Singapore’s ruling party yesterday set in motion a carefully orchestrated political succession that would see the powerful founding family hand over the prime ministership, a key moment in the city-state’s short history.
Singaporean Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat (王瑞傑) was unveiled as the second in command of the People’s Action Party, which has ruled Singapore since it gained self-rule from Britain in 1959, putting him on course to become prime minister.
The 57-year-old is expected to take over in the coming years from Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (李顯龍), the son of former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀), who oversaw the country’s rapid economic development during three decades of sometimes authoritarian rule.
The power transfer, which begins as Singapore gears up for elections that could come as soon as next year, is in line with 66-year-old Lee Hsien Loong’s plan to hand power to a broadly younger generation of leaders.
Heng would be the country’s fourth prime minister and the second from outside the Lee family.
It will be a sensitive moment for the financial hub of 5.6 million people, with the country’s transformation into one of the world’s wealthiest and most stable societies inextricably linked in many people’s minds to the rule of the Lee family.
The party said in a statement that Heng had been appointed first assistant secretary-general, putting him in pole position to take over as prime minister.
The man seen as his closest rival for the top job — 49-year-old Singaporean Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing (陳振聲) — was named second assistant secretary-general, the party said.
During an unprecedented family feud last year that captivated the country, Lee Hsien Loong rejected allegations that he harbored political ambitions for his son — meaning the looming change of leadership could spell the end of the Lees holding the country’s top job.
However, eyebrows were raised in some quarters at the choice of the finance minister as the successor to the prime ministership.
Chan was previously regarded as the front-runner, while there have been concerns about Heng’s health after he had a stroke in 2016.
“Heng was the weakest candidate... He’s had a stroke already and he’s had a very narrow portfolio background,” said Michael Barr, a Singapore expert at Flinders University in Australia.
Heng entered politics in 2011 and served as education minister before becoming finance minister. Prior to that, he was head of the Monetary Authority of Singapore.
However, Singapore Management University political analyst Eugene Tan (陳慶文) described Heng as a “tried and tested” official, particularly due to his track record in financial matters.
“I think Mr Heng would provide that rock-solid assurance that economic policies will continue to be business-friendly,” Tan told reporters.
Elections must be held by 2021, but Lee Hsien Loong has indicated they could be sooner.
The government is not expected to face any serious challenge to its rule — it tightly controls institutions and has firm control over the domestic media, while the opposition is weak and divided.
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