Life is full of curveballs. A really gigantic one came in the path of Singapore’s latest leadership transition. If not for the Covid-19 pandemic, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat might have gone on to become the country’s fourth Prime Minister, as per schedule. Instead, Deputy PM Lawrence Wong is now on track to take over from Lee Hsien Loong in Nov 2024 if all goes well.

Let’s backtrack.

The pandemic started rearing its ugly head sometime in December 2019 in Wuhan and was already threatening to spread beyond the shores of China. With the “wisdom”, hindsight and experience of SARS, Singapore went into action, thinking whatever it learned from the previous crisis was enough. Heng threw in what was thought to be a fairly generous multi-billion dollar budget meant to cope with the crisis and quickly move the island out of the crisis and back on its feet. Unfortunately, at least three more budgets were deemed necessary to deal with the pandemic, which became a threat to lives and livelihoods.

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As the pandemic raged on, some of the national leaders literally dealing hands-on with the crisis found themselves developing a growing relationship with anxious citizens. Even as a nascent bond was being forged between this multi-ministerial task force and the ground, a general election was held, which did Heng, the anointed PM-to-be, no favour. We all know what happened in GE2020.

It was one of the most watched general elections in local history. All eyes were zoned in on online platforms.

There were no physical rallies. Block-to-block visits were done under the strictest precautions. In the end, the political parties had to turn to the internet to reach out to voters. In this relatively new battleground, it appeared that the Opposition, especially the Workers’ Party, had an advantage. They seemed to have a freshness in their approach. The optics favoured them. No tired faces or tired messages. The main Opposition candidates looked fresh, likewise their messages.

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Nevertheless, what could have been a disadvantage for the ruling party was not necessarily one for some of the People’s Action Party fourth-generation cohort.

Fortuitously, the leaders specially chosen to be in the pandemic multi-ministerial task force suffered no such disadvantage.

All the MTF ministers were right in the eye of the storm. Lawrence Wong, Ong Ye Kung, Gan Kim Yong, Chan Chun Sing, Tan See Leng – all were in the firing line as they reported to their fellow citizens the state of the pandemic. This was as live as it could get in the bonding of national leaders and citizens as both battled to survive.

Unfortunately, Heng Swee Keat was not in the task force where Lawrence Wong was fast growing wings as a potential Prime Minister in the way he dealt with the crisis – in capturing the extent of each stage of the crisis and explaining to Singaporeans what each must do to help out. It appeared to me this was nationhood-building at its most basic.

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This may sound strange.

The Covid-19 pandemic was one of the deciding voters in the choice of Singapore’s fourth Prime Minister.


Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.SG is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a magazine publishing company