Commentary: With the Cabinet reshuffle, the race for Singapore’s next Prime Minister has narrowed

Commentary: With the Cabinet reshuffle, the race for Singapore’s next Prime Minister has narrowed

Two key contenders have emerged in the search for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s successor, says one observer.

Chan Chun Sing, Heng Swee Keat, Ong Ye Kung collage
Chan Chun Sing, Heng Swee Keat and Ong Ye Kung. (Photo: MCI)

SINGAPORE: With the Cabinet reshuffle announced on Tuesday (Apr 24), the race to become Singapore’s next Prime Minister has been further narrowed, with Mr Chan Chun Sing and Mr Heng Swee Keat leading the pack.

Slated to take on leadership positions at the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) and Public Service Division while retaining his role as deputy chairman of the People’s Association, Mr Chan will be assuming new, important positions that will grant him invaluable exposure to economic policy and allow him to foster close ties with the public administration.

More importantly, there are important synergies between these new roles and Mr Chan’s experience in policy and government.

Having spent stints at the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the People’s Association, Mr Chan has accumulated strong experience in labour and social issues.

His achievements include the expansion of NTUC’s mandate to include managers to freelancers and an aggressive shift in focus towards job training and placement.

The expansion of social services offices in HDB towns also took place when he was Minister for Social and Family Development.

While such experience in social policy and labour relations arguably provides Mr Chan with an edge in fostering strong social consensus and leading labour transformation, his new portfolio will allow him to combine these strengths with economic development and industrial policy. 

This will be particularly useful, as Singapore aims to prepare its industries and workers for potential economic transformations and disruptions.

Mr Chan’s appointment to MTI mirrors that of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, both of whom have taken on the role of Minister for Trade and Industry during their political careers.

Chan Chun Sing Chongqing
Chan Chun Sing at the opening of the CCI Administrative Bureau Office in January 2016. (Photo: Jeremy Koh)

Both PM Lee and ESM Goh also spent an extensive period of time in defence, experience that Mr Chan shares.

While PM Lee served in the Singapore Armed Forces rising to the rank of Brigadier-General, ESM Goh was Minister of Defence for almost 10 years prior to his assuming the role of Prime Minister. Mr Chan himself spent almost two decades in the SAF, where he held various roles including Chief of Army, Chief of Staff of Joint Staff and Chief Infantry Officer.

A dual focus on economic development and labour transformation is already evident in Mr Chan’s existing work in the NTUC.

For instance, Mr Chan has driven a shift in the NTUC’s focus towards more job training and placement programmes, which included the establishment of a training council to help workers deal with the impact of disruption. Under Mr Chan’s stewardship, the NTUC’s mandate has also been expanded to include PMEs.

Mr Chan possesses the technical know-how to lead Singapore through economic disruptions and labour transformation and, perhaps more importantly, the skills and relations needed to foster strong social consensus across Singaporean society – the kind of people person our next Prime Minister needs to be to forge a new consensus and lead Singapore.

More broadly speaking, this will make Mr Chan a relatively well-rounded Prime Ministerial candidate.

His previous appointments have allowed him to foster close relations with various sectors of Singaporean society - ranging from the military when he was in the SAF, families during his time at MSF and MCYS, workers in the NTUC, to the grassroots with the People’s Association.

Looking ahead, Mr Chan’s new appointments will allow him to continue fostering close ties with other segments of society, this time with businesses and the civil service.

Chan Chun Sing (2)
Chan Chun Sing having a light moment with bus captains at Hougang Depot. (Photo: NTUC)

(Download our printable infographic: Singapore's new Cabinet and other political appointments at a glance.)


In contrast, Mr Heng Swee Keat presents a more traditional set of skills and capabilities that are well-suited to the technocratic governance of Singapore’s economy. Such skills are no doubt important as well, given the impending economic challenges Singapore faces.

Specifically, Mr Heng’s experience as Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and Minister for Finance places him in good stead to drive Singapore’s continued development as a leading global financial centre. His leadership of the Future Economy Council, and role in driving Singapore’s Industry Transformation Maps also make Mr Heng a key figure in Singapore’s ongoing economic transformation.

It is by no stretch of the imagination that these roles will be crucial for a potential Prime Minister. 

Indeed, both PM Lee and ESM Goh have served as MAS Chairmen, with PM Lee serving as Minister for Finance for six years while ESM Goh served as Senior Minister of State for Finance in his early years in Cabinet. 

PM Lee also headed the 2001 Economic Review Committee, tasked to chart a blueprint to restructure and reshape the economy, a committee that bears many similarities to the Future Economy Council.

While Mr Heng possesses strong credentials in economic governance and financial sector policy, his ability to forge social consensus should also not be doubted. 

As Education Minister, Mr Heng has made great strides in raising the quality of Singapore’s education system as well as ensuring more equal education policy outcomes – including expanding the number of university places, the removal of the secondary school league tables and raising the quality of teaching.

Heng Swee Keat budget arrival
Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat arrives in Parliament to deliver Budget 2018. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan) 

Furthermore, Mr Heng has played a key role in chairing Our Singapore Conversation, which reached out to 47,000 Singaporeans, as well as the SG50 Steering Committee – which oversaw the year-long celebration of Singapore’s 50th year of independence. Both were key initiatives that aimed to engage and unify Singaporeans.

Mr Heng also has experience in the security sector, having spent 14 years in the Singapore Police Force in his younger days – though he doesn’t have the defence experience that a position at the Ministry of Defence would have afforded him.

Regardless, Mr Heng’s expertise and reputation as a top financial regulator and finance minister make him a highly skilled technocratic Prime Minister capable of leading economic and financial sector transformation.

Certainly, both Mr Chan and Mr Heng possess the skills and capabilities needed to become Singapore’s next Prime Minister.


There remains the question of Mr Ong Ye Kung, who has also been touted to be a potential Prime Ministerial candidate.

The recent Cabinet reshuffle has consolidated Mr Ong’s position within the Ministry of Education, one that is already bolstered by his recent moves to emphasise lifelong learning. 

At the same time, Mr Ong retains leadership over the SkillsFuture Initiative, a key policy initiative that will be crucial for Singapore’s economic future.

Ong Ye Kung on education planning (1)
Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung.

Having said that, historical precedence suggests that the multiple portfolios held by Mr Chan and Mr Heng over the years - and the additional responsibilities they will take over from DPM Teo -  place these two men in a stronger position for the top job. Both PM Lee and ESM Goh had previously held multiple portfolios before becoming Prime Minister.

In this, while Mr Ong’s larger education portfolio has given him more responsibilities, it is unclear if this will be sufficient exposure, especially since Mr Heng himself had helmed that portfolio in his first Cabinet appointment after 2011.

Given the need for a future Prime Minister to acquire a broad set of skills and exposure to a wide range of policy issues, and the track record of our past Prime Ministers, it seems the search for Lee Hsien Loong’s successor has narrowed.

Woo Jun Jie is an assistant professor at the Public Policy & Global Affairs Programme of Nanyang Technology University, where he teaches Singapore Politics and Singapore Foreign Policy.

Source: CNA/sl