The “Heng Swee Keat as Prime Minister” hype-train has started.
Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported that “Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat is poised to succeed Lee Hsien Loong”.
This was based on a source from Lianhe Zaobao, which noted that “there are indications” that Heng will be handed the first assistant secretary-general position, while trade and industry minister Chan Chun Sing will likely be made the second assistant secretary-general.
Let’s take a deep breath though and put all the latest news and rumours about the next PM in perspective — at least for a day before the reveal is supposed to take place on Friday, Nov. 23.
History shows that the Asst Sec-Gen roles matter but…
The history of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), in terms of leadership transition, is not a long one, especially since there are only three secretary-generals so far.
It is true that PMs Lee Hsien Loong and Goh Chok Tong were former 1st ASGs before becoming PM.
But not all 1st ASGs went on to become the next PM.
As Zaobao noted, “traditionally, an assistant secretary-general takes on the role of a Deputy Prime Minister or the next generation PM or DPM”.
For instance, the recently retired 1st ASG is DPM Teo Chee Hean.
The biography by former PM Goh also revealed that former president Tony Tan was the first assistant secretary-general, and not Goh:
“Goh was on the ascendancy and seemingly could do no wrong. But gravity can be annoyingly persistent, especially in politics. When the PAP announced its new CEC weeks after the (1980) general election, it was widely expected that his position as first among equals among the Magnificent Seven (of 2G ministers) would be cemented.
Instead, Tony Tan was moved above him, in a move which surprised many. Goh remained as second assistant secretary-general, while Tan — who joined politics only a year early — was catapulted to the post of first assistant-general.”
Since a 2nd ASG like Goh has gone on to become the next PM of Singapore, one cannot rule Chan Chun Sing out of the race just because he is not the 1st ASG.
If Heng is the 1st ASG and Chan is the 2nd ASG, the only clear indication is that Education Minister Ong Ye Kung has fallen behind the two front-runners to become the next PM.
We will not know the real story until Lee Hsien Loong publishes his own memoirs
Crucially, Goh revealed his conversation with the late Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) in Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story, when Lee decided to appoint Tan ahead of Goh:
“LKY told me he wanted to make Tony the first assistant sec-gen, so I said okay… It has always been my attitude: okay, no problem. The good thing is I never aimed for the top post”.
While LKY asked if Goh minded, Goh said that LKY did not tell him why he was pushing Tan ahead of him.
Hence, it will be a while before we know how the consensus was arrived among the 4G leaders to appoint Heng and Chan as the 1st and 2nd ASGs respectively, and how such a consensus was communicated to PM Lee.
In other words, one would hope that the individual conversations between PM Lee and Heng, PM Lee and Chan, and PM Lee and Ong, would offer clarity on what really transpired in this 4G leadership transition.
CEC elections may have played a big part in determining who will be the 1st ASG this time
Two years ago, Coordinating Minister Khaw Boon Wan, as PAP chairman, addressed The Straits Times editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang’s commentary on leadership transition by reaffirming the PAP position that the next PM will be picked by the next generation ministers.
Here, we quote his public letter to Han:
“As with both ESM Goh Chok Tong and PM Lee Hsien Loong, the next prime minister will be chosen by the next generation of leaders from among themselves. If all goes well, they will make this choice by consensus. Older ministers, including the current PM, will stay out of the deliberations. This is as it should be, for it is the younger ministers who will have to work with the new PM and help him succeed.
The new leader will also have to be elected into the PAP’s Central Executive Committee, and become the party’s secretary-general. And constitutionally, the Prime Minister must enjoy the confidence of the majority of Members of Parliament. This means he must have support of the party cadres as well as the parliamentary party. And he will not have either if he fails to unite Singaporeans and win elections.” (Our emphasis in bold)
The Central Executive Committee (CEC) elections at the party conference was an ideal platform to assess the support of the party cadres and the Members of Parliament.
In fact, the election indicated that the three PM front-runners — Heng, Chan, and Ong — have wide support from the party.
For instance, Ong was able to be voted as the top 12 leaders without any pre-nomination from the party elders.
Importantly, sources close to the party told Mothership.sg that Heng Swee Keat is top vote-getter among the 4G PM front-runners during the recent CEC election.
And this may be the real reason why Heng is poised to be the 1st ASG.
But will Heng be the next PM?
It all depends on whether Heng will be the next DPM in the next Cabinet reshuffle, whether he will be the top vote-getter in the next 2020 CEC elections, and whether he is still the 1st ASG when PM Lee retires.
Right now, it’s too early to tell, or to proceed with the Heng for PM coronation.
Top photo from Heng Swee Keat Facebook