Singapore’s leadership crisis: will Heng Swee Keat be our next PM?

If you think the pandemic has left your own plans in tatters, spare a thought for poor Lee Hsien Loong (middle), Singapore’s sixty-eight-year-old prime minister.

Recently on the verge of stepping down after sixteen years at the helm, he now does not know when he can.

In March 2020 Lee seemed like the wisest and luckiest leader around. While other countries struggled to cope with the pandemic, he urged Singaporeans to “go about our lives as normally as possible.”

He started planning for an early election, something first mooted, sources say, at the end of 2019. The entire machinery of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) was on standby, including apparently having all their posters printed, ahead of a possible April/early May 2020 election. (The election was not due till April 2021.) 

The pandemic and early election provided Lee a perfect opportunity to engineer a smooth transition to Singapore’s fourth generation (4G) of leaders. 

While other countries’ leaders fronted pandemic efforts, Lee initially slid into the background, forcing the relatively inexperienced 4G ministers, such as Lawrence Wong, to take control. With Wong and others performing admirably, the PAP seemed to have executed another policy masterclass, some of its leaders accepting plaudits from the fawning international press. What pandemic? 

It seemed to be only a matter of time before the PAP won another landslide in an election and Lee handed over the reins to Heng Swee Keat (left), the party’s anointed successor. Lee appeared ready to take a backseat, perhaps as a “minister mentor”, a cute Singaporean creation that entails a lot less work and a little less pay.

That was the mood at the end of March. 

As we now know, by mid April Singapore was facing its worst humanitarian crisis since independence, with the virus zinging around packed migrant worker dormitories. Politicians appeared to have blithely ignored numerous warnings from academics and NGOs about overcrowding in the dormitories. Josephine Teo, manpower minister, looked as cold, clueless and defensive as an apparatchik in Chernobyl.

Lee’s plans slowly unraveled, culminating on July 10th in one of the PAP’s worst electoral performances since independence. Its vote share dropped some nine percentage points and it lost, for the first time, two Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs). Heng’s constituency team scored 53%, a record low for a putative leader, a performance which may have scuppered his chances of assuming the highest office.

For the first time in independent Singapore’s history, there is doubt over the identity of our next prime minister. In the space of six months, as a humanitarian crisis has subsided, a leadership crisis has emerged. 

To be clear, the word “crisis” must be situated within a Singaporean context. Democracies around the world have had to contend with their own leadership crises over the past decade. This includes the rise of populists and strong-armed autocrats, such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, intent on subverting democracy itself; as well as, on a separate but sometimes related note, the rise of comedian politicians and other performers who’ve parlayed their television stardom into political power. (Jan 20th 2021 is only a few weeks away. Phew.)

Singapore’s leadership crisis is of a very different sort, a crisis only in relation to the relative smoothness of the PAP’s leadership transitions over the past few decades. 

Nevertheless, it is important for Singaporeans, visitors, companies, other countries and assorted observers to better understand the direction in which our country is heading. And in order to do so, it is worth discussing the prospects of some key characters in this political drama. 

In any other rich democracy, citizens and the media would be engaged in a lively debate about all this; politicians and their followers would entertain journalists on or off the record. In the absence of such a vibrant political environment, I try to paint a picture based on available material and sources. 

(Note: In my research for this piece I approached Heng Swee Keat’s office for an interview. An officer there politely declined; I did not approach others further down the pecking order.)

Source: Prime Minister’s Office

Heng Swee Keat, 59, deputy prime minister & minister for finance

June 30th 2020, nomination day, ten days before the polls, may one day be remembered as the day when Heng’s career began its decline. At the eleventh hour, the PAP drafted Heng from Tampines GRC, where he had contested since entering politics in 2011, to East Coast GRC. The ostensible reason for this was to head off a challenge from an exciting Workers’ Party (WP) team led by the irrepressible Nicole Seah.

Heng seemed surprised. His “East Coast Plan” speech, where he stuttered and fumbled, was so abysmal that on first viewing it seemed like the video had been doctored. Singaporeans took pause; and then, once the video’s authenticity had been confirmed, many unleashed their creative energies on the material.

Never before has a current or incoming Singaporean leader been lampooned publicly like that. Even businesses got in on the act, with Nando’s launching its own “East Coast Plan” at seven the same evening. In an election that was widely celebrated for the growing political consciousness and outspokenness of ordinary voters, this was a high-water mark. 

Decline for Heng; ascent for satire.

Heng’s critics might have shrugged. His lack of charisma and stage presence are well documented. Heng is a geeky technocrat, “better at balancing budgets than rousing a crowd”, as Cherian George puts it. 

Despite the calamitous “East Coast Plan”, there appears to be general bipartisan agreement that Heng made a difference to the outcome. One WP volunteer told me that the party was fairly confident of its chances there: if not for Heng, the WP might have won.

Even so, do PAP supporters view Heng’s 53% win as vindication of his star power, having seemingly rescued the team, or proof that he is unpopular, because he should have garnered many more votes? The jury is out, it seems.

The only thing certain about the entire manoeuvre is that Heng himself was caught off guard. According to one party source, on nomination day Heng reached the polling centre at 11.23am, just seven minutes before cut-off, and had to be rushed in by colleagues. On the nomination form Heng’s teammates names were printed, while his was handwritten. 

One conspiracy theory has it that there was internal sabotage of Heng by his opponents within the party. He was put in a no-win situation. If the PAP lost East Coast, he would be out of the running for the top job. And even if it won, as it did, the winning percentage would be so low, as it was, to effectively rule him out. Why did the “ace in the hand” not seem to know that he was being played? All this will fuel suspicion between Heng’s camp and the rest.

General PAP chatter suggests that Lee, his wife Ho Ching, and other conservative party elders prefer Chan Chun Sing (right in top photo) to Heng. They would have gotten their way, apparently, if not for a revolt by the PAP’s three thousand-odd cadres ahead of the formation in late 2018 of the new PAP Central Executive Committee (CEC), the party’s top decision-making body. 

As it turned out, the party appointed Heng as first assistant secretary-general, paving the way for him to be the next prime minister. It appointed Chan as the second assistant secretary-general, i.e. the presumptive next deputy PM. (And reaffirmed those choices at a recent internal election.) This tension between the pro-Heng camp and the pro-Chan camp may, if one subscribes to aforementioned theory, have had some influence on Heng’s last minute switch to East Coast.

For me, personally, all this has been a bit tragic. His flaws notwithstanding, Heng is by far my favourite of the 4G leaders in contention (i.e. not including Tharman Shanmugaratnam). He is a nice guy, with little appetite for the sort of bullying for which some politicians are known. His nickname at Raffles Institution was Sweat, a portmanteau of his name, and apparently a nod to his sweet but hardworking nature.

Meanwhile, what Heng lacks in terms of stage personality, he makes up for in small group conversations, a keen, genuine listener with a consultative style. I certainly felt this the three times I’ve been in his company.

Those may of course be handicaps in today’s Singapore. In a leadership vacuum, the Nice Guy might very well get outfoxed by the rest. It is unclear if Heng has the ability to consolidate power within his party and, separately, to cogently argue the PAP’s points of view in parliament. Heng appears flummoxed, for instance, whenever asked to spar with the WP’s Sylvia Lim. Perhaps he is too nice, too naive to joust with the political animals he will encounter inside and outside the PAP.

Another flip side of Heng’s consultative, deliberative style is indecisiveness, something civil servants below him have whined about. 

He is probably so acutely aware of this characteristic that he sometimes overcompensates to comic effect. Heng once said that when he was commander of the Jurong Police Division, he would raid construction sites looking for illegal immigrants. “You decide what you do there and then. Arrest, not arrest. Shoot, don’t shoot.” 

(Shoot illegal immigrants? Dear Sweat, you are a sweet guy in Singapore, not a Trumpian vigilante on the Mexican border.)

Singaporeans were reminded of his indecisiveness during the election season, in relation to his supposed “ten million population” statement. In response to a question at NTU in 2019 about his desired immigration rate, Heng offered a long, convoluted answer, sounding professorial, perhaps eager to inspire students to think broadly without himself wanting to commit.

Is that the hallmark of a savvy politician, one able to deflect tough questions? Or is it more the sign of a limp leader unsure how to build support for his vision? The evidence thus far points to the latter.

All this is partly why post election there is growing support for a much more domineering politician to lead the PAP.

Indeed, if there is one thing that (almost) everybody I speak to agrees on, it is that, as we say in Singlish, Heng now hentak kaki, Heng is now “marching on the spot”.

If true, the only thing left is for the PAP to try and perform a graceful retreat. The party, after all, spent years telling Singaporeans about its rigorous, ongoing leadership selection process that led to Heng’s ascent to PM-designate. 

To renege on this, so it goes, the PAP could either play the health card (Heng suffered a stroke in 2018 and was in a coma for six days); or the age card, by delaying the handover of power from Lee long enough such that Heng himself is then deemed too old to takeover, and so must give way to somebody like Chan (eight years younger.)

Whatever the case, despite the PAP’s best efforts, it will be horribly embarrassing for a party famed for its meticulous planning.

Indeed when one considers Heng Swee Keat’s political fortunes this year—including the last-minute switch of his parliamentary ward and the apparent professional hentak kaki—they point to a larger secular trend within the PAP: from long-term strategising to short-term reactiveness.

In terms of policy, analysts observed this after the 2011 elections, when a relatively poor performance prompted the party to, among other things, tighten Singapore’s incredibly loose immigration policies. No longer can the PAP prioritise long-term policy over short-term electoral pressures, some concluded.

Similarly 2020 may be the year when the same becomes true of party planning. Think of candidate selection (see Ivan Lim), leadership selection and electoral strategies (for both see Heng Swee Keat).

In other words, the volatility of Heng’s career is one more indication that Singapore’s politics is starting to resemble the politics of other democracies.

For better or worse.

top image: Channel News Asia, Reuters, Energy Market Authority

This is the first in a series of five articles examining prospective Singaporean leaders. The second, on Ong Ye Kung and Chan Chun Sing, is here.

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Article extras

On Singapore’s early election. Critics called it a cynical ploy that threatened to distract Singaporeans from fighting the pandemic. Tan Cheng Bock, the octogenarian leader of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), suggested that a caretaker government could take over if elections could not be held by the April 2021 deadline. 

PAP sycophants penned editorials supporting their political masters. With our souls already preoccupied by the pandemic, Singaporeans had to contend with political role reversal: the PAP at the vanguard of democratic purity, while the opposition argued for democracy’s suspension.

On the PAP accepting plaudits for its coronavirus “gold standard”. In March 2020, the PAP’s fans couldn’t stop sharing laudatory articles from the international media. By late April 2020, they had decided that the foreign media was again Public Enemy No. 1.

We all know about the hypocrisy of the PAP’s right-wing fans, but none demonstrated it as starkly as this flip-flopping, in just a matter of weeks.

Dear foreign commentator, we only want your assessment of Singapore when it is positive. Please get with the programme.

On comedian politicians. “In 2010 “Tiririca” — a clown — was the most-voted-for congressman in the Brazilian general elections. Both still hold political office.

“What does a federal deputy do? I actually don’t know — but vote for me and I’ll let you know,” ran one Tiririca slogan. “It can’t get any worse” was another. Tiririca set the bar so low that not even irony could limbo under it.”

From “Send in the clowns: how comedy conquered politics“, The Financial Times

On the ten million population. Friends have asked if I was irritated at having to make all those corrections regarding “ten million”. Not really, it was straightforward enough dealing with Heng’s office. But, I do weep at the amount of time spent, no wasted, by everybody from Straits Times reporters and SDP researchers to Chee Soon Juan and Vivian Balakrishnan on the debate.

It was a woefully inefficient way of conducting public discourse, which all emanated from that one Heng statement.

9 thoughts on “Singapore’s leadership crisis: will Heng Swee Keat be our next PM?

  1. Why can’t Singapore have a non-Chinese — a Malay or an Indian or a Yak for that matter — as PM? Why must it ALWAYS be a Chinese dude? Or is Singapore just like its immediate northern neighbour, Malaysia, where racism is as rampant as its corruption to the top echelons of power, and Singapore’s southern neighbour, Indonesia and its preoccupation, as with Malaysia, pribumi? So what do we call Singapore’s preoccupation with its Chineseness — Nanyangland?

  2. My opinion, no less: LHL is unfit to continue as PM; in fact he has failed miserably in his role as PM, since his ascension to this position. And none of the current crop of Chinese PAP ministers are PM material. CCS is just a kiddo, intellectually or professionally. HSK? Like LHL he is also unfit. HSK has no or poor oratorical skills. Leadership capability? – very questionable. The rest are just good at nodding their head as Yes-Men. Tharman is the only plausible candidate for PM, but he is a non-Chinese. Which may prompt us to this question: What good reasons does the PAP have, for saying that Singapore is not ready for a non-Chinese PM? The habit of the PAP for cock-talking is unrivalled, of course.

    On the other hand, we can observe that we have individuals in opposition ranks that are PM material.

    Time to kick the PAP out. Long overdue.

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