Heng Swee Keat too old at 60 to be PM but PM Lee, pushing 70 is not too old to stay on indefinitely?

Deputy Prime Minister and touted successor for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (PM Lee), Heng Swee Keat (Mr Heng) has announced on Thursday (8 Apr) that he would not be running for the role of Prime Minister. He also said that he would be relinquishing his role as Finance Minister due to his age and fear that he cannot fulfil the exceptional demand of the job.

In a letter to PM Lee, Mr Heng, who turns 60 this year, noted that he would have “too short of a runway” to become the next Prime Minister as he would be in his mid-60s when the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

Given that PM Lee who is pushing 70 has recently indicated that he would not be retiring as planned because of the Covid-19 pandemic, how does Mr Heng’s reasoning stack up?

If Mr Heng is too old to be Prime Minister at 60, isn’t PM Lee way too old not to retire as Prime Minister? After all, why is Mr Heng too old when PM Lee, who is a decade older not deemed too old? It doesn’t make for logical reading.

Mr Heng went on to say that the Government had requested for PM Lee to “stay on as Prime Minister until such time when a new successor is chosen by the team and is ready to take over” and is “grateful that PM Lee has agreed” to the request.

Again, this does not make sense. Singapore has long groomed future successors of power for years. Now that there appears to be a succession lacuna, how many more years will it take before we have a clear successor? Does it mean that PM Lee will continue to be Prime Minister for an indefinite period of time? How old will he then be when he finally decides to retire?

Speaking at the same press conference, Mr Heng said: “Singapore politics is not about self but what is good for Singapore, and I have been constantly thinking of what is in the best interest of Singapore and Singaporeans.”

In other words, Mr Heng is saying that he is resigning for the best interests of Singapore because he is too old. But if his age is not for the benefit of Singapore, how is asking PM Lee, who is 10 years older to stay on indefinitely going to benefit Singapore? The mind boggles!

Mr Heng’s reasoning is that he would have been happy to take on the Prime Ministerialship but for the Covid-19 pandemic.

“This year, I am 60. As the crisis will be prolonged, I would be close to the mid-60s when the crisis is over. The 60s are still a very productive time of life. But when I 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. We need a leader who will not only rebuild Singapore post-Covid-19 but also lead the next phase of our nation-building effort.”

However, how does he know how long the Covid-19 pandemic would last?

Besides, isn’t experience learnt during a time of great global upheaval rich learning ground that will help him as Prime Minister? It just doesn’t add up that he is quitting because he feels he will be too old as a result of when the pandemic would end.

In addition, what is the point of letting PM Lee (who is supposed to be an ongoing Prime Minister) continue in the reins as Prime Minister when another could well benefit from the rigorous training that the pandemic brings?

In the first place, why was PM Lee’s retirement even postponed? While the pandemic was cited as a reason, it still doesn’t make sense. It is not as if any of our past Prime Ministers ever faded into the sunset after they stopped being Prime Minister.

The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew took on the role of Emeritus Senior Minister and then Minister Mentor while former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong became Emeritus Senior Minister after he stopped being Prime Minister. Each of these roles meant that they were still in Government and able to offer advice and guidance. Why couldn’t PM Lee hand over the reins and offer advice, support and guidance in the same way Goh Chok Tong and Lee Kuan Yew did?

At the same press conference, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing said that clear succession planning, policy coherence and consistency have been the hallmarks of Singapore’s system, and have also put the country in good stead to attract long-term investments.

However, where is the clarity and consistency here with Mr Heng’s sudden resignation and on such flimsy reasons?

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