Singapore — Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong quashed rumours that someone else may be up to succeed him in the future by retaining Mr Heng Swee Keat as the new Cabinet’s sole Deputy Prime Minister (DPM).
The question of who would succeed Mr Lee came to the fore some time after the 2015 elections, when he expressed the wish to hand over the reins of government after the subsequent election.
In 2018, then Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat was identified as the PM-designate when the People’s Action Party’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) — its highest decision-making body — elected him as its First Assistant Secretary-General.
His presumptive position as Mr Lee’s successor was cemented when he was made the sole Deputy Prime Minister in the 2019 Cabinet reshuffle.
A senior PAP leader told the Today publication in 2018 that Mr Heng was selected because the CEC considered him the “first among equals” in its fourth-generation (4G) cohort of leaders and felt that he could “rally the ground”.
However, members of the public as well as PAP insiders became unsure of whether succession plans will go through as expected after Mr Heng’s questionable performance in the recent General Election.
While the PAP clinched 83 of the 93 seats in Parliament, it saw a hefty dip against it in the popular vote. It 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 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 Mr 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. He 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 worse result than it did in the 2011 elections.
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 30 years ago, in 1991.
The PAP’s weak performance in East Coast GRC was especially pronounced since Mr Heng and his four team members — who included one senior political office-holder and a seasoned MP — faced off against a slate of WP candidates that had never contested there.
PAP members, including branch activists, retired parliamentarians and former political office-holders who spoke to Today on 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) said 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 reportedly asked whether someone else might be up for the PM’s job in the new Cabinet.
PM Lee put an end to such questions by revealing that he is retaining Mr Heng as DPM. Mr Heng will also continue as Minister of Finance and will even be given a new role — Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies.
The latest Cabinet line-up appears to make it clear that Mr Heng remains the PM-in-waiting. /TISG