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SINGAPORE POLITICS

Business groups positive as Heng looks set to be fourth PM

Currently Finance Minister, he is well-known to the business community and seen as responsive to firms' concerns

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"The younger ministers have chosen me as their leader and I've accepted. It is my privilege to serve." - Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat (right). With him is Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, whom he has asked to be his deputy, at the PAP's 35th Central Executive Committee office bearer's press conference.

Singapore

ARMED with a clean bill of health by his doctors and a steely resolve to serve Singapore and its people, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said he was "deeply conscious" of the heavy responsibility he is taking on at the ruling People's Action Party (PAP).

The 57-year-old was elected as the party's first assistant secretary-general on Friday, a powerful post that paves the way for him to become Singapore's fourth prime minister after the next general election (GE).

"The younger ministers have chosen me as their leader and I've accepted. It is my privilege to serve," he said at a press conference at the PAP headquarters in New Upper Changi Road.

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He chaired the session alongside Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, whom Mr Heng had earlier asked to be his deputy. Mr Chan, 49, was elected as second assistant secretary-general in the PAP's Central Executive Committee, the party's highest decision-making body. Both men are now on course to become deputy prime ministers when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong - who has made known his wish to step down before he turns 70 in 2022 - makes the next round of changes to his Cabinet line-up.

Mr Heng, who suffered a major stroke during a Cabinet meeting in May 2016 but has since made a full recovery, said he would not have taken up the new appointment in the PAP if he did not feel up to the task. "I've made a very good recovery, and the doctors have given me a clean bill of health. After my latest medical check-up, the results came back even better than before," said Mr Heng when quizzed about his health and whether he could cope with the rigours of the frequent international travel required of a prime minister.

"I've consulted my doctors, looked at my medical reports, and I know my own energy levels. I took up (this role) after thinking about it very seriously, and only after making sure my health allows me to do it. This major life-and-death episode strengthened my commitment to serve Singapore," he said.

This year alone, Mr Heng has travelled extensively for work. He's already made two 30-hour trips to Argentina, and will be going a third time with Mr Lee next week to attend the G-20 Summit in Buenos Aires.

He's also flown to China several times in 2018, and visited India and Bali. "I'm travelling more than when I was MAS (Monetary Authority of Singapore) managing director (from 2005 to 2011)," said Mr Heng to laughter.

Team effort

It was a month ago when the younger ministers and political office-holders in the fourth-generation (4G) team - after many rounds of discussions among themselves - finally reached a consensus that Mr Heng would be their new leader.

Once Mr Heng was informed, he in turn approached Mr Chan to be his No 2. This choice was also endorsed by the younger team. On Friday, Mr Heng said he was heartened to have the backing of a strong team. "No one person can do it alone, not even (founding prime minister) Lee Kuan Yew who had the help of able, stout-hearted colleagues," he said.

Mr Heng noted that the 4G team has strengths in many areas and a range of skills to deal with complex challenges.

On why he picked Mr Chan to be his deputy, Mr Heng pointed to the fact that he is able to "complement me very well". Both men entered politics at the 2011 GE. They ended up working together on many initiatives, including the Our Singapore Conversation project, the Committee on the Future Economy, and the SG50 golden jubilee celebrations. "I can see how Chun Sing can be very helpful to me," said Mr Heng, adding that Mr Chan has many attributes from his experience in the army, the unions and the grassroots.

Mr Chan also emphasised the importance of teamwork when it comes to leading Singapore. "No matter how good we are as individuals, it is necessary but not sufficient," said the former labour chief.

"What distinguishes Singapore's team from other people and other countries is that we have a very cohesive team. That is the hallmark of our leadership style."

Steady hands

Business associations welcomed the news of Mr Heng's new role, noting that he is familiar to the business community and seen as responsive to firms' concerns.

Singapore Business Federation (SBF) CEO Ho Meng Kit cited Mr Heng's close collaboration with the SBF and his "keen understanding and empathy for businesses and the business community".

"As Finance Minister, he had said that the Ministry of Finance (MOF) and businesses are on the same side. If businesses do well, the country will do well," added Mr Ho. "We are confident in his ability to lead the nation and maintain a stable and prosperous environment for our businesses to thrive in."

Association of Small and Medium Enterprises president Kurt Wee said Mr Heng "has been a steady pair of hands", whether as a politician or a technocrat, with his extensive experience in the MAS and MOF making him highly recognised by the business community.

Mr Heng is "widely perceived as being consultative with the industry and public when reviewing policies", noted Maybank Kim Eng senior economist Chua Hak Bin. "His experience with MAS, GIC and MOF will be well received by investors and financial markets."

Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Roland Ng expressed confidence more broadly in the 4G leadership as a whole. CIMB Private Bank economist Song Seng Wun pointed out that policy continuity - regardless of who becomes prime minister - is "the strong point of Singapore and why it is attractive for businesses".

"Leadership changes in other countries bring about questions about what changes the new leader will bring. Not so in Singapore."

Smooth transition

The PAP's new CEC saw many other changes. The new chairman is Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, who replaces Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan. Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli is vice-chairman.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam - the most senior CEC member after PM Lee - was elected treasurer, while Education Minister Ong Ye Kung is assistant treasurer.

In a post on the PAP's Facebook page, PM Lee described the election of the new CEC as a "major step forward" in Singapore's political renewal.

"Leadership transition is always a complex and delicate matter. The younger ministers themselves must decide who is to lead them, as they have done in this process. This way, they will give their full support to the leader whom they themselves have chosen," said Mr Lee.

He added that a smooth transition to the new team to lead the country beyond the next GE is important for both the PAP and for Singapore's future.

"The older ministers and I will do our best to help the new team succeed."

- With additional reporting by Janice Heng