Singapore’s Lee Completes Address After Illness Forced Halt

(Bloomberg) -- Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong returned from a one-hour break forced by illness to finish a nationally-televised speech on Sunday evening, apologizing for giving the crowd a “scare” and using the incident to stress the importance of succession planning.

Lee, 64, had been speaking on and off for more than two hours in multiple languages when he physically stumbled and abruptly stopped. The live broadcast of his main annual National Day rally address was halted while the prime minister was attended to by a medical team.

After coming back to the podium, Lee appeared relaxed and even joked about the situation. He spoke for a further 15 minutes before bringing the speech to an end, announcing the return of Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat to work months after the minister had a stroke.

“I gave everybody a scare,” Lee said. “The last time I did this was on the parade square in Safti, and fainted,” he said, referring to a national military institute. He is a former brigadier general.

“I’ve never had so many doctors look at me all at once,” he said, adding he would have a full check up.

The Prime Minister’s office said in a statement on Lee’s verified Twitter account that he was feeling unsteady because of prolonged standing, heat and dehydration. “His heart is fine and he did not have a stroke,” it said.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said Lee was “perfectly normal” and in good shape, and was just fatigued by a recently hectic schedule. “Don’t worry too much,” Shanmugaratnam told Channel News Asia.

Political Transition

Finance Minister Heng, who took over the finance job from Shanmugaratnam last year and is regarded as a possible successor for Lee, suffered a stroke during a cabinet meeting in May and spent weeks at the hospital. Lee said Sunday that Heng is ready to resume his duties progressively, and will focus on next year’s budget as well as longer-term economic strategies.

Heng, a former managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, the central bank, previously served as education minister and presented his first budget to Parliament in March. Lee also said he will appoint Lawrence Wong, who is now minister for national development and a member of the central bank’s board, as second minister for finance.

Lee underwent robot-assisted keyhole surgery in February last year to treat prostate cancer and was given the all clear in May of that year. The diagnosis came more than two decades after he was treated and cleared of lymphoma. The prime minister, the son of the late Lee Kuan Yew, took over from Goh Chok Tong in 2004.

“It’s another poignant reminder of the demands of the office of the Prime Minister,” said Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at Singapore Management University who has previously served as a nominated member of the Singaporean parliament. “His schedule has been demanding, including quite a number of trips abroad in recent months and in the next few weeks.”

Lee has signaled he won’t stay on as prime minister after 70. The People’s Action Party, which was founded by the elder Lee, has won every general election since 1959.

The prime minister said the brief scare underlined the importance of securing an orderly political transition to a new crop of leaders after the next election, due by early 2021. “Soon after the next general election my successor must be ready to take over,” he said. “What just happened makes it even more important that I talk about it now.”

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