SINGAPORE: Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat's extensive political experience and “likeable character” will stand him in good stead to lead Singapore, analysts and political watchers Channel NewsAsia spoke to said on Friday (Nov 23).
His appointment as the first assistant secretary-general of the People’s Action Party (PAP), which means he is likely to become the country's next prime minister, thus came as no surprise to these analysts.
Mr Heng’s appointment was announced on Friday, with Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing named as the PAP's second assistant secretary-general. Education Minister Ong Ye Kung - once widely tipped to be one of the three frontrunners in the race to become prime minister apart from Mr Heng and Mr Chan - was made assistant treasurer of the PAP.
“(Mr Heng) is the most senior and has the most political and policy experience among the members of the fourth-generation (4G) leadership team,” said Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a political analyst from the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, adding that Mr Heng has been proven to have the “required political skill-set and diplomatic toolkit” to serve as Singapore’s next prime minister.
National University of Singapore political scientist Bilveer Singh made a similar point, highlighting Mr Heng’s experience as Principal Private Secretary to Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
“He has been in politics as a protege of Mr Lee Kuan Yew since 1997,” he said. “He has access to all national policies, and he was mentored by the best political teacher you can have in Singapore.”
Singapore’s founding prime minister had also credited Mr Heng, when he was managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, for saving the country’s economy during the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008, Dr Singh added.
Mr Heng’s “likeable character” also likely tipped the balance in his favour, according to associate lecturer at SIM Global Education Felix Tan, adding that Mr Heng’s ability to listen and communicate effectively made him the best choice for the position.
“Whenever Mr Heng says something, it seems sincere. There’s a level of trustworthiness in what he says,” said Dr Tan.
Dr Singh also described Mr Heng as a “natural leader”, pointing out that one of his strengths is his personality. “He is able to get everybody to work with him,” he said. “He is non-threatening, humble … and a problem-solver.”
Dr Singh also sees Mr Heng’s non-military background as an advantage. “Non-military leaders do things not by orders, but by negotiation,” he said. “And politics is all about negotiation, and understanding the ups and downs.
“This gives the civilian politician an upper hand in future.”
‘HENG IS A CROSS BETWEEN PM LEE AND ESM GOH’
SIM Global Education’s Dr Tan described the finance minister as a “cross between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong”.
“He listens carefully to issues being raised, and tries his best to explain in the simplest terms,” he said. “He’s a very lay person.”
Political commentator and associate professor of law Eugene Tan from the Singapore Management University added that he expects Mr Heng to not only be consultative, but to “strive to build consensus”, particularly on controversial issues.
“I expect Mr Heng’s tenure as prime minister to be defined by embracing Singapore’s growing diversity, the commitment to good leadership and governance that harnesses the grassroots energy by engaging people and leadership at all levels of society, and a greater emphasis on a fairer and egalitarian society,” he said.
Dr Mustafa pointed out that Mr Heng’s work would be cut out for him.
“He would not only have to be a domestic leader for the residents of Singapore, but also a foreign leader to navigate Singapore on the regional and international stage,” he said, pointing to several “pressing domestic exigencies” like bread and butter issues and cost of living that Mr Heng would have to deal with.
“On the foreign policy level, he would have to ensure that Singapore is first and foremost safe in its regional neighbourhood, including by ensuring that Singapore’s relations with its immediate neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia, remain on an even keel.”
COULD CHAN CHUN SING STILL BECOME PM?
Mr Chan, as Mr Heng’s deputy, also has a critical role to play in steering the next generation of leaders, analysts said, with Dr Mustafa describing the extent to which Mr Heng and Mr Chan could work together as a “tag team” as a “litmus test” for the PAP.
“The chemistry between them will be crucial towards the effective governing of Singapore,” he said.
SMU’s Assoc Prof Tan believes that the “prompt declaration” of Mr Chan as Mr Heng’s deputy is also about “mitigating any negative impact from a ‘tight race’ that was too close to call”.
“This is not to suggest an internal division, but to highlight how the two top leaders’ ‘package deal’ will enable the 4G team to bring out their best and remain cohesive,” he said.
But even though Mr Chan might have missed out on taking over from PM Lee, analysts predicted that there is a chance the 49-year-old could still get a second bite of the apple in due course.
Some of them pointed to Mr Heng’s age and the stroke he suffered in 2016 as signs that he could serve two terms before handing over to Mr Chan.
Mr Heng has made a good recovery and doctors have given him a clean bill of health. Still, SIM Global Education’s Dr Tan said that Mr Heng’s health is “of concern”.
Dr Singh shared the same sentiments, adding that Mr Heng could serve two terms “easily” before passing the baton to Mr Chan.
Dr Mustafa said that Mr Ong Ye Kung, who was said to be in the running to become prime minister, could also still have a shot at the top job in the future.
“It is likely to be between Mr Chan and Mr Ong on who would replace Mr Heng when he steps down after at least two terms,” he said.