Why Did Heng Swee Keat Give Up Near Certain Chance to Become Singapore PM?

Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat has decided to opt out of the race to become the next prime minister, throwing succession plans in Singapore's ruling party.

What exactly are the reasons behind the 60-year-old's decision to hang up the boots even after Singapore's long-time ruling party offered Heng the premiership on a platter just a little over two years ago?

Heng, who is also the finance minister, took the decision after staying on as the presumptive successor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for more than two years.

Singapore: Minister Heng Swee Keat discharged from hospital
Heng Swee Keat Reuters

The frontrunner's decision to step aside has thrown open the leadership race in the Asian financial hub. The unexpected move also caused confusion in the ranks of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP).

Heng, who is also the former managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), conveyed his decision to Lee in a letter on Thursday.

Age Factor?

Heng, who will become 60 next year, also cited age as one of the factors behind the decision. He suggested that he will have a short term as prime minister given that he will be near the mid-sixties when he assumes the prime minister's office, if he were to stay in the race.

In a more surprising move, Heng also decided to step down as the finance minister at the next Cabinet reshuffle. But he will continue as the deputy prime minister and coordinating minister for economic policies.

Stroke in 2016

Heng, who gave stellar leadership in the role of the all-important finance minister, suffered a stroke in May 2016, and was out of political limelight for some time. He had collapsed at a weekly Cabinet meeting at the Istana after suffering a stroke. But he recovered well and was chosen as the presumptive successor to Lee two years later.


Reward for Talent

In November 2018 Heng was named the first assistant secretary-general of People's Action Party (PAP), anointing him as the successor of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

It was then reported that Heng's elevation was a sign of his leadership role among the fourth generation (4G) leaders in the country. Reports said Heng's 'humility' and 'brilliance' made him an effective leader.


Leadership Vacuum

PM Lee Hsien Loong held a Joint Press Conference with US Vice-President Mike Pence at the Istana on 16 November 2018.
PM Lee Hsien Loong held a Joint Press Conference with US Vice-President Mike Pence at the Istana on 16 November 2018. YouTube grab/ Prime Minister's Office, Singapore

Facing an apparent leadership vacuum, the 4G leaders asked Prime Minister Lee to continue in his role. The 4G leaders said Heng's decision was unexpected news. They also said it was a "setback for our succession planning".

"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. We will continue working as a team to serve our people, and to earn the confidence and trust of all Singaporeans," a joint statement said.

PM Lee said the 4G team may need some time to choose a new leader, but there is no leadership crisis in the party or the government. "Top-line, the team has not changed. The same ministers are still there. I'm still the PM, Swee Keat is still the DPM. And they will be dealing with the same people and that's what matters to them if you take the two-, three-, four-year point of view, which in diplomacy is quite a long time," he said, according to the Today Online.

Election Setback

Heng primarily cites a 'short run as PM' and health as the reasons for his decision. However, political analysts have suggested that the erosion in the electoral support for PAP in the last election might have been a reason as well. Although Heng is popular in the party, his constituency had seen a dwindling of votes for the PAP in the previous general election.

"I think there's still some noise on the ground about his performance during the election," said Felix Tan, Nanyang Technological University political observer, according to Today Online.

Under Heng's watch, PAP got only 53 percent of votes in the East Coast GRC, signaling a tight fight against rivals in future campaigns. Overall, PAP's vote share in the last election dropped to 61 percent, raising concerns in the ranks of the PAP, which has had an uninterrupted run so far.