Singapore, Apr 8 (PTI) Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who was designated to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, on Thursday abruptly announced to step down as the leader of the ruling party’s fourth-generation leadership team, citing his advancing age.
Heng, 59, will remain as Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies, but will step down as Minister of Finance at the next Cabinet reshuffle, which will take place in about two weeks.
'We need a leader who will not only rebuild Singapore post-COVID-19, but also lead the next phase of our nation-building efforts,” Heng was quoted as saying by the Channel News Asia.
He announced that he will step aside as the leader of the fourth-generation ruling People's Action Party's (PAP) leadership team.
'This year, I am 60,' Heng said, adding that he would be in his mid-60s when the COVID-19 crisis is over.
'When I also consider the ages at which our first three prime ministers have taken on the job, I would have too short a runway should I become the next Prime Minister then,' he said at a press conference announcing his decision.
Heng said: 'After careful deliberation and discussions with my family, I have decided to step aside as leader of the 4G (fourth-generation) team, so that a younger leader who will have a longer runway can take over.' Lee said he understands and respects Heng's decision and that he had discussed and agreed that Heng will relinquish his finance portfolio.
'It would be good for him to see through Budget 2021 and then he would give up the MOF (Ministry of Finance) portfolio to concentrate on the broader coordinating responsibilities. There will be consequential moves in other ministries and I intend to announce the reshuffle in about two weeks' time,” Lee said.
He also noted Heng's 'many contributions' during his time as the Education Minister and as the Finance Minister, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lee thanked Heng for his “selfless decision” to stand aside.
“Your actions now are fully in keeping with the spirit of public service and sense of duty that motivated you to step forward when I asked you to stand for election in 2011,” the Prime Minister added.
Heng said: 'It is in a very different post-COVID-19 world, that the demands will be even more exacting. While I am in good health today, it is in the best interests of the nation, for someone who is younger to tackle the huge challenges ahead”.
The PAP 4G team has requested Lee to stay as Prime Minister until a new successor is chosen.
Asked about the next leader, Lee said the selection process 'takes more than a few months', but it 'should not take more than a couple of years'.
Lee was 52, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong was 49 and founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was in his 30s when they became Prime Ministers. Both Lee Kuan Yew and Goh stepped down before they turned 70.
In 2012, Prime Minister Lee said he planned to step down by 70 in 2022.
The 4G leaders, or younger political office holders, chose Heng as their leader – 'first among equals' -- by early 2018.
Heng was appointed Deputy Prime Minister in May 2019.
At that time, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said the PAP'S 4G team was in 'complete unity' behind Heng's leadership.
Amid the COVID-19 crisis, Lee said in July last year that he would see Singapore through the crisis before handing over the reins to the next generation of leaders.
Lee noted while the 4G team takes time to choose a new leader, foreign leaders will be dealing with the same Singapore leaders at least in the near term.
“Top-line, the team has not changed. The same ministers are still there. I’m still the PM, (Heng) Swee Keat is still the DPM. And they will be dealing with the same people and that’s what matters to them if you take the two-, three-, four-year point of view, which in diplomacy is quite a long time,” TODAY newspaper Lee as assuring.
He said what foreign counterparts will notice in the longer term is the quality of Singapore’s leaders.
“If out of this process, we are able to sustain high quality ministers and leaders for the country... it will have been the right path forward for Singapore.
'If at the end of this, the standards go down and they look at us and they say, ‘Ah it’s no different from so many other places’... then we are no longer of value to them and that Singapore will be the worse off for it,” Lee said.
Asked whether the latest development could affect foreign investors’ confidence, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing echoed Lee’s point that the country’s leaders will continue their work during this period of succession planning.
“The team, the system, the plans, the processes, the policies, are all still in place to provide that continuity and stability for the investors.
“We will continue to work hard to distinguish ourselves as a safe harbour for investors to mobilise their capital, aggregate their talent, protect their intellectual property amid the global uncertainties,” Chan said.
Chan, who is also the second assistant secretary-general of the ruling party, said that clear succession, policy coherence and policy consistency have been the hallmarks of Singapore and put it in good stead to attract long-term investments. PTI GS CPS AKJ CPS