The city-state’s carefully planned leadership transition is in disarray


IT WAS A rare moment of drama in Singapore’s normally snoozy politics. On April 8th Heng Swee Keat announced that he was relinquishing his role as heir apparent to the current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong (pictured). Political successions in the city-state, like almost everything else, are normally meticulously planned years in advance by the grandees of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). It has governed Singapore since the country’s founding in 1965. Yet now party mandarins will have to endure the distinctly unfamiliar experience of going back to the drawing board—and admitting, at least in private, to having made a mistake.

Mr Heng, who is 60, was supposed to take over from Mr Lee sometime before the latter’s 70th birthday, in February 2022. Mr Lee had vowed to step down by then, and hand power to a member of the fourth generation of the PAP’s leadership—“4G”, in the party’s jaunty shorthand. But in July Mr Lee announced that he was putting retirement off indefinitely owing to the pandemic. Mr Heng concluded that the delay would not give him enough time to make his mark before he would be expected to retire himself. In a letter to Mr Lee published on April 8th, Mr Heng wrote that by the time the problems caused by the pandemic are resolved, perhaps five years from now, “I would have too short a runway.”

But that was not Mr Heng’s only problem. Although an accomplished administrator who had helped shepherd the economy through the global financial crisis and the pandemic, “he’s no politician,” says Michael Barr of Flinders University in Australia. That is putting it mildly: most Singaporeans consider him dull and distant. Concerns about his health have also dogged him since 2016, when he suffered a stroke that left him in a coma for six days. During the most recent election campaign, last year, he gave a disastrous speech at what was supposed to be his coming-out party, in effect, as leader-to-be. He fumbled his lines so badly that it inspired widespread public ridicule and a bounty of internet memes. It was soon after the PAP’s disappointing performance in the election that Mr Lee delayed his retirement, ostensibly because of the pandemic. Kenneth Paul Tan of Hong Kong Baptist University was not surprised by Mr Heng’s abdication: “The writing was on the wall.”

This “unexpected turn of events is a setback for our succession planning”, admitted the 4G squad in a joint understatement. In theory they will decide among themselves whom to elevate as their new boss—although Mr Lee is thought to have played a big part in Mr Heng’s coronation. The favourite is the pugnacious trade and industry minister, Chan Chung Sing, who is the second most senior leader of 4G and, at 51, has a longer runway than Mr Heng. Other contenders include Ong Ye Kung, the transport minister, Desmond Lee, the national development minister, and Lawrence Wong, the education minister.

Mr Lee said at a news conference on April 8th that he hopes not to have to linger as prime minister for much longer. Nonetheless, he manfully accepted 4G’s invitation to stay on until they settle on a replacement for Mr Heng. This is, after all, what the Lee family does. Mr Lee is the son of Lee Kuan Yew, who led Singapore to independence. The two of them have governed the country for its entire history, bar a 14-year interregnum during which they both held senior jobs in the cabinet. At the news conference, Mr Lee said that he hopes his successor will be in place by the next election, which must be called by 2025. Of course, further pressing reasons to stick around may have arisen by then. His father did not leave the cabinet until his late 80s, although he stood down as prime minister at 67.

In the meantime, the succession fiasco may damage the PAP’s reputation. Singaporeans vote for the party because its leaders are effective administrators, notes Mr Barr. Their sales pitch sounds less convincing if they cannot properly administer their own leadership transition.