Heng Swee Keat: Driven to excel, with a consultative approach
SINGAPORE – The man who is poised to become Singapore’s Prime Minister-designate will bring an open and consultative leadership style to the table, say those who have worked with him.
Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, 57, was announced as the ruling People’s Action Party’s first assistant secretary-general on Friday evening (Nov 23), making him the most likely successor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
A few adjectives keep popping up to describe Mr Heng: Nice. Genuine. Soft-spoken. Kind.
Indeed, the former top civil servant, who entered politics in 2011, is no stranger to garnering views, having chaired the year-long national movement to engage citizens, called Our Singapore Conversation, in 2013.
He also led the SG50 Steering Committee to mark the country’s golden jubilee in 2015, and in his speech at the President’s Address in May announced that the PAP’s fourth-generation (4G) leaders and MPs will launch a series of discussions with different groups of Singaporeans to seek their views and perspectives.
In addition, he led the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE), which was tasked with generating new ideas for Singapore’s growth.
“Almost every meeting or site visit will go beyond the allocated time,” said Singapore Business Federation chairman and former Nominated MP Teo Siong Seng, because the minister “wants to talk to as many people he meets as possible and find out what they are doing”.
Mr Heng had personally called Mr Teo to ask him to co-chair a CFE sub-committee with him, as well as to sit on the Future Economy Council that Mr Heng leads.
“Some people will just get their secretariat to send an e-mail to you, and that’s understandable because they are busy,” Mr Teo said. “Mr Heng is one of the few who will call you personally.”
His consultative approach has lived up to his own expectations that he shared with The Straits Times in 2011, before he was elected.
At that time, he had said: “I think I have to do a lot more of that public engagement, of communication with the public.
“I hope I can be persuasive. I hope that I will be able to engage Singaporeans from all walks of life.”
This genial demeanour, his colleagues say, belies a driven man who has excelled at every job he has taken up during an almost 30-year career in the public service.
Mr Heng, who grew up in a kampung, won a Singapore Police Force scholarship in 1980 to study economics at Cambridge University in England.
It was at the university that he met his wife, fellow Singaporean Chang Hwee Nee, a President’s Scholar. She is now chief executive officer of the National Heritage Board and they have a daughter and a son in their 20s.
He joined the police force on his return and rose to become Assistant Commissioner.
He then entered the elite Administrative Service in 1995, starting at the Education Ministry, then becoming Principal Private Secretary to then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew between 1997 and 2000.
The late Mr Lee said he was “the best principal private secretary I ever had”.
Between 2001 and 2005, when he was the permanent secretary for the Trade and Industry Ministry, he eyeballed other top negotiators and skilfully wrangled benefits for Singapore when putting together free trade agreements, especially the groundbreaking 2005 pact with India that was notable for its complexity and range.
His next job was at the helm of the Monetary Authority of Singapore.
During his tenure as its managing director, he was credited with successfully steering Singapore’s monetary policy through the country’s worst post-Independence recession in 2009, ensuring the Singapore dollar remained stable and the financial sector resilient.
In the 2011 Straits Times interview, he said that fighting on the front lines in 2011 showed him how Singapore’s system precludes in-fighting and allows for all ideas and resources to be pulled together for the good of the country.
By the end of the crisis, jobs were saved, the financial system remained stable and Singapore became one of the fastest economies to rebound from the trough.
“In contrast, I have seen responses elsewhere where they were the outcomes of political bargaining among different factions,” he said then.
As early as before the 1997 elections, some say he was invited to join politics. But what prompted him to want to play a part in shaping Singapore’s future was the economic crisis, when he saw how close the nation came to the edge.
In 2011, he contested in Tampines GRC where the PAP team scored a bruising 57.2 per cent – three percentage points below the PAP’s overall 60.1 per cent win.
Four years later, with Mr Heng as the anchor minister, the GRC would pull in 72.1 per cent of the vote share – two percentage points above the party’s national average.
He was appointed Education Minister shortly after, a rare move in which a new Member of Parliament is catapulted straight into Cabinet.
Despite his relatively short stay in the ministry – one year and four months – Mr Heng left an indelible mark on education, reshaping the system to focus not just on grades but the “intangibles”, like character.
He abolished the ranking of secondary schools that was introduced in 1992.
In 2012, he did away with naming the top scorers in the Primary School Leaving Examination. A year later, the ministry took it a step further by not disclosing the highest and lowest scores, which had been listed on every pupil’s result slip since 1982.
The policy of not naming the top scorers also extended to the other national examinations: N-level, O-level and A-level exams.
Mr Heng also came to be associated with the slogan, “Every school a good school”, which reflects his vision to make every school good in its own way in a move to bring out the best in every child.
During his term, the ministry also undertook a major review of the higher education sector and announced the creation of more university places so that by 2020, up to 40 per cent of every age group will have a place in local universities.
In September 2015, Mr Heng was named Finance Minister, taking over from Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
He has delivered three Budget speeches since, with observers saying one of his defining traits is advising Singaporeans to see each financial report as part of the big picture, and not an annual goodie bag.
He has also made tough decisions, including when he held his own in defending the need for a goods and services tax hike in Parliament earlier this year.
MPs also say his tenure has been characterised by a desire to find solutions that best fit many groups of society, with several saying he had consulted them individually in the lead-up to the Budget.
Fellow Tampines GRC MP and Senior Parliamentary Secretary Baey Yam Keng recalls Mr Heng’s “demanding attention to detail”, making multiple revisions to their local manifesto during the 2015 General Election.
“He was very meticulous about the words we used. He wanted to make sure we could and would deliver on our promises to the residents,” he added.
Both former MAS colleagues and his fellow MPs say Mr Heng would work in the trenches with them, and had a habit of sleeping in the office during crunch time.
“He’s willing to make this adjustment in his personal life, that’s his level of commitment,” said Mr Baey.
“He works very late, and I hope that having had the scare of the stroke, he is able to strike a better balance.”
Some people had written off Mr Heng as a future PM after he had a brain aneurysm during a Cabinet meeting in May 2016.
But when he came out of a coma six days after his stroke, the first words he scribbled on a paper were: “Is there a Cabinet meeting today? Where are the papers?”
He returned to the Finance Ministry in August that year, but stayed away from public events as he continued to build up his health.
By February 2017, he delivered his second Budget speech, to rousing applause from the House.
Mr Heng has since recovered, and is set to accompany Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to Buenos Aires, Argentina, for the Group of 20 Summit next week. He will also deliver his fourth Budget statement in February (2019).
In April, he was also tasked with overseeing the National Research Foundation.
A former senior civil servant who worked closely with Mr Heng said: “I feel relieved knowing he’s our next leader because I know we will be in good hands.”
“In terms of maturity and knowing the country, he has the widest experience,” she added.
Veteran MP Charles Chong believes Mr Heng’s leadership style will be closer to that of Mr Goh Chok Tong, rather than his mentor Lee Kuan Yew.
“People will follow him because they love him, not fear him,” Mr Chong said. “And he’ll find his own footing along the way.”
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