Speculation is reportedly rife among People’s Action Party (PAP) insiders whether someone else might be up for the Prime Minister role, given PM-designate Heng Swee Keat’s questionable performance at the hustings.
The question of who would succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong came to the fore some time after the 2015 election, when PM Lee expressed his wish to hand over the reins to the government after the subsequent election.
In 2018, then-Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat was identified as the PM-designate when the PAP’s central executive committee (CEC) – the party’s highest decision-making body – elected him as its first assistant secretary-general. His presumptive position as PM Lee’s successor was cemented when he was made Singapore’s sole Deputy Prime Minister in the 2019 Cabinet reshuffle.
A senior PAP leader who spoke to TODAY told the publication in 2018 that Mr Heng was selected because the PAP CEC considered him the “first among equals” in its fourth-generation (4G) cohort of leaders and felt that he could “rally the ground”.
PAP insiders are now unsure whether succession plans will go through as expected given Mr Heng’s performance at the recent polls.
While the PAP clinched 83 out of 93 seats, it saw a hefty dip against it in the popular vote. The ruling party suffered its second-worst score and did only 1.1 per cent better than it did in the watershed 2011 general election, where it saw its worst electoral score since independence.
Swings against the party ranged up to 26 per cent in individual wards and the PAP lost yet another Group Representation Constituency (GRC) to the opposition. The Workers’ Party’s (WP) stunning victory at the new Sengkang GRC unseated three political office-holders, including prominent 4G minister Ng Chee Meng.
Perhaps the biggest blow for the PAP, besides the loss of Mr Ng, was Mr Heng’s notably poor performance at the polls. Mr Heng surprised observers by turning up at the Nomination Centre for East Coast GRC 30 minutes before nominations closed, revealing that he would be running in the hotly-contested ward instead of his Tampines GRC stronghold.
His disaster of a nomination speech, when he tripped over words and stammered as he told voters about his ‘East Coast Plan’, was perhaps an ominous sign of things to come. Instead of achieving a better result with the involvement of the PM-in-waiting, the PAP’s East Coast team suffered a worst result than it did in the 2011 election.
Mr Heng and his East Coast teammates barely made it into Parliament, with 53.41 per cent of the vote. This is the worst PAP performance in the ward since East Coast GRC was formed nearly thirty years ago, in 1991.
The PAP’s weak performance at East Coast GRC was especially pronounced since the PAP team – which comprised of four political office-holders including Mr Heng – faced off against a slate of WP candidates that had never contested East Coast GRC before.
PAP members, including branch activists, retired parliamentarians and former political office-holders who spoke to TODAY on the condition of anonymity, expressed disappointment with the East Coast GRC results.
Party insiders, some of whom hoped that Mr Heng would have won by a larger margin proving that he has the nation’s mandate, reportedly indicated that his performance at the polls have given rise to internal questions of whether the PAP needs to rethink its succession plans.
While one senior activist felt that Mr Heng could have performed better if he had been able to spend more time on the ground, a former Member of Parliament (MP) told TODAY that he considered what might have happened if Mr Heng had gone head to head with WP secretary-general Pritam Singh instead of new WP candidate Nicole Seah.
Some activists also told the publication that Mr Heng’s ‘East Coast Plan’ gaffe did not do him any favours and that the East Coast result suggests he might not be the “unifying figure” Singapore needs. Party activists are reportedly asking whether someone else might be up for the PM’s job in the upcoming cabinet reshuffle, given Mr Heng’s electoral performance.
Reservations about Mr Heng’s suitability to lead the nation are even louder outside the PAP.
The Straits Times’ Editor-at-Large Han Fook Kwang, a prominent member of the establishment, questioned whether Mr Heng’s claim to leadership is under threat. In an opinion-editorial, he highlighted the challenges presented by the COVID crisis and asked: “Will the new circumstances require a different leader to rally and mobilise the people?”
Historian Michael Barr was more vocal about the significance of the election outcome and said that the result at East Coast GRC was a referendum on Mr Heng. Prof Barr said that Mr Heng bears heavy responsibility for the poor PAP result since he was in charge of the party’s national campaign and wrote:
“It is a sign of the state of self-delusion, both in Cabinet and among what passes for Singapore’s political commentariat, that a recurring theme of the election-night coverage was that “this is not a referendum on Heng Swee Keat”. It was.”
Asserting that the 4G has “failed to cut through to the electorate, and do not seem up to the job of government,” Prof Barr added: “Mr Heng’s personal contribution to government has been a series of inarticulate speeches, that are perhaps the consequence of the lingering effects of a massive stroke he suffered in 2016, but which are making him something of a figure of fun, not just in Singapore but in the region.”
The historian questioned why the PAP leadership seems so fixated on having Mr Heng become its next leader given his poor performance and wrote: “It is hard to believe that Mr Lee is not aware, but it is even more difficult to accept that Mr Heng’s colleagues, who he beat in the race to the top, are also not aware — especially as nearly all of them polled better than Mr Heng himself.”