November 23, 2018 / 8:49 AM / 23 days ago

Singapore finance minister gets key party post, seen in line to be next PM

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore’s ruling party on Friday named Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat to a key leadership post, possibly putting him in line to take over as prime minister when current leader Lee Hsien Loong steps down.

FILE PHOTO - Singapore's Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat gives a keynote speech at the World Bank - Singapore Infrastructure Finance Summit in Singapore April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Heng’s appointment as the first assistant secretary general of the People’s Action Party follows months of behind-the-scenes moves to select a new leader, a departure from the wealthy city-state’s normally orderly and anticipated succession process.

In a post on the party’s Facebook page, Prime Minister Lee said members of its top decision making body, the Central Executive Committee, had picked Heng to be their leader.

“I support the decision of the younger team, and am happy with this outcome,” Lee said, adding that he would soon reshuffle the cabinet.

The role is immediately under the secretary general position, now held by Lee. He has pledged to step down in coming years, with an election expected as soon as next year.

“Going by the PAP’s past practice, the next-generation leader designated to succeed the current top leader is usually made first assistant secretary general of the ruling party,” said Eugene Tan, a law professor at Singapore Management University (SMU).

“This was the case for both Mr Goh Chok Tong and Mr Lee Hsien Loong when they were understudying their predecessors,” said Tan, an expert on Singapore’s political process, referring to the island’s second and current prime ministers.

The potential leadership transition comes as rising global protectionism threatens the city-state’s open economy, while at home the government tries to tackle growing unease over wealth disparity and social mobility.

Heng, 57, was one of three ministers tipped this year to succeed Lee, 66. He is the most experienced of the leading candidates but concerns about his health after he suffered a stroke and collapsed during a cabinet meeting in 2016 had raised questions about his suitability.

Another of the three, Trade Minister Chan Chun Sing, 49, was appointed second assistant secretary general on Friday, a key leadership position that puts him as Heng’s deputy.

Reporting by Fathin Ungku; Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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