Comment: The next Finance Minister might not become S'pore's next PM

Heng Swee Keat is handing over his duties as Finance Minister. But his replacement is not guaranteed to be the next PM.

Sulaiman Daud | April 22, 2021, 07:09 PM

To hear some local political observers attempt to glean the identity of Singapore's next Prime Minister in their crystal balls, they seem to have taken a quote by "Scarface's" Tony Montana to heart.

The character, played by the brilliant Al Pacino, expounds, "In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power."

In other words, the next Finance Minister is likely to be the Prime Minister-in-waiting. But with respect to Mr Montana, things might not be that simple.

Natural progression?

It can't be denied that the finance portfolio is a key one in the Singapore government.

Its minister controls the country's financial resources and draws up the budget for the entire government. While the president holds custodial powers, the finance minister recommends whether tapping into our national reserves is necessary.

Due to the importance of the role, conventional wisdom goes that the next PM-in-waiting will be someone who has experience with the job.

A Business Times commentary noted,

"In recent decades, the question of who will become Finance Minister has taken on a nuanced tone, as the appointment has come to be viewed as a natural progression towards premiership.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong served as Minister for Finance in 2001 before he took on the top job in 2004, while Mr Heng was appointed three years before he was identified as PM-designate."

As PM Lee previously served as Finance Minister himself, he might want his successor to have the same experience he gained.

Why would Heng Swee Keat give up the finance portfolio?

Seen in this light, Heng Swee Keat's decision to give up the finance portfolio, in addition to stepping aside as the leader of the People's Action Party (PAP) fourth generation (4G) team, might seem a way to provide the next PM with the necessary experience.

After all, nothing in Heng's letter to PM Lee or his stated remarks to the press on April 8 precluded him from remaining as finance minister.

No reasons were given for relinquishing the finance portfolio. All we know is that it's something PM Lee said that they had “earlier planned”.

When Heng spoke of his age, the "short runway" he would have, and even of the "exceptional demands", that was in reference to the PM role.

While he did mention his health, he also said he was fully recovered. And he has served in the role for the past few years with no difficulties.

Heng even delivered Budget 2017 right after his stroke in 2016.

So, stepping aside allows PM Lee to give his successor an opportunity to get to grips with the finance portfolio -- if that is indeed the goal.

But what if it isn't?

But what if that isn't the goal? So far, we've been assuming that the next Finance Minister has the advantage.

However, if the numbers are anything to go by, few Finance Ministers end up the Prime Minister. In fact, only one did.

Here follows of list of Singapore's eight Finance Ministers, and a partial list of their other accomplishments.

  1. Lim Kin San - First Chairman of HDB, Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS)
  2. Goh Keng Swee - Deputy Prime Minister, first Defence Minister
  3. Hon Sui Sen - First Chairman of the Economic Development Board (EDB), first Chairman of DBS Bank
  4. Tony Tan - President of Singapore, Deputy Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew's choice to succeed him as Prime Minister
  5. Richard Hu - Managing Director of MAS and GIC
  6. Lee Hsien Loong - Prime Minister of Singapore
  7. Tharman Shanmugaratnam - Deputy Prime Minister, Senior Minister
  8. Heng Swee Keat - Deputy Prime Minister

That's one out of eight, notwithstanding the "near misses" of Tony Tan and Heng Swee Keat.

In historical terms, looking at the Finance Minister wouldn't give you an overwhelming certainty of the next PM.

Extra room to move

Another reason for Heng giving up the finance portfolio is perhaps to afford PM Lee more space and flexibility in the upcoming Cabinet reshuffle.

If Heng just needed to step aside as the 4G leader, the reshuffle would involve one extra moving part.

Now that the finance portfolio is open, PM Lee can move his ministers around, or perhaps promote a Senior Minister of State or Second Minister to a full minister position.

Having confirmed Heng's departure from the ministry two weeks ahead of time also gives the international markets, Singapore's foreign partners, and the public more time to adjust to the new reality, as opposed to a sudden announcement during the reshuffle.

Here are your candidates

Let's leave aside the race for the premiership for now and take a look at potential candidates for the finance portfolio.

Chan Chun Sing

Unlike some members of the Cabinet, Chan has no ministerial experience in finance.

However, as Trade and Industry Minister, he does deal with matters related to the economy, both internal and external.

Also, Chan has an educational background in economics, having studied economics at Cambridge.

Unlike Lawrence Wong and Ong Ye Kung, Chan has helmed his main ministry for about three years and perhaps is more temporally suited for a new portfolio.

Photo from Chan Chun Sing's Facebook page.

Ong Ye Kung

Ong, another potential candidate for the top job, has a similar educational background, having studied economics at the London School of Economics.

Ong is also a current board member of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, which handles the country's monetary policy. In parliament, he usually addresses questions by parliamentarians on MAS.

Bringing that experience to the finance ministry, where he would set fiscal policy, would give Ong a well-rounded overview of the Singapore economy.

However, Ong has been in his current post as Transport Minister for less than a year, while Singapore comes to terms with the Covid-19 situation, and how it affects international travel. To give Ong more time to implement his plans, PM Lee might not shift him so quickly.

Pic from Ong Ye Kung's Facebook page.

Lawrence Wong

Wong is yet another candidate speculated for the role of PM-in-waiting. He holds a Master's degree in economics from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, and is also the current Second Finance Minister.

In terms of familiarity with the portfolio, Wong would be more familiar than either Chan or Ong.

However, like Ong, Wong has helmed the Education Ministry for less than a year. Like the Transport Ministry, Education has a massive budget and is seen as a "heavyweight" ministry.

Wong may find helming the Finance Ministry easier than others, but the next question would be who replaces him as Education Minister.

Furthermore, Wong, like Ong, has been in his current post for less than a year.

Pic from Lawrence Wong's Facebook page.

Indranee Rajah

A possible candidate coming out is Indranee Rajah, one of three women ministers in Cabinet.

She is also a current Second Finance Minister, along with her role as Minister in the Prime Minister's Office.

She would be familiar with the job, and unlike Wong, promoting her would cause less disruption.

Pic from Indranee Rajah's Facebook page.

Josephine Teo

Another woman minister who might take up the job is Josephine Teo, current Manpower Minister.

She also happens to have an educational background in economics, having obtained a Master of Science in Economics from the London School of Economics on scholarship from the Economic Development Board.

Teo also has experience with the Finance portfolio, having previously served as both Minister of State and Senior Minister of State for Finance from 2011 to 2015.

Like Chan, she has served in her current appointment for about three years, and therefore could be moved to a new role.

Pic from Josephine Teo Facebook page.

Tharman Shanmugaratnam

Who says you can't go back to the well?

Much like Jose Mourinho, who went back to Chelsea for a second stint at management, Tharman might be a surprise candidate for the next Finance Minister.

Tharman has also done a second stint previously. In May 2016, Tharman took over Heng with immediate effect after Heng's stroke.

With eight years experience under his belt, Tharman has unassailable credentials for the job.

But with his ascension to a Senior Minister role, along with Coordinating Minister for Social Policies, a Tharman return may be seen as a missed opportunity to allow a younger colleague to gain more experience.

Pic from Tharman Shanmugaratnam's Facebook page.

Reshuffle next

The reshuffle will continue to yield more clues, but there's no confirmation at this point whether the new leader of the PAP's 4G team will be announced at the same time.

If so, it may be wise not to automatically assume that the newly-appointed Finance Minister will indeed go on to become Singapore's fourth Prime Minister.

There are a lot of moving parts at the moment, and right now, PM Lee is the only one who sees the entire board.

Top image by Sulaiman Daud.