Tripped in race to lead Singapore, but Heng Swee Keat still in limelight


By Ivan Lim
Former AJA President, Contributor to AsiaN   

SINGAPORE: “Good Luck.” That’s what “Heng” means in Singapore’s local dialect. So, once-kampong boy Heng Swee Keat considered it his good fortune that he has had a crack at high office. Not by luck but by the dint of his credentials.

Cambridge and Harvard- educated, the then central bank chief was a star catch for the ruling PAP in the 2011 general election. Though a political new figure at the time, he was appointed education minister and fast-tracked as a core member of the fourth generation (4G) leadership. He went on to helm the finance ministry.

He came under the late founder-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s mentorship when serving as his private principal secretary, earning the then Senior Minister’s high accolades that cast Heng as a rising political star. He was re-elected in the 2015 general election.

But he was almost eclipsed in May 2016 when he suffered a stroke during a Cabinet meeting and went into a coma. Remarkably, he regained consciousness in six days. After three months in hospital, he recovered fully and resumed his ministerial duties.

Getting into high gear, the Finance Minister articulated three principles that guided his Budgets: Putting people at the centre of the Government’s plans, strategies and programmes; planning long term while being adaptive; and “working together.”

He called it the “Singapore way” of “doing more with less”.

In 2017, the search for a successor to PM Lee Hsien Loong, – son of late founder-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew –  gathered pace after he spoke of his intention to step down on turning 70 in February 2022.

At the PAP conference in November 2018, Heng’s 4G peers elected him as First Assistant Secretary General, ranking next to Mr Lee, the party Secretary General.

On May 1, 2019, Heng was appointed as Deputy Prime Minister, confirming he was course to take over from Lee, who succeeded Goh Chok Tong as third premier in 2004.

On Jan. 23, 2020, Singapore detected its first case of the Coronavirus that soon turned into a pandemic and triggered the “circuit breaker” lockdown in April-June, marked by curbs on social movements and gatherings, as well closure of non-essential businesses.

Amid Covid-19 movement restrictions, the ruling PAP shrewdly called a general election on July 20 to outflank the Opposition.

Election stumpings were forced indoors and largely done through virtual debates. Missing were the open-air rallies where Opposition parties used to attract bigger crowds than those of the PAP.

For the anointed 4G leader, however, things took an unfortunate turn: Heng faced a fight for his political life when he was surprisingly switched from his stronghold in the Tampines Group Representation Constituency (GRC) to contest in the East Coast GRC.

Losing his poise, he somehow fumbled his lines during a key rally speech on his East Coast Plan for residents and Singapore. In the end, he scraped through the polls with just 53-plus per cent of the popular votes, further diminishing his standing as an up-and-coming leader in the eyes of the PAP Old Guard. In contrast, PM Lee contested in his Ang Mo Kio GRC stronghold and won with a 71-plus percent of the votes.

As fate would have it, the pandemic also tripped up the front-runner in the leadership chase. Setting aside his earlier plan to step down, PM Lee said he would stay on to see the Covid-19 crisis through before handing over the baton. This put the succession timeline up in the air.

As if taking the cue, the 60-year-old Heng on April 8 made a stunning announcement that he was giving up his chance to be the next Prime Minister to a younger man. He said he would have a “short runway” if he were to take over when the pandemic blew over in a few years.

“We need a leader who will not only rebuild Singapore post-COVID-19, but also lead the next phase of our nation,’’ he said.

Some analysts linked Heng’s decision to bow out to an earlier parliamentary goof. During a debate in November 2019, he appeared to stumble in an exchange with Workers’ Party chairperson Sylvia Lim over a motion relating to a High Court judgement on Aljunied-Hougang Town.

That single incident showed him out to be not ready for the cut-and-thrust of political debates. The soft-spoken former police officer was seen as not measuring up to the party’s standard of a captain capable of quick repartee to put any opponent in his or her place.

Thus, prolonged Covid-19 pandemic has proven to be politically disruptive, with unforeseen consequences for ordinating Minister for Economic the republic’s economy and politics.

Rising to the occasion, the former financial wizard declared the pandemic extraordinary times that called for extraordinary measures.  On getting the President’s approval to tap into the national reserves, the former financial czar had tapped into past reserves and crafted an impressive raft of billion-dollar budgets in two years, giving cash infusions for businesses, workers and households to stay afloat as the  battered economy sank into a recession.

Carrying labels such s United, Solidarity, Resilience and Fortitude, the emergency fiscal packages were designed to rally the people to remain steadfast and transit towards the post-pandemic era. But alas, he would not be in the saddle to see the measures through.

However, Heng might be down but not out. To be sure, he was taken off his finance post but stays on as Deputy Prime Minster and Co-Policies.

The former front-runner has now been entrusted to mentor the younger members and help identify a first-among-equals and prospective Prime Minister-designate before the next general election is called by 2025.

He is still very much in the news, making significant policy speeches on major domestic and international issues.

Nevertheless, Heng loyalists saw his exit as an opportunity lost for a technocratic and non-authoritarian leadership to gain acceptance instead of the strongman model in vogue since PAP took power in 1959. Such a change will be seen as in keeping with a First-World nation and prevailing democratic convention.

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