Singapore's ruling party signals choice of next PM

FILE - In this April 6, 2018, file photo, Singapore's Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat delivers his opening address at the start of the ASEAN Finance Ministers' Meetings in Singapore. Singapore's ruling party has promoted Heng to No. 2 post, making him a likely choice to succeed the prime minister. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said he hopes to step down in four years. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)

SINGAPORE — Singapore's ruling party on Friday promoted Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat to No. 2 post, making him a likely choice to succeed the prime minister.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said he hopes to step down in four years. He called the leadership reshuffle "a major step forward in our political renewal."

The People's Action Party has been in power since Singapore's independence in 1965, and holds 81 out of 87 seats in Parliament. The city-state of 5.6 million was founded by Lee's father, Lee Kuan Yew, who ruled with an iron fist and was credited with transforming the resource poor island into a wealthy bustling financial hub with low crime and almost zero corruption.

Heng, 57, was selected from a group of younger politicians who are expected to take on more responsibilities.

He was named the first assistant secretary-general, a post traditionally held by a deputy prime minister, while Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing was named the second assistant secretary-general. Lee, who remains as secretary-general, said the new members of the Central Executive Committee will lead the party into next general elections, which must be held by April 2021.

"Leadership transition is always a complex and delicate matter," Lee said in a statement. "The younger ministers themselves must decide who is to lead them, as they have done in this process. This way, they will give their full support to the leader whom they themselves have chosen."

Heng was the elder Lee's principal private secretary from 1997 to 2000. He has held various positions in the public service and was managing director of Singapore's central bank during the 2008 financial crisis.

In 2011, he won his first election and was appointed education minister. Heng took on the finance portfolio in 2015.

"He is experienced having held key positions in trade, the civil service and the police. A pair of safe hands is probably how his peers regard him," said Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University.

Just over two years ago, the likelihood of Heng taking the top job was dim.

He suffered a brain aneurysm during a Cabinet meeting, which led to a stroke. Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said that Heng was "overworking so much" and "carrying an incredible load".

He woke up from a coma six days later. Doctors had put a tube in his windpipe to help him breathe.

According to The Straits Times newspaper, one of the first things he scribbled was: "Is there a Cabinet meeting today? Where are the papers?"

Heng holds master's degrees in public administration and economics. He is married with two children.

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