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Heng Swee Keat: The Future of US-China-Singapore Relations

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Trans-Pacific View

Heng Swee Keat: The Future of US-China-Singapore Relations

Insights from Michael Barr.

Heng Swee Keat: The Future of US-China-Singapore Relations
Credit: Facebook/ Ministry of Finance (Singapore)

Trans-Pacific Views author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Michael Barr, Associate Professor in International Relations at Flinders University and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities – is the 166th in “The Trans-Pacific Views Insight Series.”

Describe Singaporean Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat’s leadership style and how Heng is positioning himself as Singapore’s leader-in-waiting.

Heng is not so much positioning himself as leader-in-waiting, as he is being positioned. Since his elevation as heir apparent, Heng has been retrospectively credited with pulling Singapore through the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. We can expect more headlines like this as the government’s public relations machinery builds his image. They did the same thing for Lee Hsien Loong when he was readying himself to take over as the new prime minister. One distinctive feature of Heng’s image making is that he is being set up as a bit of a friendly “everyman.” Presumably this is because of the absence of any obvious evidence that he is either academically brilliant or a great communicator.

As for the matter of his leadership style, on past record it will be heavily technocratic and managerial. He is, after all, a former bureaucrat. He used to run Singapore’s de facto central bank and even won an award for that. He has been finance minister and education minister as well. He also ran the “Our Singapore Conversation” talkfest in 2012 which was the Singapore government’s “consultative” exercise to designed to recover political ground after the losses in the 2011 General Election. In all of these fields his approach has been managerial rather than dynamic or memorable. I expect that at least for some time, Heng will be overshadowed by stronger personalities and basically be the smiling face for other people. If he ever tries to break out of that role, then we might be able to start assessing his leadership style, but let’s wait and see.

Will Heng carry on the mantle of Lee Kuan Yew’s strong statesmanship? Explain.

Heng will continue whatever legacies he can from both Lee Kuan Yew’s style and his substance, but his capacity to do so will be limited. He has been a long-time favorite of the Lee family. He was Lee Kuan Yew’s personal private secretary in the late 1990s and even sat at Lee Kuan Yew’s right for the published portrait photo of his 91st birthday party. That was a rather intimate and personal honor, but there have been no signs that Heng has the strength or vision or intelligence or oratory skills to match Lee’s performance. Domestically the government is becoming increasingly repressive, but this is not so much due to anything Heng has said or wanted as it is due to a general sense of insecurity in Cabinet. The politicians running the country now seem to be finding it easier to bludgeon dissent than to engage in debate or serious reform. I can’t see this trajectory or the underlying reasons for such a reaction changing under Heng.

How will Heng balance Singapore’s independence vis-à-vis the United States and China?  

It is doubtful that Heng will be the key player in managing the U.S.-China balance. He has not had much to do with such matters before or during his time in Cabinet, and the little that he has said and done has been perfectly in step with the long-term collective view of Singapore’s leadership. He has gently urged restraint from Donald Trump in his trade war with China. He will continue to do this while maintaining Singapore’s de facto alliance with the U.S. At the same time, he has been playing his part to keep Singapore profitably engaged in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and is on record praising the China leadership for its restraint in responding to Trump. Like current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, he will continue to struggle to find the right balance, with a tendency to err towards being pro-American despite the antics of the current president.

How will Heng manage China’s growing power and influence across Southeast Asia?    

He will undoubtedly go as far as he can to avoid giving offense to China. Current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong learnt in 2017 just how easily China takes offense, and how serious the consequences can be. Singapore was very nearly excluded from the Belt and Road Initiative. I doubt that anyone in Cabinet will make that mistake again.

What should U.S. policymakers understand about Heng Swee Keat’s foreign policy agenda?

Heng barely has a foreign policy of his own. His portfolios and pre-political life did not lend themselves to speeches or observations about foreign policy and so he has barely spoken of it. Anything he did say was focused on trade and finance, as we might expect from a finance minister and a former permanent secretary of ministry of trade and industry. He hasn’t even traveled all that much to either the U.S. or China. Having said that, we can expect his approach to be almost entirely derivative from Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong. In so far as he has an independent view of international affairs, he learnt it during his study at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, so his instincts will be very much in step with the U.S. foreign policy establishment. But really, I expect Lee Hsien Loong and Singapore’s professional foreign policy establishment to be the guiding forces. It is not inconceivable that Heng might emerge as a serious foreign policy force in his own right, but it is most unlikely.