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Was Heng Swee Keat ousted?

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

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For a development which should not have been a surprise, DPM Heng Swee Keat’s decision to step aside as the 4G leader to become the next Prime Minister had many observers working overtime with their analyses. “Why did he do it? What happened? Who will now be the next PM?”. The greater surprise would have been if he had stayed on despite everything. His position had looked untenable. 

“GE2020 was a referendum on Heng Swee Keat as the anointed next PM. He did not do well”: This was the headline for a column I wrote on July 12, 2020, just after the results.

Then on Jan 26, 2021, I wrote another piece on the press conference held on the post-election Cabinet reshuffle. Under the following headline, “Cabinet reshuffle: Chan Chun Sing gives cryptic reply about DPM Heng”, I said: 

“…Little wonder that Saturday’s press conference did not turn out to be the celebratory coming-of-age event that it was meant to be. One where PM Lee (Hsien Loong) would take a back seat as the 4G leaders hogged centre stage and fielded questions about the future direction of party and country. Instead, the mood was as sombre as at the PAP press conference after the results of GE2020 on July 10 2020.

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“The word that PM Lee used was continuity but for observers it would be: perfunctory. He did what he had done with most of his previous Cabinet reshuffles – explain the need to further expose his ministers, moving them around and giving them new portfolios, promote a few and retain a number of older ministers (in this case, the key 3G leaders, including the two Senior Ministers). Same same, as they like to say.

“In other words, the 4G handing over ceremony has been postponed. PM Lee is not stepping down soon. SM Teo Chee Hean and SM Tharman Shanmugaratnam are still around. Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and Law Minister K Shanmugam are still carrying the burden as the heavyweight ministers.

“And the most significant question posed at the press conference elicited a very telling answer. When asked whether the 4G leaders had reviewed their plans about backing DPM Heng, PM Lee very quickly deflected the question to Chan Chun Sing, who looked a bit surprised.

“The Trade and Industry Minister regained his composure and gave this cryptic reply: ‘We are entirely focused on helping the country in overcoming the economic challenges and saving the jobs at this point of time. We have no plans to do otherwise and we have no plans, no discussions on any change in plan.’ 

For the time being, perhaps.”

Nine months later, not unexpectedly, Heng said he was making away for another person to be the PM-in-waiting. Reason: The runway was too short for taking off.

There has, indeed, been a change in the succession plan, contrary to what Chan said. Unprecedented? 

How did we end up with this rather weird un-PAP-Singapore-like scenario of having an anointed would-be PM saying he does not want to be PM? So many questions are in the public mind. Did Heng willingly move out from Tampines to East Coast at such a short notice? Was losing a GRC more important to prevent than not risking the fortunes of the party’s flag-bearer and future PM? Post-GE2020, did Heng surrender willingly or was he forced to do so? His health could not have been the real reason because he did not regard that a problem when he first accepted the challenge of being the next PM? Was there some kind of a coup d’etat carried out to override the wishes of the 4G cohort and reset the whole PM selection process? We may never know.

What we do know is this: Nothwithstanding Heng Swee Keat’s white flag, the Covid-19 pandemic  offers an unprecedented chance for the other 4G leaders to prove their worth and bond themselves with Singaporeans. No prize for guessing who has already displayed his panache under great pressure, especially when the virus was raging through the foreign workers’ dormitories – threatening lives, livelihoods and leaderships.

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 local magazine publishing company.Follow us on Social Media

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