SINGAPORE: Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat will step aside as the leader of the fourth-generation People's Action Party (PAP) leadership team, he announced on Thursday (Apr 8).
"This year, I am 60," said Mr Heng, adding that he would be in his mid-60s when the COVID-19 crisis is over.
"When I also consider the ages at which our first three Prime Ministers have taken on the job, I would have too short a runway should I become the next Prime Minister then," he said at a press conference announcing his decision.
"We need a leader who will not only rebuild Singapore post-COVID-19, but also lead the next phase of our nation-building efforts."
Mr Heng said: "After careful deliberation and discussions with my family, I have decided to step aside as leader of the 4G (fourth-generation) team, so that a younger leader who will have a longer runway can take over."
With Mr Lee and other senior ministers, he will continue to mentor the younger ministers and identify another leader from among them, he added.
READ: DPM Heng says he is stepping aside as 4G leader for younger person with 'longer runway' to become future PM
Mr Heng will remain as Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies, but will step down as Minister of Finance at the next Cabinet reshuffle, which will take place in about two weeks.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he understands and respects Mr Heng's decision. Both had discussed and agreed that Mr Heng will relinquish his finance portfolio.
"We agreed that Budget 2021 would be an important budget, not an emergency budget like the five in 2020. But a budget to take Singapore beyond COVID-19," said Mr Lee.
"I told him it would be good for him to see through Budget 2021 and then he would give up the MOF portfolio to concentrate on the broader coordinating responsibilities. There will be consequential moves in other ministries, and I intend to announce the reshuffle in about two weeks' time."
Mr Lee also noted Mr Heng's "many contributions" during his time as the Education Minister and as the Finance Minister, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"When I asked you to take on the finance portfolio in 2015, we both knew that you had a difficult job. Even before COVID-19 hit, Singapore had reached a crossroads. We had to overcome fiscal challenges while strengthening social safety nets, as well as transform our economy in the face of seismic global disruptions," Mr Lee wrote in his letter of response.
"I thank you for your selfless decision to stand aside. Your actions now are fully in keeping with the spirit of public service and sense of duty that motivated you to step forward when I asked you to stand for election in 2011."
"Having worked with PM, ESM (Emeritus Senior Minister) and MM (Minister Mentor), I know that the top job imposes exceptional demands on the office holder," said Mr Heng.
"It is in a very different post-COVID-19 world, that the demands will be even more exacting. While I am in good health today, it is in the best interests of the nation, for someone who is younger to tackle the huge challenges ahead."
In response to Mr Heng's decision, the PAP 4G team said it has requested that Mr Lee stay on as Prime Minister until a new successor is chosen by the team and is ready to take over.
"Tackling Singapore's pressing immediate challenges and ensuring that Singapore emerges stronger from this crisis remains our foremost priority. Under these circumstances, the 4G team will need more time to select another leader from amongst us," they said in a joint statement.
"This unexpected turn of events is a setback for our succession planning. We recognise that Singaporeans will be concerned. We seek your support and understanding, as we choose another leader for the team."
READ: ‘Setback for succession planning’: 4G team to select new leader as PM Lee stays on as Prime Minister
READ: Teo Chee Hean will be Acting Prime Minister in PM Lee's absence until 4G team picks a new leader
On whether the results of the General Election influenced his decision, Mr Heng said: "The results of the GE2020 performance, in particular in East Coast GRC, is not the reason why I decided to step aside."
Adding that he was the representative for Tampines for 10 years before moving to East Coast because it "needed reinforcement", he said: "I did my best together with my team. When I went during the campaign period, there were residents who told me that they changed their mind, vote for the PAP, since I was there.
"That is not for me to judge, it is for others to judge. My decision is, as I have emphasised, I am 60 this year, and the COVID situation has disrupted all our plans."
Responding to a question on when the next leader of the 4G team will be chosen, Mr Lee said succession is a "very, very important and urgent issue".
"Choosing a leader isn't just ranking the people and saying who's going to be the best choice. It's also really about team building and developing the team, and developing the relationships amongst the team members so that over time, from that balance and that chemistry, you are able to identify who amongst the people can most maximise the performance of the team and make all the pieces fit together and add up to more than the sum of its parts."
This process "takes more than a few months", but it "should not take more than a couple of years", said Mr Lee. The Prime Minister said he hopes there will be a "clear outcome" before the next General Election.
On who will be the Acting Prime Minister in his absence, Mr Lee said it will be Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean.
"Now that DPM Heng has stood aside as leader of the 4G, I am reverting to the previous arrangement, and will in future appoint SM Teo Chee Hean as Acting PM in my absence," said Mr Lee in response to media queries.
"This is the interim arrangement until such time as the 4G chooses a new leader from among themselves.”
Mr Lee was 52, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong was 49 and founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was in his 30s when they became Prime Minister. Both Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Goh stepped down before they turned 70.
In 2012, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he planned to step down by the age of 70 in 2022.
The 4G leaders, or younger political office holders, chose Mr Heng as their leader – "first among equals" - by early 2018.
Mr Heng was appointed Deputy Prime Minister in May 2019. He was appointed Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies at the Cabinet reshuffle after the 2020 General Election.
At the time, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said the PAP'S 4G team was in "complete unity" behind Mr Heng's leadership.
Amid the COVID-19 crisis, Mr Lee said in July last year that he would see Singapore through the crisis before handing over the reins to the next generation of leaders.
"You have my word: Together with my older colleagues like Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, as well as our younger fourth-generation ministers, I will see this through. I am determined to hand over Singapore, intact and in good working order, to the next team," he said during an online PAP rally for the General Election.