SINGAPORE: Political watchers had eyes on Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat’s Budget speech on Monday (Feb 18) for one key indicator: Whether with strategic handouts, it would signal elections this year.
Two blockbuster announcements were eventually made: The much-awaited Merdeka Generation Package worth S$8 billion, and the Bicentennial Bonus worth S$1.1 billion. The jury is still out as to whether taken together, both provided any definitive signal of intent.
There is also the question of the healthy surplus of S$15 billion that this term of government has been projected to generate by the end of FY2019.
Could this then signal elections later - in 2020 - as some have suggested? The implication here being that the surpluses could be spent on handouts next year.
To this, Mr Heng said: “It is not about ‘we are near the election so let’s spend this, let’s spend that’ … (and) it doesn’t mean that next year (2020), we are going to spend that S$15 billion.”
He could not have been expected to say very much different.
Ultimately, in divining whether a general election might be called this year or next, ahead of the mandated deadline of April 2021, a blinkered focus on the Budget could prove myopic.
More appropriate hints could instead be found from examining the political imperatives of the People’s Action Party (PAP).
In this regard, it is likely that the PAP will use 2019 as a year for consolidation, rather than as a year it seeks a fresh mandate.
CONSOLIDATING BEHIND THE LEADERSHIP OF HENG SWEE KEAT
Mr Heng only took on the post of first assistant secretary-general of the PAP in November 2018, and with it, the mantle of presumptive prime minister.
In the months since, small steps have been taken to hint that he is growing into a larger role with larger responsibilities.
On Dec 31, 2018, Mr Heng travelled together with DPM Teo Chee Hean to Putrajaya as emissaries on behalf of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, to convey a message to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. It was a significant signal, especially given that their meeting provided the impetus for foreign ministers from both sides to ultimately meet the following week for talks on brewing bilateral issues.
Domestically, in response to an editorial in Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao, it was Mr Heng who responded for the Government, to what he saw as questions on whether the Government had gone soft and slack.
Mr Heng has clearly started on an accelerated transition. The question is whether this is just the beginning, and whether more time may still be needed.
With recent episodes such as the massive cybersecurity breach at SingHealth, the ongoing fallout with the leak of data from Singapore’s HIV Registry and the spate of training-related deaths in the Singapore Armed Forces, there is still much for Mr Heng and his team of fourth-generation (4G) leaders to address and set right before polls are called.
Indeed, as much as the public looks to Mr Heng to progressively exercise his leadership and influence in dealing with recent lapses, the next prime minister will also benefit from having as much time as needed to work with, shape and make his mark on the team that he will take over once PM Lee steps down.
As it stands, all eyes are on the Cabinet reshuffle expected in April. Only then will the Government take its longer-term shape, with Mr Heng likely to be elevated to Deputy Prime Minister, and current DPMs Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam making way for younger leaders to step up across the Cabinet.
Especially since this will be a Cabinet for the future, the imperative will be for Mr Heng to work with Prime Minister Lee on the reshuffle, and thereafter provide sufficient runway for each minister in a new portfolio to build on his or her policy chops.
The intention must be for Mr Heng to take over a team of ministers that is stable and has had sufficient experience. In particular, if younger ministers are identified to eventually take over key portfolios such as finance and transport, the rest of 2019 will be an important period for consolidation.
Some of the most important considerations for when polls may be called, however, could boil down to the mechanics of political transition.
First, anchor ministers in three group representation constituencies (GRCs) retired from Cabinet in the last reshuffle – Mr Lim Swee Say (East Coast GRC), Mr Lim Hng Kiang (West Coast GRC) and Dr Yaacob Ibrahim (Jalan Besar GRC). Their positions as leaders in the GRCs will need to be filled.
Second, there are other gaps, for example in Marsiling-Yew Tee, where the PAP lost the senior figure of Mdm Halimah Yaacob, when she resigned to run for President. Arguably, Marine Parade GRC could itself do with a sitting anchor minister, following the election of Mr Tan Chuan-Jin as Speaker of Parliament.
Third, and potentially most importantly, the next GE will see more GRCs and more single-member constituencies (SMCs) contested. Not only will the PAP have to identify more senior leaders to helm smaller three-member GRCs, it is likely that competitive SMCs will also have to see more senior party leaders take charge.
The question now is whether with these considerations, and potentially more retirements in the works, the PAP could in fact do with more time to blood junior ministers, test out newer leaders in each constituency, as well as complete its current cycle of recruitment and renewal.
Ultimately, only the PAP will know how ready it is for hustings.
For now, for the pundits who may read the tea leaves on when the GE may eventually be called, the consolidation of the PAP’s leadership transition and electoral calculations should weigh as much, if not more than how it uses the tools in the government purse.
Prime Minister Lee has said that he would like to step down by the time he turns 70.
The year in question is 2022.
There is more than enough time for this 4G team to use 2019 to focus on consolidation.