By Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim

On 23 April 2019, the long wait for a clear indication as to who would be Singapore’s next Prime Minister (PM) seemed to be over. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) announced that Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat will be promoted to Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) as part of the latest changes to the Cabinet.

With the general election looming and PM Lee Hsien Loong indicating that he will step down some time after, it is noteworthy that no second DPM has been appointed although there were two candidates who were thought to fill the bill.

Cabinet Reshuffle: A Step in Leadership Succession

There were speculations that Minister for Trade and Industry, Chan Chun Sing, and Mr Heng was neck and neck in the ‘race’ to be PM. Some analysts had thought that, because of concerns over Mr Heng’s health, Mr Chan will pip him to the post. Mr Heng suffered a stroke on 12 May 2016 during a cabinet meeting and was hospitalised at the intensive care unit at Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

Previous PMs had a longer tenure as DPMs and there have often been two.

Five years before Emeritus Senior Minister (ESM) Goh Chok Tong assumed the premiership in 1990, there was a second DPM, the late former President, Mr Ong Teng Cheong. Both men were appointed DPMs concurrently in 1985.

PM Lee was the sole DPM briefly from 1993 to 1995 until the appointment of Mr Tony Tan, another former President. Nine years later, Mr Lee became the third PM of Singapore.

If PM Lee steps down before 2025 and no second DPM is appointed in the next two years, it will be the first time that there is only one DPM close to the time when the incumbent leaves office. One wonders if there is a change in Singapore’s leadership configuration and what it could imply.

The reshuffle also saw DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam, along with DPM Teo Chee Hean, moving to a mentoring or advisory role as Senior Ministers. It immediately extinguished any glimmer of hope left in those wishing to see Mr Shanmugaratnam become the next PM.

Next Generation Leadership Style

For many Singaporeans, two of the attributes of Mr Heng Swee Keat that stand out are his “open, consultative style” and his “likeable character”[1]. He led Our Singapore Conversation, a national consultation exercise that reached out to close to 50,000 Singaporeans on their aspirations for Singapore’s future. It portrayed him as one who is open and consultative. In 2015, he chaired the Singapore 50 (SG50) Steering Committee, which saw Singaporeans celebrating the Golden Jubilee with a special public holiday on Friday, 7 August and a long weekend lasting till Monday, 10 August, as National Day fell on a Sunday. This further endeared him to Singaporeans.

Some analysts cited Mr Heng’s “extensive political experience” as a factor that made him a leading candidate for the premiership. This is however somewhat debatable.

Mr Heng, who started his career as a senior police officer – unlike Mr Chan who was from the military – contested in the general election only in 2011. His team of five at Tampines Group Representation Constituency (GRC) was anchored by then-Minister for National Development Mah Bow Tan. His election as a Member of Parliament (MP) was followed by a swift ascension to the ministerial level, matched only by former Finance Minister Richard Hu in 1984. He took on heavyweight ministerial portfolios – Education in 2011 followed by Finance in 2015 – and was appointed DPM this year, all within a duration of eight years.

In contrast, ESM Goh and PM Lee took a longer route to the premiership.

Mr Goh was elected MP in 1976 at age 35 after winning the seat for Marine Parade Single Member Constituency (SMC) – arguably, a more rigorous test for candidates than contesting in a Group Representation Constituency (GRC). Marine Parade became a GRC in 1988 which he anchored.  He was appointed Senior Minister of State for Finance shortly after being elected. Some five years were to pass before he was promoted to Minister for Trade and Industry. It would be another four years before he became the DPM in 1985. In 1990, he became the second PM of Singapore, succeeding the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

PM Lee’s political career spanned over a period of 20 years prior to his appointment as PM. He became an MP after winning the Teck Ghee Single Member Constituency (SMC) in 1984 at the young age of 32, after which he was appointed Minister of State in the Ministry of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Defence. He was appointed a full member of the Cabinet three years later, holding various ministerial portfolios, including Finance in 2001, before becoming the PM in 2004.

While the “extensiveness” of Mr Heng’s political experience is debatable, what is beyond doubt is his expertise in the domain of Singapore’s economy. He was the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Trade and Industry before serving as the managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore from 2005 to 2011. His accomplishments include being named the Asia-Pacific Central Bank Governor of the Year by the British magazine The Banker in February 2011.

After entering politics, his expertise is further enriched by the experience of co-chairing the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE), which charted the strategies for Singapore’s next phase of growth. In addition to this, he now chairs the tripartite Future Economy Council, which oversees the implementation of national strategies in areas such as skills and capabilities development, innovation and productivity, and industry transformation. He is also the Chairman of the National Research Foundation, which sets the direction for Singapore’s research, innovation and enterprise strategies.

It is also worth noting that he was the former Principal Private Secretary to Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who was then Senior Minister. In his book titled OB Markers: My Straits Times Story, former editor-in-chief of The Straits Times Cheong Yip Seng wrote that former Environment Minister, Dr Ahmad Mattar, shared with him that what the latter missed most after leaving the Cabinet was Mr Lee’s “tutorials”, which entailed a frank sharing of his worldviews after disposing off cabinet matters during meetings. His former colleagues felt the same way too as listening to his monologues gave them more value than discussing other items on the Cabinet agenda. It is likely that, as Mr Lee’s private secretary, Mr Heng may have likewise been exposed to the globally renowned former statesman’s intimate ideas on governing Singapore. In the aftermath of his passing, his legacy continues to be reflected in the leadership style of PM Lee. It remains to be seen if this would be the case with Mr Heng too.

Mr Heng has, however, described himself as being “very open” and willing to “listen to all views”, in contrast to the style of the late former PM who famously said in 1987 when responding to accusations that he had been interfering in the private lives of citizens, “We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think”.

Preparing for the Future

Mr Heng’s aspiration to lead an “open, consultative” manner is reminiscent of ESM Goh’s approach when he succeeded Mr Lee in 1990, transforming the authoritarian style of policy making to a more consultative one. However, during the 1991 general election, Goh’s hopes of getting his new liberal approach of governing a mandate from the electorate took a blow when the People’s Action Party (PAP) lost an unprecedented four seats out of 81. At a press conference held soon after the announcement of the final results, Goh blamed the loss on his consultative style of government and despondently announced that “[c]ertain things have to change now”. Academic James U.H. Chin argued, in his article Electoral Battles and Innovations: Recovering Loss Ground, that the loss of four seats may have more to do with PAP having already returned to power on Nomination Day; thus, voters’ willingness to vote against PAP since they know the opposition could not win the election. It would be interesting how Mr Heng would interpret election results if the PAP, say, loses two GRCs during his tenure as the PM.

Mr Heng will face a future that is starkly different from his predecessors when he becomes the PM. How predisposed is Mr Heng to bringing about radical changes or will he temper them with continuity as is characteristic of past PMs?

When ESM Goh took over from Mr Lee, while he did introduce new policies, he continued with many of his predecessors, saying, “… Mr Lee Kuan Yew has done such a thorough job of everything… He has left me with few things to do.” [2]

PM Lee helmed the government during the time when the global landscape was changing in the post-Cold War era, with the United States as the sole superpower, China rising and the start of the global war on terrorism. He had a tougher task than ESM Goh in balancing continuity with change.

Mr Heng will likely be the PM during a time when Singapore’s economy needs an overhaul. Well into the developed phase, growth levels of 6% to 8% attainable with decent policies and prosperity visible even to laymen, such as in terms of the abundance of job opportunities, are characteristics of a bygone era. In the advanced economic landscape of the future, it takes a lot more to sustain growth levels of just 1% to 2%. Attention has now turned to SMEs to help them grow, scale up and venture outside of Singapore to capitalise on overseas markets. Education reforms have to be intensified so as to develop talents instead of producing exam smarts, and, on the social front, infrastructure has to be developed to support an ageing population.

The policy making approach of the future will have to create space to allow ideas to flow from all segments of society so as to enact policies that are more robust. The complexities of the future will make it an era when the government no longer always knows what is right.

Mr Heng’s strong economic credentials make him a safe pair of hands in the face of an uncertain future economy, and his promise of openness and willingness to listen is reassuring. However, it remains to be seen if he could guide Singapore, away from its authoritarian tradition, and sustain a consultative style of government.


[1] Chia, L. & Yusof, A., “Political experience, likeable character put Heng Swee Keat in good stead to be PM: Analysts”, Channel NewsAsia, 24 November 2018. Available at:

[2] Jon S.T.Quah, “Public Administration: Change in Style and Continuity in Policy,” In Impressions of the Goh Chok Tong Years in Singapore, Eds. Welsh, B., Chin, J., Mahiznan, A. & Tan, T.H (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2009), 50

Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim is a Researcher / Projects Coordinator with the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA), the research subsidiary of AMP. 

This commentary was also published in The Karyawan, July 2019, Volume 14, Issue 3

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