Next PM: Does it matter? Should Singaporeans even care?

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By Augustine Low

After all the teasing, speculation and anticipation, all PM Lee Hsien Loong would now say about his successor, prior to the cabinet reshuffle, is that “continuous progress” is being made. He could have said the same thing three years ago.

What’s more, he now says it is more important to have in place a capable team. A subtle but perceptible shift in stance, downplaying the significance of his successor after previously talking it up.

Many Singaporeans have seemingly been sucked into the mood of indifference. It would still be a man in white, exhibiting the same colours and traits, and so absolutely nothing changes, they reason.

I beg to differ. It does matter. The PM wields enormous power and influence. If he so chooses, he can set the tone and nature of the discourse and policy-making, and the shape and direction of Singapore politics and society.

If there is one among the front-runners who Singaporeans can pin greater hope on, it is Heng Swee Keat.  For a time, it seemed that Heng was a shoo-in for the job of PM but there are signs that he has fallen behind Chan Chun Sing in the pecking order. This does not bode well for Singaporeans because Heng is an essentially decent, capable, straight-talking and hardworking man.

Let’s recall the words of Li Shengwu, eldest son of Lee Hsien Yang, who said that he himself is not suitable for politics because “as a politician you will inevitably have to lie, I am not willing to lie about my beliefs, I am not up to it.”

Li Shengwu has a point there. Grappling with half-truths and untruths is part and parcel of politics.

One of the kinder things you could say about Heng is that he does not have the insidious cunning and artful deception to lie through his teeth and indulge in gutter politics. He is similar to Tharman Shanmugaratnam in this regard. Heng will lie and attack someone only if compelled to do so – and even then with considerable discomfort. When giving the Opposition a dressing down, like during debates in Parliament and during election time, Heng has the tone and demeanour of an aggrieved school prefect rather than an autocratic headmaster. It just doesn’t come naturally to him.

It would not be off the rails to infer that Heng’s reticence with gutter politics is something which could count against him as far as the PAP is concerned. He is essentially non-contentious and non-confrontational as opposed to one who will not hesitate to get his hands dirty and use all the tools and tricks at his disposal, fair or foul, to shore up power and slay opponents.

If given the job of PM, Heng would work his socks off (health and fitness permitting) and be profoundly committed to the country. Granted, he could be pressured to put party first, he could be pressured to sanction hatchet jobs like putting up roadblocks and fixing the Opposition and critics.

However, there is always the possibility that the better angels of Heng’s nature would prevail. He could upset the apple cart by emerging as his own man and forge greater civil, social and political tolerance, inclusion and magnamity. At least that is the hope for Singaporeans. With Chan Chun Sing (definitely) and with Ong Ye Kung (probably) there is no such hope.

Heng is also someone who just gets on with the job –  no fuss, no hint of swagger or pretension. Whether as Education Minister or Finance Minister, steering the Singapore Conversation or economic restructuring, Heng is unflappable and methodical in tackling the challenges. He is earnest and matter-of-fact.

If there is a discernible chink in Heng’s armour, it is one which none other than Lee Kuan Yew spoke of: “Heng Swee Keat was the best Principal Private Secretary I ever had. The only pity is that he is not of a big bulk, which makes a difference in a mass rally.”

Lee did not use the word in this instance, but what he meant was that Heng is lacking in gravitas. Lee spoke of gravitas from time to time; it combines presence, gait and charisma. It has to do with physical attributes such as height and weight of voice, as well as the way people carry themselves, eliciting a feeling of reverence and awe. Say what you will about Lee Kuan Yew but he certainly had gravitas – he could command a crowd and his presence in the room was always palpable.

Heng, because of his smallish build and a voice significantly lacking in force and heft, is not a politician you would associate with gravitas. Of course he is not alone in this regard. There are other Ministers today who are short of gravitas, including Chan Chun Sing.

Ultimately, though, what counts against Heng could be the fact that he does not take to cunning and deception like a duck to water. The question is whether the PAP will entrust the top job to one who is essentially more straight-laced and less conniving than the party would have preferred.

If Heng does not get the nod, it would be a setback for Singaporeans, who would be better served by having him at the helm. For those who are indifferent or ambivalent, just consider that between a rock and a hard place, Heng is the greater hope and the better man.

Augustine Low is a proud but concerned citizen. Voicing independent, unplugged opinion is his contribution to citizen engagement.