since 1959, questions are arising as to whether Heng’s decision to step aside is linked to wavering support for him from within the party.

“I don’t think that Heng’s decision was entirely his own,” said Low, a co-author of the book PAP v. PAP: The Party’s struggle to adapt to a changing Singapore. “As many others have pointed out, the reasons he cited for stepping aside – his age and health – are reasons that were already known when he was selected as the prime minister-designate.”

Lee Hsien Loong near a poster asking people to observe social distancing. Lee has vowed to stay in power until the Covid-19 pandemic is defeated. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

Others argue that the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic has passed after more than a year, at least as far as it concerns Singapore, and that Lee’s vow to only hand over power once the crisis is overcome, in fact, makes it difficult for Heng – a shortened runway aside – to convincingly cite the demands of the pandemic as a justification to step aside.

“It is safe to guess that Heng was not given the full support within the party and government needed to become the next prime minister of Singapore,” said Maa Zhi Hong, a political analyst who told Asia Times there were certain signs that gave him a “nagging feeling” that Heng would not be prime minister.

Among them was Heng’s exclusion from a multi-ministry Covid-19 task force, co-chaired by Wong. While Heng delivered a total of five budgets last year, injecting billions into the pandemic-hit economy, he was not present at any of the task force’s press briefings or a visible enough part of the government‘s coronavirus response.

“As the presumed successor to Prime Minister Lee, this was a massive loss of opportunity for Heng to prove his mettle and to lead in front of Singaporeans,” said Maa, who added that prior to Heng’s appointment in 2018, “it was widely presumed that Chan Chun Sing would be the next prime minister.”

Chan, the minister for trade and industry, was named the PAP’s second assistant secretary-general in November 2018 and had been regarded as a front-runner in the leadership contest, even rumored to be Lee’s preferred successor. After emerging as the 4G’s leader, Heng had asked Chan to be his deputy, which he had agreed to.

At Thursday’s press conference, Chan was asked whether he is now the next in line to take up the mantle as Lee’s successor. He replied that the 4G team “should be given the opportunity to relook the question of succession holistically and we will make a collective decision on who will be the next leader of the 4G in due course.”

Felix Tan, a political analyst at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), said the turn of events “would probably have put Chan in a much better stead to take over from Heng.” He added, however, that Ong, who is transport minister, and Wong, whose public prominence has risen as co-chair of the Covid-19 task force, are both strong contenders.

SMU’s Tan said he doesn’t see Chan as having an advantage over his 4G colleagues in stepping up to the role of deputy prime minister en route to the top job. “Chan was named Heng’s deputy pre-Covid. As we transition to post-Covid era, new political calculations invariably come into play,” he told Asia Times.

The academic said that while Heng and Chan were seen as a complementary pairing, the PAP’s calculus going forward would similarly focus on complementarity. “In my view, the 4G leaders will now be looking not so much at who should be first among equals, but also at which combination would make for the best pairing of premier and deputy premier,” said Tan.

In any case, recent events make clear that Premier Lee is now set to stay on past his original retirement timeline, though analysts are split as to whether he will remain in office and lead the party into the next general election, which must be held by 2025, or step down before those polls and hand power to his successor toward the end of the current term.   

SMU’s Tan said Lee’s successor will likely be known within the next 18 to 24 months, if not earlier. “It would not do the PAP and the 4G leadership much good if PM Lee is to lead his party [into polls] one more time,” but in the instance he does, the academic said Lee could be expected to step aside within 12 to 18 months of the next general election.

“There will always be the possibility that PM Lee will continue until after the next elections,” said NTU’s Tan. “The longer that PM Lee stays, the shorter the path is for the PM-designate – whoever that might be. Singaporeans will need to be given time and clear directions of who will possibly be leading this country forward in the coming years, if not decades.”

Maa called the re-emergence of the leadership succession question an “ominous development,” and said that prior to recent events, many in Singapore were less confident in the 4G team’s leadership relative to the party’s venerated earlier generations, as reflected in the PAP’s vote share falling nearly nine points in last July’s polls.

“The 4G leaders have asked Singaporeans for more time to settle their leadership issue, but Singaporeans have given them since 2011,” the analyst remarked. “For the PAP to start all over again and start afresh on leadership succession, it will definitely hurt the credibility of the ruling party and its leadership.”