Who will be Singapore’s next prime minister?

Photo: Karen/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

By Holly Reeves

It is great news from the bedside of Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he is recovering well and making steady progress following his stroke. In fact, on visiting him, he was fully lucid, communicative, and cheerful.

The public reaction to his sudden illness is a reminder of the affection the country, and the government, has quickly developed for him. But among the many well wishes are also important questions – will he be fit enough to return to his Cabinet duties?

Heng’s rise through the party has been fast and highly successful. After he was elected in 2011, he was immediately appointed a full minister – only the second time a new MP had been catapulted into such a position of power. He was also given other high-profile appointments on top of his heavyweight portfolios and hotly tipped as a future prime minister.

Within his People’s Action Party (PAP), succession to the leadership has been traditionally managed by the new leader, appointed by the party, assuming the mantle in their late 40s to early 50s. This assumes, all else being equal, that the individual will have the zest and energy to win three subsequent elections, a period of about 12 to 18 years, and set conditions for Singapore’s continued success.

There is no question that Heng has the acumen to lead the country; it may now be his health that holds him back from the top spot. You see, the next leader of Singapore will need youth and vitality on his side.

The current prime minister has previously said that he would want to hand over the top job to a fourth-generation leader before he turns 70. He is now 64. He has barely another five more years.

With this in mind he knows his current Cabinet must be, “tested, learn the ropes, prove themselves, and shake down as a team. Increasingly they will carry the government’s programme; initiating, explaining and executing policies, and persuading people to support these policies, which will increasingly be their policies.”

The rise of the class of 2011

Heng is not the only young pretender that could step up in 2020. Another commonly cited choice is Chan Chun Sing, praised for his razor-sharp brain and his instincts for the common man. In fact, Heng aside, it is his name most often name-dropped when referring to the fourth-generation leadership core.

He shot straight into politics from the army. And on being elected five years ago, he was immediately appointed Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, and Minister of State at the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts. At that point, he was one of the youngest Ministers to be appointed to the Cabinet. He was just 42.

Or how about Ong Ye Kung, who impressed many in the election campaign with his visionary, passionate rally speeches? Or former chief of defence force Ng Chee Meng, with his, equable demeanour belying organisational skills. He earned respect for overseeing the massive state funeral arrangements and logistics in the mourning period after Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, died.

Another young but serious contender, Tan Chuan-Jin, has used his role as Minister for Social and Family Development to work on measures to bring single mothers benefits up to par with married couples. He has impressed voters and worked tirelessly on the ground in Marine Parade.

A final name to throw in the ring is Lawrence Wong, the youngest Minister in the most recent Cabinet. He was elected into Parliament in 2011 and has since been appointed Minister of Culture, Community and Youth. He has succeeded in making the Botanic Gardens a World Heritage site, chaired the committee for the 2015 SEA Games, and chaired the SG50 Programme Office.

The people’s choice?

Looking over this impressive list of achievements, you would realise that whether or not Heng can return, the young class of the fourth generation are already building the new Singapore. And it is ultimately the people, not Heng’s doctors, or Prime Minister Lee, who will ultimately shape what that dynasty will look like. I have a controversial idea, could it be that Heng’s recent illness will actually make, not break, his career?

He is known as a man of great energy and those who have worked with him have no doubt he will do everything possible to return to the political arena. It is not an impossible prospect; 10 per cent of people who have had a stroke make a full recovery, a further 25 per cent will have only minor complications. In his favour is his young age.

And in his absence, something curious took place. The day after his collapse, nine representatives from the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) conducted prayers for Heng’s recovery. This did not happen when Prime Minister Lee was stricken with prostate cancer in early 2015 and in the 1990s.

The newly-reappointed Finance Minister who filled Heng’s post, Tharman Shamugaratnam, went as far to praise him as, “the best in Singapore and someone we all aspire to be.” A comment on Facebook asking about the prospect of a by-election if he dies was swiftly shot down and turned into a national story for its “sickening” nature.

While Heng recuperates in the hospital, his legend is being born. If he makes it back to the ballot box, how can even the best of the other contenders compete with that?