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Heng in there, Singapore!

So is this the end? I mean, the end of the national gossip game of who will become Singapore’s 4th Prime Minister?

Mr Heng Swee Keat, 57, has been named 1stAssistant Secretary-General of the People’s Action Party. That means, if the leadership succession is really as orderly as the PAP says it will be,  he will take over as Prime Minister once Mr Lee Hsien Loong steps aside. Sooner or later, at one party convention, Mr Heng will assume the mantle of PAP secretary-general as well –  unless Mr Lee asked, like his late father did of Mr Goh Chok Tong, to be allowed to stay on in the party job for a while.

When media reports said that party sources were expecting Mr Heng to be first among equals among the 4G leadership, I thought to myself how things had gone one big round. After all, that was the talk last year and early this year, that Mr Heng would helm the post by virtue of his age and term in office. He would be Deputy Prime Minister because he is older and more experienced than the other two touted front-runners, Messrs Chan Chun Sing and Ong Ye Kung, both of whom haven’t hit the big 50. Then PM Lee nixed the idea and we’re told that all would be announced in good time.

It’s good that the leadership issue has been decided because the uncertainty was breeding too much speculation among the population. It must have been stressful for the three men, who despite whatever they or others have said about collective leadership, would have known how much scrutiny they were being subjected to, both in and out of political circles.

Recall how there were many more front-runners not too long ago. Their names have been quietly left out as pundits started narrowing the field. Last weekend, party sources revealed that Education Minister Mr Ong was no longer in the race, by virtue of being left out of the PAP Central Executive Committee’s list of nominees for party posts. Nevertheless, he was still nominated by the rank-and-file – and made the cut. What I would give to know how the 3,000 or so cadres split their votes!

When it came down to the wire, the Internet was abuzz with opinions about the two men, Finance Minister Heng and Trade and Industry Minister Chan. Anecdotally, netizens seem more in favour of Mr Heng than Mr Chan.

Mr Heng earned plenty of goodwill when he chaired the Our Singapore Conversation, an extensive and intensive political exercise to get feedback after the PAP’s dismal 2011 poll showing. The outcomes of his Committee for Future Economy didn’t get much as many bouquets. But most people know him who has been in public service for a very long time and who had been steering Singapore’s finances. He is seen as a “nice’’ man, so much so that even his attempts to upbraid opposition politicians in Parliament seemed too much out of character.

As for Mr Chan, a former general, his informal behavior and folksy mode of speech endeared him to the grassroots. But there were those who thought he lacked the gravitas that marked Singapore’s prime ministers.

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Some say that all this speculation is none of the people’s business, because it is an internal party matter. Some say that things will go on just the same, regardless of whoever is in charge since there doesn’t seem to be a standout candidate. Yet others wonder if the leadership was being divided into factions which are unable to come to an unanimous choice. How much hard bargaining, if any, was there?

Of course, the PAP would never disclose any internal politicking and would probably even deny it, even if there was. In the PAP world, there is no such thing as harbouring political ambitions.  Politics is a call to service, with the chosen one gracefully accepting the mantle.

So, what now?

It looks like a Cabinet reshuffle should come next. After all, both deputy prime ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam aren’t in the PAP’s CEC and the 4G leaders should be given an even higher profile now.

How will Mr Lee position his men and women in Cabinet? Will there be one DPM or two DPMs or a First and Second DPM, to take account future succession planning? Note that when Mr Goh became PM, he had the late Ong Teng Cheong as 1DPM and Mr Lee as 2DPM. But it was Mr Lee who acted as PM in Mr Goh’s absence.

But the Cabinet’s game of musical chairs doesn’t matter as much now as how Mr Heng will lead the PAP in the next general election due by January 2021. It will be a 4G show, we’ve been told, and it would be interesting to see if PAP strategies or tactics have changed.  It would a good time to announce a new vision that is not only economically-driven but also socially-oriented, and an agenda that will energise Singaporeans rather than make them deaf to motherhood statements. Perhaps, also, the 4G will think harder about whether to invoke LKY Thought in their words and deeds, and dare to forge ahead on their steam.

They still have the moribund economy to see to, the GST to raise, the moves towards a digital society and the dive in old HDB property prices. Not to forget that the younger lot have to deal with a Malaysia that has Dr Mahathir Mohammad at the helm, and a more assertive China.

The man who fronts Singapore isn’t going to have it easy, especially since there are still citizens around who can compare his performance with not one or two but three prime ministers.

From now till then, we’ve been told we’ll be seeing a lot more ministers walking the ground. I am looking forward to shaking Mr Heng’s hand and wishing him well.

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Congratulations, Mr Heng.








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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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