NTU Asst Professor predicts Ong is out of PM race; contest will be between Chan and Heng

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Assistant Professor Woo Jun Jie, who teaches Singapore politics and foreign policy at the Public Policy & Global Affairs Programme of Nanyang Technological University, has forecast that Education Minister Ong Ye Kung is out of the contest to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, leaving the race to Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat and soon-to-be Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing.

In a commentary for Channel NewsAsia published on Wednesday, Woo asserted that Chan’s new appointment as MTI minister makes him a “relatively well-rounded Prime Ministerial candidate.”

Pointing out that Chan will retain his role as deputy chairman of the People’s Association, Woo highlighted Chan’s previous appointments in the labour movement, the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, and the Ministry of Social and Family Development as key experiences that may help him to clinch the head of government post.

Woo argued: “While such experience in social policy and labour relations arguably provides Mr Chan with an edge in fostering strong social consensus and leading labour transformation, his new portfolio will allow him to combine these strengths with economic development and industrial policy.”

Woo further pointed out Chan’s political career mirrors that of former prime minister Goh Chok Tong and PM Lee. Both Emeritus Senior Minister (ESM) Goh and PM Lee served as MTI ministers during their political career. Both politicians also served extensively in the Singapore Armed Forces, like ex-General Chan.

“Mr Chan possesses the technical know-how to lead Singapore through economic disruptions and labour transformation and, perhaps more importantly, the skills and relations needed to foster strong social consensus across Singaporean society – the kind of people person our next Prime Minister needs to be to forge a new consensus and lead Singapore,” Woo said.

HENG: A MORE TRADITIONAL LEADER

Meanwhile, Heng “presents a more traditional set of skills and capabilities that are well-suited to the technocratic governance of Singapore’s economy,” according to Woo.

Citing Heng’s continued appointment in the Ministry of Finance and his past experience as Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), Woo noted that the roles Heng has played are “crucial for a potential Prime Minister.”

Woo added that Heng’s experience is similar to ESM Goh and PM Lee’s career trajectory as well, since both men served as MAS Chairmen. PM Lee also served as Minister for Finance for six years while ESM Goh previously served as Senior Minister of State for Finance.

Opining that Heng’s stint as Education Minister and his experience in the security sector may spell a major promotion for him as head of government. Woo said: “Mr Heng’s expertise and reputation as a top financial regulator and finance minister make him a highly skilled technocratic Prime Minister capable of leading economic and financial sector transformation.”

ONG MAY NOT HAVE SUFFICIENT EXPERIENCE TO CLINCH THE TOP SPOT

In contrast to Chan and Heng, Ong may not have enough experience that will land him the top spot according to Woo.

While Ong has been given full reign over the Education Ministry in the latest Cabinet reshuffle, with his counterpart Ng Chee Meng being moved out of the Ministry into the Prime Minister’s Office, this may not mean Ong has an edge over the two other frontrunners hotly tipped to succeed PM Lee.

For one, Heng previously served as Education Minister as well. In addition, the additional responsibilities Chan and Heng will take over from Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean suggests that they may be ahead of Ong in the PM race.

Again hearkening to ESM Goh and PM Lee’s political career trajectory, Woo pointed out that both men held multiple portfolios before becoming Prime Minister and implied that this may mean Ong, with his limited experience, may be out of the contest.

Woo concluded: “Given the need for a future Prime Minister to acquire a broad set of skills and exposure to a wide range of policy issues, and the track record of our past Prime Ministers, it seems the search for Lee Hsien Loong’s successor has narrowed.”