Singapore's Pre-Election Cabinet Change Sets Heng Up for Top Job

(Bloomberg) -- Singapore’s Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat was promoted to deputy prime minister on Tuesday, a move that further positions him to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Heng will become Lee’s deputy on May 1 while retaining the finance post, the prime minister’s office said in an emailed statement. He will also continue chairing the Future Economy Council and National Research Foundation.

The sole cabinet promotion bolsters the odds that 57-year-old Heng will be the ruling People’s Action Party’s choice for prime minister after the general elections, which may come as soon as this year. He was named first assistant secretary-general of the PAP in November, a designation considered as second in command to Lee.

Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who steps down as deputy prime minister after being in the role since 2011, said Heng was the “best person to move up to become DPM and take over as PM during the next term of government.”

“He has exceptional ability, mettle and the confidence of the 4G team,” he said in a Facebook post, referring to the group of younger ministers known as the country’s fourth-generation leaders.

GIC Role

Tharman, 62, will become a senior minister in the cabinet and hold the post of coordinating minister for social policies, while continuing to advise the prime minister on economic matters.

In addition, he’ll be deputy chairman of the board of GIC Pte, according to a separate statement issued by Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund. Tharman has served as GIC director since May 2004 and chairman of the investment strategies committee since July 2011, according to the statement.

Heng began his career in the Singapore Police Force, later entering the civil service and serving as principal private secretary to Lee Kuan Yew, after Lee stepped down as prime minister. Heng has held the post of finance minister since 2015, and previously served as education minister and managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, the nation’s central bank.

During a cabinet meeting in 2016, Heng collapsed from a stroke but recovered and returned to work three months later. He said in November his health has improved since the stroke, giving him the confidence to take up a leadership position in the ruling party, according to the Straits Times.

Economic Risks

In an interview with Bloomberg earlier this month, Heng said U.S.-China tensions would linger beyond any potential trade agreement in the near term. Export-reliant Singapore has the monetary and fiscal policy tools to adjust to changes in the global outlook, and will use this period of uncertainty to restructure the economy and industries, he said.

“I am honoured by PM’s trust and will do my very best, together with my colleagues, to fulfill our responsibility to serve Singapore,” Heng said in a post on his official Facebook page on Tuesday.

Lee, 67, has signaled he intends to hand over the premiership by the time he turns 70 in 2022 -- a year after the country’s next general elections are due. He said in a Bloomberg interview in November that a 2019 general election is always possible. The PAP has ruled Singapore since Lee’s father, Lee Kuan Yew, led the country out of its political union with neighboring Malaysia in 1965. The two Lees have held the post of prime minister in all but 14 years of its independence.

Teo Chee Hean, 64, will also step down as deputy prime minister. He becomes a senior minister in the cabinet and retains his position as coordinating minister for national security.

“This is the Singapore way of ensuring smooth leadership transition, continuity and stability,” he said in a Facebook post. “Senior leaders make way in good time for the next generation, share their experience and help the next generation of leaders to succeed.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.