SINGAPORE – Singapore’s carefully planned leadership has been thrown into disarray.
Political observers say it is not clear who will be the next prime minister of the Asian financial hub.
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat shocked the nation late on Thursday when he announced he would step down as designated successor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
He said he turns 60 this year, citing his age as an obstacle to governing the country in a post-pandemic world.
Heng will give up his role as finance minister at the next cabinet reshuffle, which local media said is expected in two weeks. Nevertheless, he remains as Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies.
“It throws a spanner in the works at Singapore’s very carefully crafted succession plans, but I do not see it as a body blow to Singapore’s political renewal,” Eugene Tan, a law professor at Singapore Management University and a political observer, told CNBC’s Signs Asia “Friday.
Financial markets were stable Friday after Heng’s announcement, with the benchmark Straits Times Index falling 0.1% lower and the Singapore dollar flat against the US dollar.
Who could be Singapore’s next prime minister?
Analysts have identified four potential candidates who could be chosen by management to become Singapore’s next prime minister:
- Chan Chun Sing, 51, who is Minister of Trade and Industry;
- Ong Ye Kung, 51, who is Minister of Transport;
- Lawrence Wong, 48, who is education minister and co-chair of the country’s task force at Covid-19;
- Desmond Lee, 44, national development minister.
Gillian Koh, deputy director of research at the National University of Singapore Institute of Policy Studies, said the men have had some exposure on the international stage. It could help them get top jobs, she said Friday on CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia.”
However, she pointed out that Wong and Lee, who are both in their 40s, would have “a much longer runway” even if they were to take over five years from now.
The ruling People’s Action Party has ruled Singapore since its independence in 1965. Leadership – Singapore has only had two so far – is usually an eventful affair with a successor identified many years before the incumbent Prime Minister resigns.
But even before Heng’s decision to step down, the country’s leadership succession plan was overturned by the Covid-19 pandemic, said Tan, a law professor.
Lee, the current prime minister, had previously said he was ready to retire before turning 70, but later suggested he would delay his transfer to see Singapore through the Covid-19 crisis.
Lee is 69 this year and said Thursday he would remain as prime minister until a new successor appears and is ready to take over.
“The pandemic has really raised the plans for leadership, and so … I see DPM (Deputy Prime Minister) Heng as an unfortunate accident,” said Tan, adding that Heng looked “very peaceful” with his decision to step aside.