When Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that he intended to retire to make way for a younger generation executive from his ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), speculation ran rampant over who would be tapped to succeed the long-time leader.

That question was answered with last week’s appointment of Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat as the PAP’s first assistant secretary-general, putting him on course to become the island republic’s fourth prime minister. The long-dominant PAP currently holds 82 of 89 elected seats in Singapore’s Parliament.

The 66-year-old Lee announced after the 2015 election that he will step down before he turns 70, though some think it could happen sooner with rising anticipation of a snap poll in 2019. Lee is expected to assume an overarching senior role as either “mentor minister” or “senior minister” when he eventually steps down from the premiership.

Underscoring the sensitivity of the transition and certain misgivings over the drawn-out selection process, Goh Chok Tong – Lee’s still influential predecessor – described the transition as an “urgent challenge” in a Facebook post last December and called on the party’s “fourth generation” or “4G” leadership to select a successor within six to nine months.

The 16 ministers and political office-holders who comprise the 4G leadership responded by issuing a statement in January saying they would choose a leader from amongst themselves “in good time.” Lee, meanwhile, said that Goh was “speaking with the privilege of watching things rather than being responsible to make it happen.”

The unusual sight of senior PAP leaders publicly contradicting one another did little to inspire confidence in the 4G leadership. Goh’s remarks reflected the concerns of the wealthy city-state’s citizens, many of whom felt uncomfortable with the indecision surrounding the closely-watched transition.

Singapore's Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat (R) speaks as Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing smiles during a press conference by ruling People Action Party (PAP) in Singapore on November 23, 2018. - Singapore's ruling party on November 23 set in motion a carefully orchestrated political succession that will see the founding family hand over the premiership, a crucial moment in the city-state's short history. (Photo by ARIFFIN JAMAR / THE STRAITS TIMES / AFP) / Singapore OUT / - EDITORS NOTE - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE†† MANDATORY CREDIT† "AFP PHOTO / Ariffin Jamar/The Straits Times†- NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS†††-† †DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Singapore’s Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat (R) and Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing at a PAP press conference, November 23, 2018. Photo: Singapore Out via AFP/Ariffin Jamar

Heng, the genial and unassuming finance minister, was among three Cabinet ministers reported as being under consideration for the premiership, along with Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, 49, and Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, 49.

Chan, seen to be a favorite within the party’s leadership, was widely speculated to be Lee’s likely successor, but was named instead as the PAP’s second assistant secretary-general after Heng invited him to serve as his deputy.

Lee, who is the party’s secretary-general, said in a Facebook post that both men have “complementary strengths” who together “make a strong pairing” that he believes can “steadily win the confidence and trust of Singaporeans.”

The appointments followed internal party elections earlier this month that saw 4G leaders take up roles in the PAP’s main decision-making body, the Central Executive Committee (CEC).

Both of Lee’s deputy prime ministers – Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam – stepped down from their committee posts to make way for the new generation leaders.

A cabinet reshuffle is soon expected, as indicated by Lee at the PAP’s party conference on November 11. The new first and second assistant secretaries’ general are likely to be appointed as deputy prime ministers, while 4G leaders will be given new or expanded roles as they prepare to helm the region’s longest-governing incumbent party.

Lee, whose mandate is scheduled to end in January 2021, also hinted that Singapore’s next general election could be held as early as next year. Should Lee step down before turning 70 in 2022, Heng would have less than five years to prepare to become prime minister, the shortest run-up phase for a premier-in-waiting in the city-state’s political history.

Former Singapore prime minister Goh Chok Tong gestures as he delivers a speech during an international conference in Tokyo on June 5, 2017.Goh took park in the annual two-day conference. / AFP PHOTO / Toru YAMANAKA
Former Singapore prime minister Goh Chok Tong delivers a speech during an international conference in Tokyo on June 5, 2017. Photo: AFP/Toru Yamanaka

He would also be only the second person outside the Lee family to lead Singapore. Lee has been in office since 2004, while his father, Lee Kuan Yew, governed the island for more than three decades as its first prime minister. Goh, 77, ruled from 1990 to 2004 and continues to serve as a parliamentarian while holding the honorary title of “Emeritus Senior Minister.”

Heng’s appointment marks a stunning reversal of fortunes for a politician who, after suffering stroke due to a brain aneurysm during a Cabinet meeting in May 2016, was seen as out of the running to replace Lee due to ill-health. He has since fully recovered and recently told the press that his doctors have given him a clean bill of health.

The 57-year-old began his career in the police force before entering the civil service, eventually becoming the principal private secretary to the senior Lee between 1997 and 2000. Singapore’s founding father had referred to Heng as “the best principal private secretary I ever had” in his 2013 book, “One Man’s View Of The World.”

He was eventually promoted to managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, the city state’s de facto central bank, where he was credited with successfully steering monetary policy through the 2007-2008 global financial crisis that prompted the nation’s worst ever recession a year later.

Heng entered politics in 2011 and was immediately made education minister after his election victory. He has lead the finance ministry since October 2015 and delivered three budget speeches since. He also headed a nationwide engagement exercise tasked with studying strategies to restructure Singapore’s economy.

FILE PHOTO: A general view of PSA International's Tanjong Pagar container terminal in Singapore July 7, 2015. REUTERS/Edgar Su
Singapore’s PSA International’s Tanjong Pagar container terminal, July 7, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su

His appointment “calms the national nerves and also provides the political certainty and continuity in economic policy required to reassure businesses and maintain high consumer confidence in the Singapore economy,” says Mustafa Izzuddin, a fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Mustafa regards Heng as having the “required political skill-set and diplomatic toolkit” to take the reins from Lee. “Domestically, he would have to grapple with a number of pressing domestic exigencies related to bread and butter issues, cost of living and even economic sluggishness.

“On the foreign policy level, he would have to ensure that Singapore is first and foremost safe and secure in its regional neighborhood, including by ensuring that Singapore’s relations with its immediate neighbors, Malaysia and Indonesia, remain on an even keel, while also navigating Singapore on the international stage,” he told Asia Times.

Heng could soon make foreign trips to build relationships abroad, likely to visit “countries that are very important to Singapore including the two major powers US and China, and neighbors, Malaysia and Indonesia,” says the academic, who believes the PAP’s current prerogative is to “close ranks” behind the de-facto prime minister-designate.

He expects that Heng will work closely with Lee – who is still expected to lead the party into the next general election – in devising a winning electoral strategy. The PAP won 69.9% of the popular vote during elections in 2015, up from 60.1% – its worst-ever showing – at the 2011 polls.

Singapore’s reputation as one of Asia’s most asymmetrical democracies means that few expect the PAP to face any serious challenge to its ongoing rule from disparate opposition parties that face daunting institutional obstacles to winning elected office. The PAP has held over 90% of Parliament’s seats since the late 1960s.

SINGAPORE: Giant rally of 63 unions at the Singapore Badminton Hall to celebrate the advent of the new PAP Government and the release of eight trade union leaders from detention. The PAP formed the new government after the Legislative Assembly elections. (3rd left - right) S Woodhull, Lim Chin Siong, C V Devan Nair, Lee Kuan Yew, Jamit SIngh]
A rally celebrating the new PAP government after legislative assembly elections in 1963 with long-ruling premier Lee Kuan Yew third from the right. Photo: AFP

That said, the next changing of the guard will take place against a backdrop of rising income inequality and living costs, a rapidly ageing population, geopolitical challenges and economic headwinds, all while a vocal segment of the citizenry continues to push for credible opposition figures to check the PAP’s dominance.

While Heng has impeccable credentials and is perceived as a safe hand, it is less clear how popular he and other 4G leaders are with the citizenry. An online poll published by Yahoo Singapore earlier this week with more than 5,000 respondents showed that 37% agreed that Heng would “make a good prime minister”, compared with 55% who voted “no” or were “ not sure.”

“There are still many uncertainties out there and nothing is really cast in stone,” political scientist Bilveer Singh of the National University of Singapore (NUS) told Asia times. “While Heng may be the anointed successor, exactly when the baton is going to be passed is still largely uncertain.”

With the global multilateral order fraying and Singapore’s export-reliant, manufacturing-heavy economy vulnerable to an escalating US-China trade war, Singh believes turbulent economic and political conditions “may not augur well for Lee to pass the baton just yet,” raising the possibility that the incumbent premier could yet stay on past 70.

The academic also expects Heng to be “thrust into more frontline political positions and roles” over the next year. “Heng must now start appearing ‘prime ministerial’ and for this to succeed, Lee must take a few steps back to allow Heng to lead more often,” he says. “How, and in what areas this will be done, remains to be seen.”