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Singapore PM picks Lawrence Wong to take ex-heir Heng's portfolio

Hitherto education minister will assume finance post vacated by Heng Swee Keat

Lawrence Wong, who has been serving as Singapore's education minister, will take over the key role of finance minister.   © AP

SINGAPORE -- Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday announced a cabinet reshuffle that will put hitherto Education Minister Lawrence Wong in charge of finance, taking over from Heng Swee Keat, who earlier this month announced a shock decision to step aside as leader-in-waiting.

Wong, 48, has also been assisting Heng as second minister for finance since 2016. "He has the experience, and is a natural fit for the job," Lee said.

What remains unclear, however, is whether Wong's appointment means he is now the next in line to lead Singapore.

This is the second time Lee has changed his ministerial lineup since his ruling People's Action Party won Singapore's general election last year. The reshuffle follows the decision by Heng two weeks ago that the next prime minister should be someone younger.

The outgoing finance minister, who turns 60 this year and remains deputy prime minister, had explained that the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects were likely to drag on, meaning he would be "close to the mid-60s when the crisis is over."

With Heng ruling himself out, a handful of younger politicians have been floated as contenders for the top post -- including Wong, who was named education minister last July. Others include Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, who will switch to minister of education, and Ong Ye Kung, who will move from transport minister to lead the health ministry.

These and other changes are to take effect on May 15, Lee said.

Yet the succession question remains. When Heng emerged as the front-runner to take over for Lee, he had picked Chan to be his deputy.

"The Prime Minister is not giving anything away with his latest cabinet lineup," Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at Singapore Management University, told Nikkei Asia.

"The race to succeed him remains wide open, but time is of the essence," he observed.

Prime Minister Lee had previously said he did not intend to stay in office past age 70, which he will reach next year. But he changed his tune after the last election, saying he would continue to serve until the coronavirus is resolved.

At a news conference attended by Singapore media outlets on Friday, Lee said his new lineup required a "more extensive reshuffle than is usual."

"They have to get to work quickly, because although our COVID-19 situation is stabler now, we are still in the midst of a public health and economic crisis," he said.

"The reshuffle is also an opportunity for them to work together in new capacities, so that they can understand each other better, and strengthen their cohesion as a team," Lee added.

Before Lee, Singapore had two prime ministers since it gained independence in 1965: late founding father Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Hsien Loong's father, and Goh Chok Tong.

Until he took himself out of the running, Heng was considered the leader of the country's "fourth generation" or "4G" politicians, making him the heir apparent. But his health had been the subject of much discussion since he suffered a stroke in 2016, even though he recovered.

Heng Swee Keat, pictured in 2019, was considered Singapore's prime minister-in-waiting until he ruled himself out earlier this month.   © Reuters

Heng's somewhat shaky performance in the election did little to quell speculation about his future. After an uneven campaign, a Heng-led team of candidates managed only a slim victory in their constituency, garnering about 53% of the votes, down from the 60.7% his party won in the previous election.

In other key movements, Gan Kim Yong will become minister for trade and industry, taking over from Chan, while relinquishing his health minister portfolio.

Taking over for Ong as transport minister will be S. Iswaran, who will also stay on as minister in charge of trade relations but will leave his post as minister of communications and information.

The communications job will go to Josephine Teo, who will cede her position as manpower minister to Dr. Tan See Leng, the second minister for manpower.

As manpower minister, Teo was in charge when COVID-19 tore through densely packed dormitories housing migrant workers last year, contributing thousands of cases to the city-state's COVID-19 count.

Singapore this week grappled with the warning signs of another dormitory outbreak, as migrant worker infections crept into the double digits for the first time in months.

Teo is one of three female ministers in Lee's cabinet -- a number that will not change with the new appointments. The others are Indranee Rajah, who remains minister in the prime minister's office, and Grace Fu, minister for sustainability and the environment.

"How well each minister does in their new portfolios will matter immensely in enabling the 4G leaders to decide who should be the first among equals," said SMU's Tan.

"PM Lee is clearly going for broadening the exposure of the front-runners, putting them in charge of key ministries in education, finance and health."

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