SINGAPORE -- Singaporean Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said on Thursday that he is withdrawing himself from consideration for the top job -- a shocking turn of events that upends the conventional wisdom about the city-state's politics.
Heng, who doubles as finance minister, has been considered the heir apparent to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the de facto leader of the country's "fourth generation" politicians, known as the "4G team."
But in an open letter to Lee carried in local media, Heng suggested a younger successor would be more appropriate once the current leader retires.
"When I also consider the ages at which our first three prime ministers took on the job, I would have too short a runway should I become the next prime minister then," Heng, who will be 60 years old this year, wrote.
He said the coronavirus pandemic and its effects are likely to drag on, meaning he will be "close to the mid-60s when the crisis is over."
"We need a leader who will not only rebuild Singapore post-COVID-19, but also lead the next phase of our nation-building effort," he added.
Heng is expected to stay on as deputy prime minister but give up his finance portfolio.
In an open letter back to Heng, Lee accepted his deputy's decision, paying tribute to the "exceptional work" he did as finance minister.
"I thank you for your selfless decision to stand aside," Lee wrote. "Your actions now are fully in keeping with the spirit of public service and sense of duty that motivated you to step forward."
Still, the abrupt move could complicate the ruling People's Action Party's transition plans. It throws the race to succeed Lee wide open to other candidates in government.
Names previously floated as contenders for the top post include Chan Chun Sing, the trade and industry minister; Lawrence Wong, the minister for education; and Ong Ye Kung, the minister for transport.
Heng was once considered a near-sure bet, but COVID-19 appears to have thrown off the timing. Prime Minister Lee, who is 69, had said before the pandemic that he did not want to stay in power beyond age 70. But after the crisis hit, he vowed to guide the country through it before handing over the reins.
Heng's own health has been the subject of discussion since he suffered a stroke in 2016. While he said in his letter that he is in "good health today," last year's election also prompted some observers to question his future.
The deputy prime minister had a bumpy start to the campaign. After the parties nominated their candidates, he delivered an uneven speech to his newly chosen East Coast district, repeatedly declaring that the PAP had an "East Coast plan" without giving any details. The address drew puzzled reactions online.
His election results themselves were less than convincing. He led his team of candidates to a slim victory in the East Coast constituency, garnering about 53% of the votes, down from the 60.7% the PAP won in the previous election.
But age considerations appear to be at the top of Heng's mind. Singapore's first three generations of leaders were all much younger when they rose to power.
The founder of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew -- the current prime minister's late father -- was 35 when he became head of government. His successor, Goh Chok Tong, was 49. And Lee Hsien Loong was 52.
"I have decided to step aside as leader of the 4G team, so that a younger leader who will have a longer runway can take over," Heng wrote.
"It will be for the 4G team to choose the person," he added, "and I stand ready to support the next leader."