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Latest Cabinet changes set stage for next GE, leadership handover

"Unexciting and predictable" approach works well for Singapore: Tharman

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Unsurprisingly, much of the spotlight was on Heng Swee Keat, the leader of the People's Action Party's (PAP) fourth-generation (4G) team who will become Deputy Prime Minister from next Wednesday.

THE latest round of Cabinet appointments announced on Tuesday did not turn out to be as eventful as many had expected, with just three people taking on new roles as the clock ticks down to the next general election (GE).

Unsurprisingly, much of the spotlight was on Heng Swee Keat, the leader of the People's Action Party's (PAP) fourth-generation (4G) team who will become Deputy Prime Minister from next Wednesday.

With his status as second-in-command now confirmed, the 57-year-old is on course to take over the helm from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during the next term of government after the elections are over.

Significantly, Mr Heng will also be the lone DPM and the designated Acting PM when Mr Lee is overseas or on leave, as the current two deputies - Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam - will relinquish their appointments (also on May 1) but remain in Cabinet as Senior Ministers. It will be read as a clear signal of where Mr Heng stands in the order of things.

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Mr Heng - a two-term MP elected at the 2011 GE - has a heavy load on his shoulders. He retains his role as Finance Minister, and remains chairman of both the Future Economy Council and the National Research Foundation.

This continuity will be welcomed by the business community, as it means that there'll be a steady pair of hands steering the Singapore economy as the government pushes ahead with technology innovation and stays focused on industry transformation.

The value put on continuity is reiterated by having the two new senior ministers around to provide guidance and stability as Mr Heng and the rest of the 4G team find their footing and develop their own leadership style.

Mr Teo, who is 64 and an MP since 1992, stays on as Coordinating Minister for National Security. The 62-year-old Mr Tharman, part of the so-called "Super Seven" group that entered politics back in 2001, takes on a redesignated role as Coordinating Minister for Social Policies and continues to advise the prime minister on economic issues.

This latest Cabinet reshuffle - the fourth since the September 2015 polls - stood out from the last round of changes exactly a year ago, when 4G ministers were tasked to head 10 out of Singapore's 16 ministries.

It's perhaps telling that Mr Lee - who has made known his wish to step down by the time he turns 70 in 2022 - chose not to make changes at any of the ministries this time, preferring to let all the ministers stay in their existing capacities.

There will be those who may bemoan the lack of major changes, and notably, shortly after the Cabinet appointments were announced, Mr Tharman made the point that there has been no "sudden change", and that this "unexciting and predictable" approach is one that works well for Singapore.

Some political observers were quick to surmise that keeping it largely unchanged could be another possible indication that the next GE, which must be held by early-2021, could take place as soon as the later part of this year.

The leadership transition process has seemingly gone according to plan with the younger ministers working together, and the signs are good for a smooth handover of power when the time comes.

As Mr Heng gears up to be Singapore's fourth prime minister, he does so with the endorsement of his Cabinet colleagues and the ruling PAP.

The much bigger task ahead of him and the rest of the 4G team is to win the support of as many Singaporeans as possible at the next GE and secure a clear mandate to govern the country from a position of strength.

READ MORE: Heng Swee Keat to be sole DPM from May 1