SINGAPORE: Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Thursday (Apr 8) thanked Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat for his “selfless decision” to step aside as leader of the country’s fourth generation of ministers.
This came after Mr Heng’s letter to Mr Lee announcing his intention to stand down as leader of the 4G team, to allow a younger leader to take over.
Noting the demands of the post-COVID-19 world, Mr Heng said: “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.”
Mr Heng has been an "important member" of his team for the last 10 years, said Mr Lee during a press conference on Thursday. Mr Lee, Mr Heng and other 4G ministers including Education Minister Lawrence Wong, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung, and Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing were in attendance.
In his letter to Mr Heng, Mr Lee said that he understood and respected Mr Heng’s decision. While Mr Heng will continue to stay on as deputy prime minister and coordinating minister for economic policies, he will relinquish his finance portfolio at the next Cabinet reshuffle, as earlier planned, said Mr Lee.
In addition, Mr Heng will continue to chair the Joint Committee on Bilateral Cooperation with China and lead the Singapore Together movement, said Mr Lee.
Mr Heng will also stay on as first assistant secretary-general of the People's Action Party (PAP).
“You have done exceptional work as Minister for Finance, especially during the past year in the trying circumstances wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote Mr Lee.
“Within twelve months, you delivered an unprecedented five Budgets that supported Singaporeans and their families, helped businesses to survive and kept everyone safe. Indeed, in the five years you have been Finance Minister, you have delivered a record ten budgets.”
Mr Lee acknowledged the “difficult job” that Mr Heng had taken on when he took the position of finance minister in 2015.
“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 said that Mr Heng did not hesitate to take up the challenge and put “heart and soul” into the task, adding that Mr Heng’s work with the Committee on the Future Economy and the Future Economy Council had helped workers master new skills and capabilities and “build new industries and sectors for the future”.
He added that he looked forward to Mr Heng carrying on this work as coordinating minister for economic policies.
“This dovetails with your role as Chairman of the National Research Foundation, where under your guidance we are making steady progress developing research, innovation and enterprise.”
Mr Heng and the Prime Minister had discussed Mr Heng's relinquishment of the finance portfolio last year, when working out Cabinet appointments following the general election, said Mr Lee during the press conference.
"We agreed that Budget 2021 would be an important budget, not an emergency budget like the five in 2020, but the budget to take Singapore beyond COVID-19," he said.
"I told him it would be good for them to see through Budget 2021, and then he would give up the MOF (Ministry of Finance) portfolio to concentrate on the broader coordinating responsibilities."
There will be consequential moves in other ministries, and he will announce the reshuffle in about two weeks, Mr Lee said.
MR HENG WILL MENTOR THE YOUNGER MINISTERS
Mr Lee also noted in his letter Mr Heng’s five years at the education ministry, before he took on the position of finance minister.
“There, your inclusive vision of excellence in every school inspired educators and students alike,” he said.
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Mr Heng had proposed to raise government-funded university education to 40 per cent of each cohort, which paved the way to create two new universities, said Mr Lee. They are the Singapore Institute of Technology and the Singapore University of Social Sciences.
Mr Lee also noted how Mr Heng had widened the definition of success, which led to the national SkillsFuture programme, and placed emphasis on developing the character and values of the young.
“The result is an education system that not only prepares our young to access good jobs, but also nurtures upright, public-spirited citizens,” he said.
Mr Heng’s stepping aside as 4G leader is “fully in keeping with the spirit of public service and sense of duty” that motivated him to step forward when asked to run for election in 2011, the Prime Minister said.
“Together with the Senior Ministers, you will help me mentor the younger Ministers as the team develop and identify from among themselves another leader, in order to make a smooth and timely leadership transition.
“By working closely together, we will steer Singapore safely through this health and economic crisis, and secure our future for many years to come.”
Citing the 4G team's statement that this is a "significant setback" to succession plans, Mr Lee said during the press conference that he had agreed to stay on until a new leader is chosen and ready to take over.
"I think it will take longer than a few months, but I hope that (the 4G leaders will) reach a consensus and identify a new leader before the next general elections. I have no intention of staying on longer than necessary," he said.