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The Nikkei View

Singapore's uncertain leadership transition requires transparency

Surprise announcement by deputy PM leaves succession of power unclear

Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, pictured in 2019, has long been considered the likely successor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.    © Reuters

The search for Singapore's next prime minister is back to square one. Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, who had been certain to succeed current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, suddenly said he would take himself out of the running. This is an unprecedented situation for a city-state that has carefully managed transitions of power over the more than half-century since its founding.

In 2018, Heng became first assistant secretary-general of Lee's ruling People's Action Party, its second-most powerful position. Since 2019, he has also served as deputy prime minister, and he seemed to be steadily preparing for a promotion to premier.

Heng cited his age, soon to be 60, as the reason he would not take over. However, his age has hardly been a secret. Although he denies it, Heng may have been influenced by the results of last July's general election, which was meant to be a vote of confidence for the next prime minister. He won only narrowly in his own district, and the PAP's share of the vote dropped significantly.

Lee had previously announced he would step down when he turns 70 in 2022, but after last year's election he said he would continue to serve until the new coronavirus pandemic is resolved. There is now more time for Lee to choose his successor. This seems to have encouraged Heng's decision.

Since it gained independence in 1965, Singapore has had three prime ministers: late founding father Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong. All of them made clear who would be their successors long before they stepped down, allowing for carefully prepared transfers of power.

Heng is the leader of the "fourth generation." In order to avoid unnecessary conflicts, a new prime ministerial candidate will be selected from among young ministers around the age of 50 for the next general election, to be held by 2025, taking the form of a consensus of the fourth generation.

Singapore has become one of the world's most developed countries thanks to its highly efficient governance, but it still faces many challenges. Despite its small land area and lack of natural resources, the country has accepted many foreign nationals, who now account for 30% of Singapore's 5.7 million residents. But the public has become increasingly frustrated by a government it sees as depriving its own citizens of job opportunities and wage increases, and officials are under pressure to address the situation.

As a financial and trade hub that embodies globalization, the country also faces a watershed moment amid the deepening confrontation between China and the U.S. and the coronavirus pandemic.

The next prime minister will face the heavy task of finding a new sustainable growth model. We hope the selection process for the next leader will be transparent and reflect the will of the people.

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