Heng Swee Keat may have been chosen to be 4G PM “about six to nine months earlier” had he not suffered a stroke: ESM Goh

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Commenting on Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat’s recent appointment as the ruling party’s 1st assistant secretary-general – an appointment that appears to confirm that Heng will go on to be Singapore’s next PM – Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong has commented that the party’s decision to back Heng may have been made “about six to nine months earlier” had Heng not suffered a stroke in May 2016.

The timeline of “six to nine months” coming from ESM Goh may seem familiar to some. It is the same timeline that the former Prime Minister offered when he said on New Years Eve this year that he hopes the party leadership will select the 4G PM in “six to nine months”.

The timeline that the senior politician offered and his appeal that leadership succession is an “urgent challenge” for the nation appeared to irk current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Later in January, PM Lee commented on ESM Goh’s remarks and said that leadership succession will “take a little bit longer” than what ESM Goh had hoped.

He added, in what appeared to be a pointed comment, that “ESM (Goh) is speaking with the privilege of watching things rather than being responsible to make it happen. I think we know it’s a very serious matter.”

In response, the ESM took to Facebook and posted a comment that appeared to throw subtle shade at the PM’s “watching things” comment.

Posting about his meeting with former Iranian Minister of Economic Affairs and Finance, Dr Ali Tayebnia, the former PM said: “I recalled my two visits to Iran fondly, the first as Prime Minister and the second, as Senior Minister. Both of us now ‘watch’ things happen, and coincidentally share a common title. He serves as Senior Advisor to his President while I serve as Senior Advisor to MAS!”

ESM Goh made a similar reference to the “watching” comment in a subsequent post. Uploading two photos, one of himself and another of an unidentified man, the ESM wrote: “I watch as he ruminates in the calmness of Learning Forest, far from the maddening (sic) crowd.”

A few hours later, the PM finally responded by sharing ESM Goh’s post and wrote: “‘Watching’ MParader’s posts: Touché!” – LHL”

Netizens responding to the unusual exchange appear to largely feel that there is some sort of strain in the relationship between the nation’s current and immediate past Prime Ministers.

One netizen wrote, “Using FB to get a message across between a former PM and the current PM reflects a strained relationship that requires some patching up. Hopefully, we don’t end up watching more things happening,” while others have criticised the leaders for being “childish”.

Heng Swee Keat was finally announced as the party’s second-in-command and the most likely candidate to succeed PM Lee after the party’s recent Central Executive Committee elections in late November – over 11 months after ESM Goh said he hopes leadership succession will be made clearer in “6-9 months”.

ESM Goh now says that he is glad that the party leaders have finally decided who to back as 4G PM: “I am very happy that they have decided now to pick the leaders. Obviously, the team players are very good, the individual players are very good.

“But they were a team under Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. So now they have to be a team, under a new leader.”

When asked by Channel NewsAsia if the party’s decision to back Heng was possibly delayed due to his stroke, ESM Goh replied: “I would think so. I think without the stroke they would probably have come to a decision earlier, maybe about six to nine months earlier.”

In a press conference after he was appointed the ruling party’s 1st assistant secretary-general Heng Swee Keat said that his doctors have given him a clean bill of health. Noting that he has lost weight and is now fitter and healthier than ever, Heng asserted that he would not have taken up the appointment if he felt he was not fit to do so:

On Heng specifically, ESM Goh recalled the Finance Minister’s days as director of the central bank during the 2008 global financial crisis and said: “I saw how he worked. I think he could take crisis, and he could manage crisis.”

ESM Goh said that the other candidate who was billed to be a PM frontrunner, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, makes a “strong pairing” with Heng. Chan was appointed 2nd assistant secretary-general.

Asserting that the pair have complementary strengths, ESM Goh said that while Heng is experienced in governance, he “hasn’t quite been exposed to the mobilisation of people, working with the PAP, the NTUC (National Trades Union Congress), and working with the PA (People’s Association). Chan Chun Sing has that.”

Meanwhile, he added that Chan has “experience in running some ministries, but his strengths so far have been exposed in those mobilisation areas. So, the two will work very well, they’ll complement one another.”

Did Goh Chok Tong’s dig at Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong spark renewed leadership succession talk?