SINGAPORE — The would-be king is dead. Long live the king - whoever he or she might be.
Heng Swee Keat, once proclaimed by the late Lee Kuan Yew as his most capable aide ever, has now joined the ranks of political could-have-beens like Anwar Ibrahim and Hillary Clinton, leaving Singaporeans to wonder what sort of Prime Minister he might have made. All in, he lasted around two and a half years as the heir apparent to PM Lee Hsien Loong.
In a televised Istana press conference on Thursday (8 April) that was open only to Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and Mediacorp outlets, as well as the social news site Mothership, the Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister abdicated as the chosen one almost nine months after the General Election, amid a plethora of well-rehearsed talking points.
But while PM Lee and Heng's fourth-generation colleagues were all singing from the same hymn sheet, the end result was still puzzlingly, and maddeningly, discordant.
The 59-year-old first cited his age - he had belatedly realised that by the time the next General Election comes around, Heng will be in his mid-60s, and the runway for leadership succession will be too short. "We need someone who is younger with a longer runway, to not think in just one or two election terms, but think about the long term future of Singapore," he said, exhibiting the body language of a man ill at ease in the glare of the media spotlight.
Then there was the startling admission that he had not seen himself as up to the job from day one. Asked when he had started thinking about stepping aside, Heng, who will retain his post as Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies, replied, “I started thinking about it when I was appointed. I do not want to take on any job which I cannot deliver...And therefore, I've been thinking about it as to whether am I the right person?”
To further complicate matters, despite singing his praises amid a show of unity, Heng's 4G colleagues have yet to choose a new successor and said in a joint statement that his decision was an "unexpected turn of events". Even more confusingly, Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean will be acting PM whenever PM Lee is on leave, despite Heng remaining as DPM for now.
The average Singaporean could be forgiven for thinking: what is going on? For there is no other way to call it but for what it is: a leadership crisis.
Something does not add up
Yahoo News Singapore contributor PN Balji, a former editor of The New Paper and Today, covered two prime ministerial successions in his career: from the late Lee to Goh Chok Tong to the current incumbent. Now, he said, Singapore’s well-choreographed leadership succession has gone "topsy turvy", even though Lee, 69, had already pledged to stay on till the end of the pandemic.
"The Singapore system is such that everything is well planned. Now Mr Heng steps aside and we don’t know who is going to take over. He is not going to be Finance Minister, but he’s still going to be DPM for a while. It’s all very intriguing and unsettling for Singapore," Balji said.
Balji was also unconvinced by the 4G leaders citing the pandemic as a reason for the disruption in leadership succession. "COVID-19 has been here for a year. Is it worse than what it was a year ago? And PM Lee has already said he will not hand over until COVID-19 is over. So what is the pressure on Heng Swee Keat?"
All this does not bode well for the People's Action Party, in the wake of last year's election that saw the opposition making historic gains and the PAP's vote share falling by almost nine percentage points. Since then, the ruling party has stumbled from one setback to another, whether it be the TraceTogether debacle or its apparent U-turn on the contentious tudung issue.
Come the next election, what would the PAP say if the Workers' Party, which ran Heng to the wire in his East Coast ward, or any other opposition party were to contest the GRC and tell residents there: you were duped into voting for a man who was supposed to be PM, are you going to be duped yet again?
First among equals?
With the benefit of 20/20 vision - no pun intended - Heng's unease in his role had been apparent for some time. One of the clearest signs that he might not be primus inter pares was his fumbling performance in a November 2019 parliamentary session.
Having proposed a motion that called on WP Members of Parliament Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim to recuse themselves from financial matters relating to the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC), he was meant to carry the ball. This reporter wrote at the time, "Instead, just minutes into the debate on the motion, Heng had to call for a time-out. He hummed and hawed, flipping through his folder like a student stumbling through his class presentation."
Tellingly, clips of PM Lee looking exasperated and instructing Heng on what to say in the session had been circulating online. The latter's reputation has always been that of a genial technocrat, and not a political street fighter.
Then came the 2020 election, when Heng made his infamous "East Coast Plan" gaffe and led his East Coast team to a less than convincing victory with just 53.41 per cent of the vote share. And despite delivering five pandemic Budgets, he was not at the front and centre of the government's efforts to combat the coronavirus, raising questions about whether he inspired confidence among his own colleagues.
Who will be next?
National broadsheet The Straits Times, without citing any polls or individuals in the know, has already anointed four men as potential successors to Heng.
They are: Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung and Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, both of whom have often been spoken of as potential PMs; Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who has impressed with his handling of the pandemic; and National Development Minister Desmond Lee, the youngest of the quartet at 44.
With a Cabinet reshuffle due in two weeks, matters will hopefully become clearer.
But the damage has been done with Singapore's leadership succession in disarray. The PAP must move quickly and decisively if it is to reassure stakeholders on the domestic and international fronts.
It is uncertain if Heng will even be around to contest at the next GE.
Once upon a time, the late Lee declared "I will now play goalkeeper" as he handed over to Goh Chok Tong. In Heng's case, he has called for his own substitution long before the 90 minutes are up. Who will emerge to see Singapore through the game?
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