Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat’s recent promotion to Deputy Prime Minister in the latest cabinet reshuffle has reinforced speculations that he will succeed Lee Hsien Loong as Singapore’s 4th Prime Minister.
Heng Swee Keat’s promotion has raised important questions about what sort of PM he would be and what his leadership would entail for Singapore. Will the ruling PAP Government adopt a more reformist posture or will it double down on the policies of the 3G leadership?
Heng’s first portfolio is in the Education Ministry, having been appointed as the Education Minister in May 2011. Heng’s tenure was largely remembered for his famous phrase “Every school is a good school”. Indeed, it was a phrase that ended up stuck with Heng due to how misunderstood it became.
As education minister, Heng made several moves to make the education system more egalitarian and less grades-centric.
In 2012, he announced the abolishment of secondary school banding by academic results, stating that school banding had since achieved its purpose of spurring schools to higher standards and was now creating the perception that MOE measures schools by academic results instead.
Another move away from a grades-centric approach was the decision not to release the highest and lowest PSLE aggregate scores in 2013. Heng stated that it was “not healthy for the children if we put undue pressure on them over one exam.”
Heng also sought to increase the number of spaces at public universities. 2014 saw an expansion of the number of places at universities by MOE, with the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) becoming Singapore’s fifth autonomous university.
On the economy and budget
Following the PAP’s victory in GE2015, Heng became Finance Minister, taking over Tharman Shanmugaratnam. As Finance Minister, Heng presided over the 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 Budgets. However, the budget he will be most remembered for is the 2018 Budget where he announced an increase in the Goods and Services Tax (GST) from 7 – 9 percent sometime in 2020 or 2021.
Despite a record budget surplus of S$9.6 billion in FY2017, Heng justified the GST hike to support structural increases in healthcare spending, as well as other needs like pre-school education and security.
This announcement angered many Singaporeans and many critics charged the PAP government with breaking an election promise made in GE2015 that GST “would not be raised after the election”. The announcement of GST vouchers did little to allay the concerns of many Singaporeans.
Unlike most Asia Pacific countries, Singapore doesn’t have GST-exempted goods and services, even for key items like milk, rice, water, and healthcare. Many critics have pointed out that the lack of GST exemption disadvantages lower income families who have to bear the tax burden for basic goods and services for subsistence living.
On immigration and population
Heng has been an outspoken proponent of immigration, citing it as key to Singapore’s competitiveness and survival as a global economic hub.
In March, at a ministerial dialogue at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Heng told the students that Singaporeans need to be “open to foreigners”.
He said that it would be very negative for Singaporeans to draw an exclusive circle for themselves as Singapore would then have no place in the world. “We don’t want a world where people build walls around themselves,” he said. “Our pledge – regardless of race, language or religion – is not to be taken lightly… but really as a way of life for Singapore.”
“Beyond that, we ought to deepen our understanding of other people… whether they are new immigrants, our immediate neighbors, students from NTU, National University of Singapore or other universities,” he said.
On the projected population of 6.9 million by 2030, set out in the Government’s 2013 Population White Paper, Heng openly said that Singapore’s population density is not excessive, noting that other cities are even more crowded and dense.
He went on to cite former chief planner Liu Thai Ker, who said in 2014 that Singapore should plan for 10 million people for it to remain sustainable in the long term.
On whether Singaporeans are “ready for non-Chinese PM”
In a dialogue conducted in NTU in March, Heng replied to a question posed by a member of the audience stating that the older generation of Singaporeans are not ready to have someone from a minority race as the prime minister, even though a portion of the population has said they’d be satisfied if this were the case.
Heng’s comments generated widespread controversy and many netizens took the minister to task. Singaporeans alluded to the fact that such a position toward race by the ruling PAP only contradicted the spirit of the National Pledge and the oft cited words “regardless of race”.
More importantly, Heng’s comments reflected a dogmatic approach that is overly risk averse and resistant to reform.