SINGAPORE: Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said he is stepping aside as leader of the 4G team for someone younger with a “longer runway” to become the next Prime Minister.
He informed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of his decision in a letter on Thursday (Apr 8), saying it was made after “careful deliberation and discussion” with his family. Mr Lee has accepted his decision.
He has agreed to stay on as Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies, but will step down as Finance Minister at the next Cabinet reshuffle in two weeks, Mr Lee said.
Mr Heng turns 60 in November.
He was appointed the People's Action Party’s (PAP) first assistant secretary-general in November 2018, a position that indicates he is the frontrunner to be Singapore's next Prime Minister.
“I have decided to step aside as leader of the 4G team, so that a younger leader who will have a longer runway can take over,” he wrote in the letter to Mr Lee.
“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.”
Citing the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Heng said he would be close to the mid-60s when the crisis is over.
“The 60s are still a very productive time of life. But when I also consider the ages at which our first three Prime Ministers took on the job, I would have too short a runway should I become the next Prime Minister then,” he added.
“We need a leader who will not only rebuild Singapore post-COVID-19, but also lead the next phase of our nation-building effort.”
Mr Lee became Prime Minister in 2004 when he was 52 years old, while former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong assumed the position in 1990 when he was 49.
Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was 35 years old when he took office.
Mr Heng said the next Prime Minister should have a “sufficiently long runway” to master the demands of leading Singapore, formulate and see through longer-term strategies for the country, and win the confidence and support of Singaporeans to build a shared future together.
“This long-term orientation of successive PAP governments and the support of our people have been critical to Singapore’s success,” he said in the letter.
Having worked with Mr Lee as well as the two former Prime Ministers, Mr Heng said he knows that the “top job imposes exceptional demands on the office holder”.
“In a very different post-COVID-19 world, the demands will be even more exacting,” he added.
Mr Heng noted that when he had a stroke in 2016, his Cabinet colleagues were "unstinting" in their support.
"With the great work of my medical team, and the care and encouragement of my family, friends and fellow Singaporeans, I was able to recover fully," he wrote.
Mr Heng said the 4G team’s top priority is to deal with the immediate crisis and keep the people of Singapore safe, as he thanked Mr Lee for his commitment to stay on as Prime Minister until the crisis is over.
It will be for the 4G team to choose its next leader, he said, adding that he stands ready to support that person.
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
During a press conference in July last year, following the most recent Cabinet reshuffle, a question was posed on whether the 4G ministers had discussed or reviewed the backing of Mr Heng as their leader.
Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, who is also the PAP's second assistant secretary-general, responded that the team was entirely focused on saving jobs and helping Singapore overcome economic challenges during the pandemic, with "no plans" to do otherwise.
Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan then said a day later that the 4G leaders were in "complete unity" behind the leadership of Mr Heng.
GE2020 RESULTS NOT A FACTOR IN DECISION: DPM HENG
At a press conference on Thursday, Mr Heng said that he started thinking about the issue of succession when he was appointed 4G leader in 2018.
"I do not want to take on any job which I cannot deliver," he said, noting that the pandemic was a "real turning point".
"As those of you who have worked with me know, I am a workaholic and I put my heart and soul into what I do. And therefore, I've been thinking about it as to whether am I the right person?"
Mr Heng also said that his team's performance in the 2020 General Election, when he helmed the PAP team in East Coast GRC, was not the reason why he was stepping aside.
The PAP held off a challenge by the Workers' Party, winning 53.41 per cent of the vote.
"I have been an MP in Tampines for 10 years and worked very well with the team and built certain rapport with residents," Mr Heng said.
"But when East Coast needed reinforcement, I decided to go. It is a completely new ground for me and 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 to vote for the PAP since I was there, so that is not for me to judge. It's for others to judge."
When asked if he will run in the next General Election, Mr Heng said he will "continually fight to retain" East Coast GRC, as he thanked residents there for giving their mandate.
"My team and I remain as committed as before to serving them," he said.
"The PAP has never taken the support of Singaporeans for granted. And I will continue to serve Singaporeans to the best of my ability, in ways which are useful and meaningful."
Mr Heng said in his letter to the Prime Minister that he appreciates the support of Singaporeans and has made his decision "with the best interests of Singapore and Singaporeans at heart".
“I will continue my best, to support you, Cabinet colleagues and the party, so that we can continue to improve the lives of Singaporeans and emerge stronger post-COVID-19.”