SINGAPORE – Singapore’s carefully planned leadership succession has been disorganized.
Political observers say it is now unclear who would become the next prime minister of the Asian financial center.
Vice Premier Heng Swee Keat shocked the nation on Thursday night when he announced that he will step aside as the designated successor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
He said he will turn 60 this year and cited his age as an obstacle to leading the country in a post-pandemic world.
Heng will resign his role as finance minister in the upcoming cabinet shakeup, which local media said is expected within two weeks. Still, he will continue as deputy prime minister and coordinating minister for economic policies.
“It’s a roadblock in the works in terms of Singapore’s carefully laid out succession plans, but I don’t see that as a hit to the body for Singapore’s political renewal,” Eugene Tan, Professor of Law at Singapore Management University and an observant politician, he told CNBC’s “Street Signs Asia” on Friday.
Financial markets were flat on Friday following Heng’s announcement, with the benchmark Straits Times index down 0.1% and the Singapore dollar flat against the US dollar.
Who could be the next Prime Minister of Singapore?
Analysts have identified four potential candidates who could be chosen by the leadership to become Singapore’s next prime minister:
- Chan Chun Sing, 51, Minister of Commerce and Industry;
- Ong Ye Kung, 51, who is Minister of Transportation;
- Lawrence Wong, 48, Minister of Education and co-chair of the country’s working group on Covid-19;
- Desmond Lee, 44, minister of national development.
Gillian Koh, deputy director of research at the Institute for Policy Studies at the National University of Singapore, said men have had some exposure on the international stage. That could help them take the top spot, he said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Friday.
However, he noted that Wong and Lee, both in their 40s, would have “a much longer runway” even if they took over five years from now.
The ruling People’s Action Party has ruled Singapore since the country’s independence in 1965. Leadership transition – Singapore has only had two so far – is usually an uneventful affair, with an identified successor many years before the acting prime minister resigns.
But even before Heng’s decision to step aside, the country’s leadership succession plan was disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, said Tan, the law professor.
Lee, the current prime minister, had previously said he was ready to retire. by the time he turns 70, but later indicated that he would delay his delivery to help Singapore overcome the Covid-19 crisis.
Lee is 69 this year and said Thursday that he would remain prime minister until a new successor emerges and is ready to take office.
“The pandemic has really upset the leadership’s succession plans, so … I see DPM (Deputy Prime Minister) Heng as an unfortunate victim,” said Tan, adding that Heng seemed “very at peace” with his decision to Step aside.