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Singapore election

Singapore PM-in-waiting Heng's destiny still hazy as polls near

Lee hints he wants to resolve COVID crisis before handing over reins

SINGAPORE -- For election candidates in Singapore, walkabouts at food courts or "hawker centers" are the traditional way to connect with voters. This applies even to the man tipped to become the city-state's next prime minister.

Heng Swee Keat, the current deputy prime minister and finance minister, made the rounds last Friday morning in the Bedok area of his new East Coast constituency. Dressed in a bright white shirt and a mask bearing the ruling People's Action Party's lightning-bolt logo, he chatted with diners and workers while handing out PAP leaflets.

This is the 59-year-old Heng's third time standing for election, and the stakes have never been higher for him. Most expect him to take over for a retiring Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 68, in the government's next term.

The timing is a big question: Lee has said he does not want to stay in power beyond age 70, but on Monday he stirred speculation about a delay due to the coronavirus pandemic. "I am determined to hand over Singapore intact and in good working order to the next team," the prime minister said during a PAP online rally, adding that the coronavirus pandemic is the "crisis of a generation."

Nevertheless, it was Heng who made the PAP's pitch to the nation in a broadcast last Thursday night, as if to emphasize that he is the next face of the party. "This election will be like no other," Heng said. "The PAP is seeking a clear mandate to lead Singapore through the storms ahead."

Singapore has only known three prime ministers since independence in 1965. The first was founding father Lee Kuan Yew, until 1990. Then came Goh Chok Tong. Lee's son, the current leader, took over in 2004. Heng is considered the standard-bearer of the country's "fourth generation" or "4G" politicians; he told Nikkei last year that his 4G peers had asked him to lead the way.

Heng is "an easygoing gentleman" and "does not turn very ambitious against his critics," observed Alan Chong, associate professor at Nanyang Technological University, noting that some senior PAP politicians tend to lash out at criticism.

Chong also described Heng as a technocrat. "You don't expect him to be very eloquent, but he is very good at fixing the economy."

Heng's story is a classic tale of the Singaporean elite.

He studied economics at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. and public policy at Harvard University in the U.S. He went on to serve as permanent secretary of the Ministry of Trade and Industry, the principal private secretary to Lee Kuan Yew, and managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, the central bank. With this background, one Singaporean citizen in his 40s said Heng is best described as a "bureaucrat and technocrat," echoing Chong.

Despite a relatively short political career -- he was first elected in 2011 -- Heng has been entrusted with key cabinet portfolios including education and finance. Within the PAP, he was named first assistant secretary-general in 2018, the No. 2 position after Lee Hsien Loong. Last year, he was promoted to deputy prime minister, widely seen as a steppingstone to the top job.

Yet, it has not always been smooth sailing.

In 2016, Heng suffered a stroke and collapsed during a cabinet meeting. When he awoke from a coma six days later, he could not speak. What happened next has gone down in Singaporean political lore: One of the first things he wrote on a piece of paper, according to a Straits Times account, was, "Is there a cabinet meeting today?"

In this election, Heng had a bumpy start to campaigning. After the parties nominated their candidates on June 30, he delivered an uneven speech to his district, repeatedly declaring that the PAP had an "East Coast plan" without giving any details. This drew puzzled reactions on social media.

"Is this our next PM?" one skeptic tweeted.

Heng has also found himself defending remarks made last year on foreign workers and potential population growth, after an opposition leader accused him and the PAP of aiming to nearly double Singapore's residents to 10 million.

In this Friday's election, the East Coast is considered one of the more competitive races.

Heng leads the PAP's five-member slate under Singapore's unique "group representation constituency" or GRC system, in which the winning party takes all seats. His East Coast candidacy was a nomination day surprise, as he had been expected to run in the Tampines constituency like he did in 2011 and 2015.

The apparent last-minute switch -- which may explain the "East Coast plan" speech -- puts him in charge of fending off a challenge from the Workers' Party, the largest opposition rival.

In the previous 2015 election, the PAP took 60.7% of the East Coast vote, versus 39.3% for the Workers' Party. This time, the opposition group has added new faces including 33-year-old Nicole Seah, who gained fame as a young candidate when she ran with another party in 2011.

Like Heng and his crew, the Workers' Party's East Coast candidates have been reaching out to citizens through walkabouts and online, calling for more government support for the local workforce.

Workers' Party candidate Nicole Seah speaks with a voter in the East Coast constituency, where she is up against Heng. (Photo by Kentaro Iwamoto)

Overall, the PAP is widely expected to cruise to another victory. The rapid economic growth that made tiny Singapore one of Asia's richest economies still grants the ruling party a great deal of public trust, despite a slowdown in recent years and a 4% to 7% contraction expected in 2020 due to COVID-19.

Critics also say the election framework benefits the PAP against a divided opposition. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, for example, said in a recent report that the GRC system -- where candidates must run in groups with at least one ethnic minority member -- puts the PAP's rivals at a disadvantage.

"As the opposition tends to be smaller, and to have less resources, some parties struggle to find enough qualified minority candidates to compete in GRCs," the report said. It also noted that the cost of running can be prohibitive -- in 2015 each candidate had to put down 14,500 Singapore dollars (about $10,400) and risk forfeiting the money if they did not receive 12.5% of votes.

The same report warned that coronavirus precautions, like a ban on public rallies, could hurt the opposition too.

But even if the PAP is likely to win easily, its competitors are not going down without a fight. And Heng's performance in his constituency will be closely watched as an indicator of his popularity with the general public.

Although the leadership change might not happen right away due to the pandemic, as Lee implied on Monday, professor Chong said Heng could benefit from his predecessor "clearing up unfinished business" before he takes the reins.

Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at Singapore Management University, said that "the likely economic downturn may result in the handover to the 4G PM being delayed, but I don't expect the delay to be inordinately extended."

Since the COVID-19 downturn and battle "may last for years," Tan added, it might not be possible to wait it out. "Once the domestic situation stabilizes, we can expect the leadership handover."

Heng seemed to recognize the election's implications for his future in another video message to voters posted on Sunday.

"When you vote, you are choosing the next government for the country," Heng said. "You are choosing the team who will work with you to steer Singapore through the worst economic crisis in decades."

Additional reporting by Dylan Loh.

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