Heng Swee Keat’s awkward start to succession

Singapore’s Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat was introduced to his fellow countrymen as the chosen successor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the end of 2018. For many, the announcement seemed counter-intuitive given the many indicators suggesting he was not the right fit.

Heng gained entry to top universities via Singapore’s opaque government scholarship system. He then held senior positions in both the civil service and the Cabinet. His record of achievement, however, reflects hard work and competence rather than political flare or initiative. He is a poor public speaker and, fairly or not, is burdened with a ‘geeky’ technocratic image. Topping it off, he suffered a massive stroke during a cabinet meeting in 2016 from which he only recovered through extreme medical intervention. Yet, he has the great advantage of being very close to the Lee family, having been principal private secretary to former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew for three years.

2019 was the year in which Heng set out to show that he was more than the colourless technocrat who everyone overlooked — that he was a political fighter, leader, speaker, planner, thinker and natural prime minister-in-waiting. The opportunity to prove himself arose on 1 May when both of Singapore’s deputy prime ministers — Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Teo Chee Hean — stepped down to give Heng a clear run as the sole deputy prime minister — the first time since 1995 that Singapore has managed with just one person in that role.

Unfortunately, Heng’s move to centre stage proved disastrous and exposed an unexpected flaw: he is incapable of thinking on his feet — highlighted by two recent episodes.

On 5 November, Prime Minister Lee gave Heng a starring role in Parliament in leading the government’s ritualised attack on two opposition MPs over their management of a town council. This should not have been a big ask given Heng has been a cabinet minister and MP since 2011.  Yet the task proved beyond Heng, who fumbled with his notes and his own argument. Most worrying for a prime-minister-in-waiting, Lee could be seen and heard coaching him through the session.

Heng lost all semblance of control of his own stage when one of the targeted opposition MPs — the Workers’ Party’s Sylvia Lim — gently suggested that Heng’s motion was ‘premature’ because matters were still before the courts. It seems that Heng had not considered this line of defence and called for an adjournment so he could hold ‘consultations’ to decide how to respond. After recess, Heng passed the microphone to a more junior colleague who handled the attack much better than Heng.

Less spectacularly, Heng was the guest in a public question and answer session on 1 October that was held as part of the Singapore Bicentennial Conference hosted by the Institute of Policy Studies. As often happens, it opened with a series of friendly pre-arranged questions from the chair before turning to the audience for input. But the unusual feature on this occasion was the frequency with which Heng looked to the clipboard in his lap while answering the pre-arranged questions. This was another subpar performance in what has emerged as a much broader pattern of disappointing efforts.

Heng has performed adequately in senior cabinet roles so he must be credited with technocratic competence and considered a ‘safe pair of hands’. But the role of prime minister is much more political than technocratic and leaves less room to hide. Prime Minister Lee has made it known that he would like to step down by 2022 at the latest after having already pushed the date back from 2019 or 2020. Heng’s now obvious limitations must be raising doubts about the wisdom of putting him in the top job, even if it is only for a short time.

Heng’s shortcomings do not put the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) in any danger of losing the next election that could be called anytime between now and April 2021. It does, however, raise the question of whether Lee will be able to carry through with his own retirement schedule without further delay.

Michael Barr


*Article first appeared on East Asia Forum and is republished in accordance to the Cross-Post and Re-use policy

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21 Responses to “Heng Swee Keat’s awkward start to succession”

  • with confetti and vuvuzela:

    //Heng lost all semblance of control of his own stage when one of the targeted opposition MPs — the Workers’ Party’s Sylvia Lim — gently suggested that Heng’s motion was ‘premature’ because matters were still before the courts.//

    aiyoh. ah heng did not really perform badly lar ?

    just that anyone (unless he is “godly talented”) assigned to perform wayang will be “thrashed badly’ in an open debate visible for all to see ?

    white monkey idiots and gang are only good in their ownself-set-ownself wayang theatre where softball wayang questions / answers “are prevet” for them to look good lar; and the white doggie boys will follow suit with confetti and vuvuzela to applaud the wayang performance in a 151th environment ?

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  • believe pap become sheep:

    all these pap scholars all rote learners only.

    10 year series past year exam papers.

    not 10 year series, cannot function already.

    yet pap plays the uniform game. pap says, call the person prime minister, the uniform makes the person prime minister.

    that is why pap bugs bunny kee chiu chan chun sing is shamelessly teaching seasoned businessmen how to suck Cb. shameless.

    because these pap folks agree the uniform makes them outside what they are not inside.

    look at AStar under pap botak general. look at NOL and SPH under pap general. look at pap government. look at pap civil serpeants.

    in any non pap setup, it takes minimum 3-6 years to make section manager and 8-14 years to make department manager. pap says no need. can do well A levels and then in U can do anything.

    what crap. as seen in today rotting small island filled to the brim with 3rd world ceca ah nehs pinoy pinays.

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  • RDB:

    Once the current PM has made himself into a connudroom, what can save him and his publicly chosen successer. It is then a pee and poo position or not hah? I am just wondering with common sense lor!

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  • Taxman as PM sure die:

    Ah! the tax-man as PM, sure die;

    Regardless of how they plan, population white paper, CECA or whatever, they will say “increased spending”, bloody fool!

    So, why do we vote for them? Must Citizens continue to suffer for their flops?

    Millions came in (new citizens, FTs, PRs), did they created Million New Jobs? Sinkies PMETs sure continue to die.

    If Fandi Ahmad scored F, PAP should score G-.

    Make use of your vote wisely.


    SINGAPORE – The goods and services tax (GST) is set to increase from 7 per cent to 9 per cent some time between 2021 and 2025.

    This comes as the Government’s spending on healthcare, infrastructure and security has gone up and is expected to increase further in the years to come.

    Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat made the announcement in his Budget statement in Parliament on Monday (Feb 19).

    https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/singapore-budget-2018-gst-to-be-raised-from-7-to-9-sometime-between-2021-and-2025

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  • Bapak:

    Full tank become half tank, half tank become quarter tank, quarter tank become one-eight tank. Whats next, you know. All the fishes will die and they are adding more fishes some more. Welcome to Aquarium Sinktankpore.

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  • N.Jungne:

    Only Seatwarmer, of course la

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  • NotMyProblem:

    I have the feel that it is designed this way. Taking a greater idiot to replace another idiot. That’s the reason Tharman was never allowed to be PM.

    When this greater idiot has to step down, with excuses like incompetency, the idiot’s son can take over. This is how it is designed for a seat warmer.

    Now everyone is aware of what’s going to happen, are we smart enough to stop the cycle.

    Vote out the PAP and this drama will has to stop.

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  • Watch the Ballot Box:

    Thanks to CECA HENG, life has gotten from bad to worse. Let’s welcome the GST HIKE!

    WANGSA YEFONG

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  • opposition dude:

    Oh come on Michael Barr, do you really expect goondu Loong to “retire”? We all know he will still be in parliament after stepping down just like his dear old dad. Another silly title like Pioneer Generation Minister or Merdeka Minister will be created for him and he will be earning something close to 50k a month if not more.

    If anything, this is a perfect excuse for goondu Loong to say he will be PM for quite a while longer, that Heng needs more time to be understudy and all that. He will point out that he, too, was in parliament in the early 80s and had to wait more than 20 years before becoming PM. Very good reason to make stroke man wait a bit more while he hopefully polishes up his speaking skills don’t you think?

    And goondu will also point out that he has been PM since 2004 and has more than 10 years experience as PM so it would not seem amiss to the dafts if he remained as PM after 2022.

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  • Retirement schedule?:

    Everyone is expecting this Lee to follow his father’s footstep: years of senior minister and years of minister mentor, and if god permits, years of senior minister mentor.

    70% have many goodlee years to look forward to.

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  • pap dies, sooner or later:

    N.Jungne:
    Only Seatwarmer, of course la

    well said bro.

    agree.

    we think so too.

    look at heng. will you hire the Lj? we see better hires in Ms Sylvia Lim Mr Leon Perara Mr KJeyaretnam and such.

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  • Longan dies eventually:

    Is he proud of his father? Why is his father a unknown to public?

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  • Harder Truths:

    Let’s put it this way – it’s very hard to be a head clown when everyone else is more funny than you.

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  • Ah heng is non starter:

    N.Jungne:
    Only Seatwarmer, of course la

    Whether it’s ah heng or for that matter a monkey, nothing will change.

    It’s business as usual. For sinkies, you die your problem!!

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  • NotMyProblem:

    N.Jungne:
    Only Seatwarmer, of course la

    Singaporeans had seen the first seatwarmer! The next seat warmer is akan datang.

    Do we allow that to happen again?

    I believe it will happen again!! With 46% of Singapore population are new-citizens.

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  • Second woody:

    Omg, we have produced many so-called scholars including arm-chair generals.

    And HSK is the anointed one!

    Hahaha… this bugeye chap is even worse than Woody, in fact far more wooden.

    What’s hell is Sinkapore becoming?

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  • this heng is not 1st class:

    Second woody:
    Omg, we have produced many so-called scholars including arm-chair generals.

    And HSK is the anointed one!

    Hahaha… this bugeye chap is even worse than Woody, in fact far more wooden.

    What’s hell is Sinkapore becoming?

    this pap heng is not even 1st class honours.

    we have a few in our midst, even from Cambridge. we actually don’t believe in the crap. but since pap started to say Mr Chiam ST not A class whereas pap Lj mah bowl tan 6 distinctions 2 As, we started to note which pap Lj or pap Cb is not 1st class.

    besides pap heng being not 1st class, pap Cb joe tiu is also not 1st class and worse from local U.

    when pap loses an argument, pap starts to play 1st class honours game. now that there are so many 30% OPPO and their children from Oxbridge all 1st class and not pap, wonder now what pap shall say about OPPO.

    maybe along the lines of pap Lj from Msia cow pun wan, cannot eat degree?

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  • this heng is not 1st class:

    forgot to mention,

    pap Cb disgrace fool, the one who insisted esteemed WP potential Singaporean Prime Minister Ms Sylvia Lim to apologise in pap parleement, is also NOT 1st class and worse from local U only.

    so many from OPPO today Oxbridge 1st class or double firsts, such as Mr Leon Perara and Mr K Jeyaretnam.

    wonder what pap Ljs and pap Cbs are going to say about talent in OPPO more than in pap today, using pap measurement of 1st class honours Oxbridge.

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  • Rubber Stamped Erections:

    More of an Administrator than a Politician with real ambitions to be king.

    GD Star Rating
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  • Joker:

    Will his dad be angry he did not follow his footsteps and become a ……?

    GD Star Rating
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  • patriot of TUMASIK:

    A Lighting Bolt or “Stroke” from above will render him as a GOOD seat warmer

    GD Star Rating
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