China govt mouthpiece Global Times asks if S’pore's upcoming leadership up to the challenge

It praised Heng Swee Keat first, before smuggling in a few criticisms.

Martino Tan | December 28, 2018, 04:26 PM

China government mouthpiece Global Times has provided its first analysis on Heng Swee Keat, the 4G leader most likely to replace Lee Hsien Loong as prime minister.

Written by the director of The Center for Singapore Studies at Shandong University, the commentary, "Is Singapore’s upcoming leadership up to the challenge?", praised the finance minister's "rich working experience and splendid resume", noting that Heng is the "most reliable person" to lead Singapore.

However, it also mischievously cast doubts on whether the 4G leadership is up to the challenge of leading Singapore and balancing its US and Chinese interests.

In fact, its headline was equally naughty, asking aloud whether Singapore's next PM would continue Lee's legacy.

Global Times listed Heng's achievements and experiences in government

In the 839-word essay, Fan Lei, the author, observed that Heng won the praise of the late Lee Kuan Yew for being the "best principal private secretary", noting that Heng can be seen beside LKY at the celebrated leader's 91st birthday party.

Fan observed how Heng led Our Singapore Conversation, and how those efforts would have "fixed the PAP's political foundation hurt during the 2011 election".

Fan also highlighted Heng's electoral popularity, noting how Heng, as anchor minister, retained Tampines GRC with 72.06 percent of votes in the 2015 election -- a 14.84 percent increase compared to the 2011 election.

No fundamental changes to bilateral relations between Singapore and China

Fan noted that there would not be fundamental changes in the bilateral relations between Singapore and China under Heng.

The analysis focused on how Heng spoke fluent Chinese in his interviews with Xinhua News Agency and other Chinese media outlets, and is familiar with China's Belt and Road initiative and China-Singapore cooperation.

It also noted that Heng accompanied the late Lee Kuan Yew on a visit to China's Suzhou Industrial Park in 1997 as his principal private secretary.

In 1997, LKY was on a working visit to China for 13 days from Nov. 29 to Dec. 11.

Reading between the lines

Beyond the praises, there are two things worth noting about the commentary.

First, Global Times mentioned Heng's lack of diplomatic experience, not once but twice.

It expressed scepticism about the 4G leaders' diplomatic abilities, indicating that it would take a "lot of wisdom for Heng and the fourth-generation leadership to achieve Lee Kuan Yew's diplomatic aspiration".

However, it is a strawman argument to use LKY as a benchmark.

Neither Goh Chok Tong nor Lee Hsien Loong started their premiership with more diplomatic experience than the founding PM.

It's akin to comparing Donald Trump to George Washington or Xi Jinping to Mao Zedong.

Second, it voiced concerns about Heng's health, noting that the Singapore government and Heng himself have reaffirmed many times that he's fit for demanding work.

It also noted that Heng, if he takes over PM Lee in 2021, will be the oldest prime minister in Singapore's history at 60 -- which is a fact.

But times have changed. Many world leaders are leading their countries at an older age.

Xi took over as General Secretary of the Communist Party at 59 years old, while Trump was president at 70.

As Heng becomes the front-runner to succeed PM Lee, it is increasingly clear that "Singapore leaders must follow LKY's legacy" will be a rhetorical weapon used by the Chinese to praise or criticise Heng.

Top photo from Heng Swee Keat Facebook