Singapore Deputy PM, waiting in wings to lead city, steps aside unexpectedly

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat will step aside as the leader of the fourth-generation People's Action Party leadership team, he announced on Thursday, Channel News Asia reports.

"This year, I am 60," said Heng, adding that he would be in his mid-60s when the coronavirus disease crisis is over.

He informed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of his decision in a letter on Thursday, saying it was made after “careful deliberation and discussion” with his family. Prime Minister Lee has accepted his decision.

Heng turns 60 in November. 

He has agreed to stay on as Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies, but will step down as Finance Minister at the next Cabinet reshuffle in two weeks, Lee said. 

Heng was appointed the People's Action Party’s (PAP) first assistant secretary-general in November 2018, a position that indicates he is the frontrunner to be Singapore's next Prime Minister.

“I have decided to step aside as leader of the 4G team, so that a younger leader who will have a longer runway can take over,” he wrote in the letter to Lee.

“While I am in good health today, it is in the best interests of the nation, for someone who is younger to tackle the huge challenges ahead.”

Citing the prolonged coronavirus disease pandemic, Heng said he would be close to the mid-60s when the crisis is over.

“The 60s are still a very productive time of life. But when I also consider the ages at which our first three Prime Ministers took on the job, I would have too short a runway should I become the next Prime Minister then,” he added.

“We need a leader who will not only rebuild Singapore post-COVID-19, but also lead the next phase of our nation-building effort.”

Lee became Prime Minister in 2004 when he was 52 years old, while former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong assumed the position in 1990 when he was 49.

Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was 35 years old when he took office.

Heng said the next prime minister should have a “sufficiently long runway” to master the demands of leading Singapore, formulate and see through longer-term strategies for the country, and win the confidence and support of Singaporeans to build a shared future together.

“This long-term orientation of successive PAP governments and the support of our people have been critical to Singapore’s success,” he said in the letter.

Having worked with Lee as well as the two former prime ministers, Heng said he knows that the “top job imposes exceptional demands on the office holder”.

“In a very different post-COVID-19 world, the demands will be even more exacting,” he added.

Heng said the 4G team’s top priority is to deal with the immediate crisis and keep the people of Singapore safe, as he thanked Lee for his commitment to stay on as Prime Minister until the crisis is over.

It will be for the 4G team to choose its next leader, he said, adding that he stands ready to support this person, noting that the pandemic was a "real turning point.''