One year ago, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat was tipped by the reputable Financial Times (FT) as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s “likely successor”.
A year later, Heng has just successfully chaired his Committee on the Future Economy (CEF) Report and delivered his second successive Budget.
But where is the PM buzz?
Instead, a talk show on Mediacorp‘s Channel 8 had cheekily pitted two other PM front-runners in an exercise of “humility” two Sundays ago.
On the final episode of the third season of Hear Me Out, hosts Bryan Wong and Lin Pei Fen asked Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), to respond to Minister Chan Chun Sing’s remark.
In an earlier episode last year, the Labour Chief said that Ong and Minister Tan Chuan-Jin were so much smarter than him and would require “30 percent of their efforts” to achieve academic successes in Raffles Junior College.
In response to
the President Scholar Chan’s comments, Ong said that all the efforts he has is in fact just “30 percent”.
He explained that as he had a tough journey at RJC because he came from a Chinese secondary school.
In fact, he had trouble communicating with girls from RJC because many do not speak Mandarin well.
Political succession in Singapore
The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is deeply neophobic in politics — afraid of anything that’s too new — and therefore, political succession is governed by certain “unspoken” rules.
These rules include: He must be in late 40s/ early 50s. He must be experienced in the ways of the government (and the levers) of the power. No minorities need apply — because Singaporeans are not ready yet.
Because, like Star Wars or Harry Potter, the hero is the “synthesis” of his friends.
See exhibit 1: Founding PM Lee Kuan Yew, DPM Goh Keng Swee and Foreign Minister S Rajaratnam. Not convinced? How about exhibit 2: Current PM Lee, DPMs Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
This brings us back to Heng, who could well be the “synthesis” of a young Chinese DPM and a more senior minority DPM.
1. After Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), the Prime Minister of Singapore either has a finance background or was a former Finance Minister — Heng fulfills both criteria
Singapore’s second PM Goh Chok Tong was an economist, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree with First Class Honours in economics from the University of Singapore (now National University of Singapore), and a Master of Arts in development economics from Williams College in 1967.
Singapore’s third PM Lee was the Minister for Finance from 2001 to 2007 and the Chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) from 1998 to 2004.
And Heng? The Finance Minister graduated with an MA in Economics from Cambridge University and was the former Managing Director of the MAS.
2. Among the fourth generation leaders, Heng has the closest links to the founding PM.
Heng was LKY’s Principal Private Secretary from 1997 to 2000 and the man who wrote one of the defining stories during LKY’s passing, titled “Mr Lee’s Red Box”.
Perhaps seen as the keeper of the LKY flame, Heng also wrote the foreword to Up Close with Lee Kuan Yew: Insights from colleagues and friends , a tribute book that was published on LKY’s one-year death anniversary.
In the foreword, Heng told the story about how his essay “Mr Lee’s Red Box” was already written for the book but he had to change it to past tense after LKY’s death on March 23, 2015.
And what was LKY’s verdict of Heng?
“Heng Swee Keat, now Education Minister, was the best Principal Private Secretary I ever had. The only pity is that he is not of a big bulk, which makes a difference in a mass rally.” One Man’s View of the World, 2013
And so what if Heng is not of a big bulk?
Deng is not of “big bulk” too.
And this was what LKY said of Deng:
“I would say the greatest was Deng Xiaoping. At his age, to admit that he was wrong, that all these ideas, Marxism, Leninism, Maoism, they are just not working and have to be abandoned, you need a great man to do that…” Tom Plate’s Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew
3. A politician needs some good luck and Heng (no pun intended) is a lucky politician
Although Heng’s Tampines constituency is in the East, it did not face stiff competition — unlike East Coast GRC — from the most consequential Opposition party in town. This allowed Heng time to build his support that culminated in a strong 72.06 percent win in General Election 2015.
Good luck means good timing too.
Heng, who was born in the same year (1961) as Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, entered politics a decade later.
While Heng is viewed as the core member of the fourth generation leadership team, Vivian is largely seen as a third generation leader.
At the end of the day, the root of the matter is that Heng’s effectiveness shows best in inverse proportion to the size of the group in which he gathers.
In a public gathering, the soft-spoken Heng is flat and less colourful; but in a mid-size gathering he can be persuasive and in small groups, he can be dominant.
And the central fact of politics has always been the quality of leadership under the pressure of great forces.
A politician recovering from stroke and returning to active politics?
Heng’s grace under these pressures — CFE and Budget — puts him in the exalted company of one Winston Churchill, who suffered two strokes and still remain as PM.
Top photo from Gov.sg YouTube