PAP in Disarray? Much More Likely That LHL Is Moving the Pieces Around the Chessboard To Ensure His Son Is There To Succeed Him When He Finally Retires
Was anyone really surprised by the news that my old Cambridge contemporary, Heng Swee Keat, is stepping down from leadership of the 4G team and from contention to be the next PM?
The ostensible reason, and the one Heng gave, was that he would be too old by the time the pandemic was over:
“The 60s are still a very productive time of life. But when I also consider the ages at which our first three prime ministers took on the job, I would have too short a runway should I become the next prime minister then.”
Age as a reason does not make much sense. After all Lee Hsien Loong is almost 70 and has announced that he will continue to be PM for at least the next two years. Two years can of course turn in to ten or even twenty, as the Lees seem to have a different definition of time based on quantum theory (which already served LHL well in allowing him to be both in the polling station and not there at the same time and thus avoid prosecution for election offenses in Cheng San in GE1997). Other world leaders are much older The new US President, Joe Biden, is 78 and Trump was 74.
Nor does health appear to be a major factor. While Heng and his doctors may be worried that he will have another stroke under the stresses of office, he appears to be and says he is in good health. Health issues did not stop Lee Hsien Loong becoming PM, after the last seat warmer Goh Chok Tong, stepped down after two terms, despite having had cancer for two decades. In 2015 LHL was diagnosed with prostate cancer but, instead of stepping back if anything he has increased his personal grip on power as many of his generation, like Tharman, have retired, leaving him with a group of relative youngsters who are undoubtedly easier to manipulate.
Heng was typical of the charisma-free candidates favored by LHL, presumably on the grounds that they are unlikely to develop a personal following and remain dependent on the goodwill of the Lees. He might seem to be carrying the can for a poor PAP performance in the GE (summed up by his rambling “East Coast Plan” speech) but he is not markedly worse than any of the other so called 4G leaders now vying to fill his shoes. And while Goh Chok Tong in retrospect seems to tower above any of the other 4G candidates, he was initially known as “Woody” Goh.
When he was first anointed by LHL as his chosen successor, I wrote about my personal experience of Heng Swee Keat when I invited him and some of the other scholars studying Economics to dinner in Queens’ College, Cambridge. Heng was introduced to me by his colleagues as the “Police scholar” and I remember being blinded by the light glinting off his well-shined black leather shoes (familiar as the style favoured by policemen the world over). Heng was polite but reserved, did not reciprocate the invitation, and after Cambridge Heng was obviously worried that association with me might damage his career. I wrote about Heng’s career path, and in a 2018 blog entitled “From Shiny Shoes to Seat Warmer: The Career Progression of a PAP Apparatchik”
While he appears to have forgotten most of the Economics he should have learnt at Cambridge (even if he only got a second class degree), displaying an understanding of ledgers that would stand him in good stead if running a mama shop but not a country, he has certainly been just as capable as his predecessor, Tharman, in presenting a fake fiscal position and concealing information about the reserves. I have written many articles about his misleading Budgets and loose, even criminal, methods used to obscure the true size of the surplus (see links below). He has also been an enthusiastic user of the Government’s shiny new Protection from Online Falsehood and Manipulation Act (POFMA) to try to intimidate ordinary citizens into accepting the Government’s falsehoods at face value, despite the fact that ironically he should have been on the receiving end of several himself.
Heng also was assiduous in use of the POFMA law to protect his masters, tying himself into an impossible contradiction as he issued a POFMA to citizens who repeated a Taiwanese news channel’s claim that Ho Ching earned US$100 million a year (very possible and indeed probable) while maintaining the absurd fiction that Temasek is a private company and therefore under no obligation to reveal what it pays its executives.
His decision to step aside may have been his but it is hard to believe that Heng would have voluntarily decided that he did not want to be PM unless his health was not up to it. It is far more likely that LHL decided to cull him, which seems consistent with LHL’s mealymouthed praise for him as an “important member” of the team.
The conventional wisdom was that Chan Chun Sing was in pole position to succeed Heng as Seat-Warmer-in-Waiting, though he was previously in that position before Heng supplanted him. I have written before about CCS’s tendency to talk down to Singaporeans and mouth inane platitudes and tautologies as though they were pearls of wisdom (see here and here)
However LHL has announced a cabinet reshuffle which seemingly puts Lawrence Wong, the youngest of the 4G leaders, ahead in the race by handing him the Finance Ministry, the most important ministry after the PM and giving CCS the Education Ministry. While my impression of Lawrence Wong is that his English verbal presentation skills are way ahead of CCS, Wong is only a graduate of non-Ivy League American universities compared to CCS who is a Cambridge graduate.
Yet again Singaporeans are being given the message that only men are fit to be PM and only Chinese men at that. Then LHL and the PAP leadership can continue to repeat the mantra that SIngapore is not ready for a minority PM (and by implication not for a woman either).
Some have said that Heng stepping aside signals the unraveling of the PAP. I doubt that. I think it is only a carefully calibrated campaign by LHL to sow uncertainty and keep the candidates for the succession off balance and fighting among themselves. He probably is planning to stay on for at least one more term of Parliament until either his wife or his son is in a position to assume the leadership role. I strongly suspect Ho Ching is stepping down as CEO of Temasek in order to run for President (where no candidate will be qualified to oppose her) or, albeit less likely, to become a Minister. State media are increasingly promoting her in a political role. By favoring interim leadership candidates with mediocre academic qualifications, LHL is likely trying to cement his son’s position as the next generation of SIngapore’s “natural aristocracy”.