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DPM Heng Swee Keat’s nuanced response on Singapore’s readiness for a non-Chinese Prime Minister

At the Forbes Global CEO Conference 2023, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat delved into the implications of Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s election win, hinting at Singapore’s evolving stance on leadership diversity. Yet, his careful phrasing left many pondering if a deeper, unspoken narrative lay beneath.



SINGAPORE: Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies, Heng Swee Keat, graced the Forbes Global CEO Conference 2023 on Monday (11 Sep) as a keynote speaker.

Attendees eagerly anticipated candid insights into Singapore’s political landscape and its evolving economic strategies.

However, to some, the session seemed less like an enlightening discourse and more a display of meticulously crafted responses, many of which appeared to dodge the more pressing queries.

Addressing the recent political developments, the moderator, Justin Doebele, Forbes Asia’s Editor and Vice President-Content, posed, “Given Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s landslide victory in the Presidential Election 2023, is Singapore ready for a non-Chinese Prime Minister?”

Notably, Tharman, a former senior minister of the People’s Action Party, garnered an impressive 70% of votes against two competitors in the 1 September election. This outcome surprised many, including PAP veterans and even Tharman himself.

Heng replied, ” I will say that there is a difference in the role of the Elected President and the Prime Minister because as I said, one is custodial, and one is executive. I will see it as a very positive sign, that the fact that he is an Indian did not stop people from electing the best person.”

“As to whether you can draw a conclusion about what happens in the general election, what happens more broadly, I will say that it is too early, but it is certainly a very, very positive sign. Will we ever have a non-Chinese as a Prime Minister? I will say it will come one day, because Singapore society is growing, maturing and it will come one day. As to when that day will be, I cannot tell; none of us can predict the future.  But I see that as a very positive sign.”

However, for some, this rejoinder seemed to dodge the crux of the question.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s tact was especially evident when considering his comments from a 2019 forum at Nanyang Technological University over a 2016 Blackbox survey where Tharman emerged as the top choice among Singaporeans to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong where 69 per cent of almost 900 respondents supported him as the prime ministerial candidate.

Although recognizing the youth’s acceptance of such a prospect, Heng highlighted, “The views, if you go by age and by life experience, would be very different,” implying reservations among older generations.

Yet, the recent Presidential Election results suggest that support for Tharman transcends racial boundaries. Interestingly, the 2016 survey results closely resemble the outcome of Tharman’s presidential win.

Regarding whether Tharman’s win is an endorsement of the PAP or denotes something else, Heng commented, “I wouldn’t necessarily view it as a direct endorsement of the PAP. There’s a myriad of factors at play. Conversations with citizens suggest that our competent management of the pandemic—marked by minimal fatalities and an economy that’s rebounding—is a significant contributor. This crisis served as a formidable stress test for global leadership, and Singapore’s response is testament to our resilience.”

However, polling agents at the polling stations observed that some senior voters asked the polling officials on 1 September which candidate was from PAP and that they wanted to vote for the PAP candidate.

Shifting gears, the moderator brought up financial concerns, asking, “Given Singapore’s self-proclaimed status as a global financial hub, how does the country plan to tackle recent money laundering issues, and what lessons have been learned?”

This query comes on the heels of a significant arrest by Singapore authorities, where ten individuals, including nine men and one woman aged between 31 and 44, were detained in an extensive islandwide raid led by the Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) on August 15.

On 5 September, the prosecution informed the Singapore High Court that they had seized more than S$1.8 billion (approximately US$1.3 billion) in assets, including properties, luxury goods, gold bars, and more.

Reflecting on his experiences, Heng commented, “I’ve navigated the Asian Financial Crisis, collaborated with Mr. Lee Kuan Yew during that period, overseen the Global Financial Crisis while at our central bank, and tackled the challenges of the COVID crisis as the Finance Minister.”

However, these illustrious experiences, while serving as a testament to his expertise, did not delve into the specifics of the money laundering concerns.

Instead, Heng made generalized statements such as, “Money laundering and counterterrorism financing are areas we’ve been vigilant about from the outset. We want Singapore to be a financial sector that people can trust—a center that channels capital to productive uses, especially for private enterprises.”

He also noted, “Financial centers around the world face this challenge due to the sheer volume of money circulating. In fact, it’s a call for heightened vigilance since every transaction has a financial component. Our vigilance is a strength, and we are fully committed to maintaining it.”

The conversation transitioned to technology. As Chairman of the National Research Foundation, Heng was probed about Singapore’s plan to maintain its position at the cutting edge of technology.

The moderator posed, “As the Chairman of the National Research Foundation, you have a unique vantage point to ensure that Singapore remains at the forefront of emergent technologies. How do you envision reinventing Singapore to maintain this cutting-edge stance?”

In response, Heng, who took over the role as the then-successor to PM Lee before he backed out from the appointment, elaborated, “During my tenure chairing the Committee on the Future Economy, we intensely deliberated on the transformation of Singapore’s economic landscape.”

“With 23 sectors that account for nearly 90% of our GDP, we engaged both private and public sectors to strategize on keeping each sector competitive. The government, while not handpicking winners, plays a vital role in fostering change.”

“We’ve spearheaded multiple initiatives,” Heng continued, “starting with aiding companies in re-strategizing and transforming. This naturally extends to redesigning roles and reskilling our workforce. Collaborating with SkillsFuture Singapore, we’ve curated a range of training programs to ensure our workforce remains equipped for these changes. ”

“Furthermore, we’ve leveraged science, technology, and innovation to amplify productivity, whether by fostering corporate partnerships with universities or by aiding smaller enterprises in technology adoption. And considering Singapore’s limited local market, we’re constantly looking at how we can use our nation as a launchpad to cater to the wider region.”

“Our industry transformation maps have yielded commendable results in the initial five years,” Heng stated.

“Currently, we’re rolling out the second phase – the ITM 2025 – focusing on the upcoming transformation milestones. As we gear up for the next leap, we’ve allocated a significant S$25 billion over five years for R&D. For enthusiasts in the tech and science domain, I’d like to spotlight four pivotal areas.”

“Firstly, our focus lies on human health and potential. The recent pandemic underscored the indispensability of foundational sciences like genetics. Today, we boast a proficient team working on technologies like mRNA. Secondly, urban solutions and sustainability are paramount.”

“Given Singapore’s geographical constraints, we’re striving to maximize productivity while upholding our commitments like the Paris Agreement. If we succeed here, our solutions could be scaled globally.”

“The third area revolves around advanced manufacturing, trade, and connectivity, ensuring Singapore remains a key hub in these domains. Lastly, we’re invested in digital advancements, including AI, Fintech, and other digital solutions, as they’re poised to revolutionize the global economy.”

“We aim to harness these changes, integrating global talent and equipping our local workforce to ensure Singapore’s continued prominence. We invite everyone to collaborate with us on this journey.”

While no one could deny Heng’s oratorical prowess, one might feel that the essence of the moderator’s queries was often buried beneath his polished responses.

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Is it so very important and extremely critical to have a non-chinese PM now ?

This question had been popping up every now and then by the minorities.

And don’t you get sick and tired of hearing this old nagging question over and over again as though there is nothing else more worthy to discuss ?

And again PAP had already given you their straight answer didn’t they ?

Why pantat so gatal, these forumers and journalists ?

Are oppositions having an agenda to irk someone ?

What satisfaction do they get from this ?

Looks like HSK’s runway has not reached the end. The fact that he is appearing locally and internationally with a high profile does indicate his political career is not dead. Unless he is voted out at the next GE? And I believe he might actually still stand for election. Perhaps he will be LW’s Deputy? In any case, it seems only the PAP think Singapore is not ready for a non-Chinese PM. We must not forget even the BBC opined that Tharman could have been much more instead of as President. A great opportunity to prove PAP wrong was really… Read more »

Its just LHL and his ministars who refuses to hand over the PMship to a non chinese.
Dont blame the people as not being ready to accept TS..

Next is 9% GST increase…

heng heng food prices don’t go up arh…..

One hawker stall already told me they are going to increase food prices. How arh ah heng?