SINGAPORE: The identity of Singapore's next prime minister will soon become clearer as the People’s Action Party's (PAP) newly elected Central Executive Committee (CEC) meets to decide on the party's key appointment holders, with reports emerging that consensus has already been reached within the party that Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat will be named first assistant secretary-general, with Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing taking the position of second assistant secretary-general.
The party's top body is expected to meet on Friday (Nov 23) and thereafter make the announcement, which political watchers have long said will give the strongest indication of who among the so-called fourth generation (4G) PAP leaders will become prime minister.
TODAY reported on Thursday, quoting party sources, that Mr Heng will emerge as the leading candidate to be the next prime minister.
Mr Heng was chosen because the committee felt he “can rally the ground” and is the “first among equals”, according to a senior party source.
The source added that many of the 4G leaders had decided Mr Heng should be the top leader among them even before the CEC elections, which were held on Nov 11.
Chinese-language daily Lianhe Zaobao also reported that Mr Heng was likely to be appointed as first assistant secretary-general, based on “various indications”.
Earlier this month, 12 party members were voted into the CEC. They included the three front-runners originally identified as Mr Lee’s potential successor: Minister Heng, Minister Chan and Education Minister Ong Ye Kung.
Party cadres, however, had later spoken to TODAY to suggest that Mr Ong was “not part of the inner core group of leaders”, effectively ruling him out of the running for the top spot.
With both Deputy Prime Ministers Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Teo Chee Hean having stepped down from the CEC, analysts had suggested that the key positions to monitor would be the leaders to take on the key positions as assistants to Secretary-General Lee Hsien Loong.
With Mr Heng apparently now set to take on the post of first assistant secretary-general, he will now be seen as the frontrunner to eventually take over from Mr Lee in due course.
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A TIMELINE OF EVENTS
Speculation over political succession and leadership renewal began in earnest with remarks by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong at a National Day Dinner in August 2017.
Pointing out that the then-65 year-old Mr Lee has said he would step down by age 70, Mr Goh called for the 4G leaders to quickly establish themselves as a cohesive team, and “identify the captain amongst them”.
Mr Lee turns 70 in 2022.
A few months later, Mr Goh followed up with a New Year’s Eve Facebook post, where he wrote that having the PAP’s fourth generation leadership in place and settled is an “urgent challenge” in 2018.
He added that he hoped the younger office holders would pick a leader amongst themselves in six to nine months’ time.
This prompted 16 younger ministers to issue a joint statement on Jan 4 in response to media queries, saying they are “keenly aware” that leadership succession is a “pressing issue”.
"We are conscious of our responsibility, are working closely together as a team, and will settle on a leader from amongst us in good time," said the 16, which in addition to Mr Heng, Mr Chan and Mr Ong, included Chee Hong Tat, Grace Fu, Koh Poh Koon, Desmond Lee, Masagos Zulkifli, Ng Chee Meng, Janil Puthucheary, Indranee Rajah, S Iswaran, Sim Ann, Tan Chuan-Jin, Josephine Teo and Lawrence Wong.
READ: Singapore's younger office holders will settle on a potential leader 'in good time'
THE CABINET RESHUFFLE: “LEADERSHIP TRANSITION IS WELL UNDERWAY”
Commenting on Mr Goh’s timeline at the end of January, Mr Lee said that he could not say for certain if they would be able to choose a leader in that time frame, but is confident that “it would be done in good time”.
He added, however, that a Cabinet reshuffle would be a “significant step in exposing and building the new team of leaders”.
In April, Mr Lee announced a “more extensive than usual” Cabinet reshuffle, with younger ministers leading two-thirds of Singapore’s ministries. The reshuffle, he said, means that the leadership transition is “well underway”.
"I have decided to stretch the younger ones, giving many of them two ministries and additional responsibilities," Mr Lee wrote in a Facebook post. "The younger ministers will progressively take over more responsibility for governing Singapore."
The reshuffle, however, did not throw up any new deputy prime ministers, which meant attention was focused on the portfolios the three front-runners took on: Mr Chan stepped down from leading the National Trades Union Congress to take on the Trade and Industry portfolio, relinquishing his Minister in the Prime Minister's Office position in the process. He also took over responsibility for the Public Service from Mr Teo and continued as deputy chairman of the People's Association.
As for Mr Ong, he took over the reins of the entire Education Ministry after his counterpart Mr Ng Chee Meng relinquished his appointment as Minister for Education (Schools) to lead the Labour Movement. He relinquished his appointment as Second Minister for Defence.
Meanwhile, Finance Minister Heng got his wish to remain in the same portfolio while taking from Mr Teo the responsibility for assisting Mr Lee with National Research Foundation matters. He had earlier said that he would be “very happy” to continue at the ministry as there are “many things it needs to do”.
The fourth-generation leaders were also tasked to draft the Government's agenda for the President’s Address – which was delivered by President Halimah Yacob in May following Parliament’s mid-term break.
In her speech, she noted that the fourth-generation leadership team is taking shape, and the new leaders are conscious that Singapore is at an advanced stage of development.
Anticipation grew further with comments by Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam in September. He said that an indication of who would become Singapore’s next prime minister could come from the results of the CEC elections.
"Look out for the slate of candidates elected. Look at the positions they hold and that should give you an indication of where the transition process is and from there,” he said.
The Nov 11 elections, therefore, were closely watched for clues as to who Mr Lee’s successor would be – and analysts Channel NewsAsia spoke to immediately following the election said it was still a three-horse race for the leadership of the party and Government.
Following the election, media reports emerged to suggest that Mr Shanmugam would be in line for the post of PAP assistant secretary-general and deputy prime minister.
Demurring, Mr Shanmugam responded that the appointments “must reflect the future and not the transition”.
In an earlier interview with The Straits Times in January, Mr Ong said he already had someone in mind for the leadership position.
"I am shaping up in my mind someone who can be the leader amongst us,” he said, appearing to rule himself out.
At the party meeting to elect the CEC members, Mr Lee said the PAP was taking a “major step in political renewal” with the internal elections. Following the identification of the new slate of office holders in the CEC, he said he would follow up with changes to the Cabinet lineup “in due course”.
Ultimately, he described the fourth-generation leadership as a team of “able men and women”, with a “good combination of skills among them”.
“They are gaining experience, willing to serve, and most importantly, with their hearts in the right place,” he said. “I can see them gelling as a team, and am confident that they have what it takes to lead Singapore.”
The next stage in the political renewal process will come when the Cabinet is reshuffled again, with potential appointments as deputy prime minister expected.
Following April's extensive reshuffle, it is likely that many of the younger ministers will be given time to settle into their roles.
Having already made the last two major changes to Cabinet appointments in April this year and similarly in April 2017, the next reshuffle could possibly take place again post-Budget 2019.