SINGAPORE (Nov 23): Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party tapped Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat as the de facto successor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday, kicking off the city-state’s third leadership transition in its 53-year history.

Heng, 57, was named the PAP’s first assistant secretary-general -- widely seen as second in command to Lee -- at a meeting of the party’s central executive committee, the party said on its website. Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, 49, became second assistant secretary-general, and Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, 59, the party chairman.

“Leadership transition is always a complex and delicate matter,” Lee said in a Facebook posting. “A smooth transition to the new team to lead us beyond the next elections is important not only for the PAP, but also for Singapore’s future,” he said

Lee added that the choice of Heng and Chan as the party’s next leaders had been endorsed by a meeting of the PAP’s parliamentary caucus.

“The main challenge is economic,” Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said in a telephone interview. “And in that regard, Mr Heng is very well placed.”

“As Finance Minister, he’s in a sense been in charge of the main blueprint for bringing Singapore to the next phase of growth,” Chong said.

Heng began his career in the Singapore Police Force, later entering the civil service and serving as principal private secretary to Lee Kuan Yew after he stepped down as Prime Minister. He has held the post of finance minister since 2015, and previously served as education minister and managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore. During a Cabinet meeting in 2016, Heng collapsed from a stroke but recovered and came back to work three months later.

In an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Haslinda Amin earlier this month, Heng said any new cabinet would have to be fully committed to working closely with the country’s partners all over the world and looking into the well-being of Singapore and its citizens. He said the city-state may need to review its 2019 economic growth projections due to uncertainty over trade.

“It will be business as usual. There will be no surprises on the economic policy front,” said Song Seng Wun, economist at CIMB Private Banking, in Singapore.

Lee, 66, has signaled he intends to hand over the premiership by the time he turns 70 in 2022 -- a year after the country’s next general elections are due. The People’s Action Party has ruled Singapore since Lee Kuan Yew, the current prime minister’s father, led the country out of its political union with neighboring Malaysia in 1965, and the two Lees have held the post of prime minister in all but 14 years of its independence.

The leadership transition comes as Singapore’s economy slows on the back of rising trade tensions between the U.S. and China. As one of the most export-reliant nations in Asia, Singapore’s growth prospects are closely tied to the outlook for the global economy and trade.

Both Heng and Chan were seen as top candidates to succeed Lee among a group of younger ministers known as the country’s fourth-generation leaders.

Chan, a former Chief of Army and Secretary-General of the National Trades Union Congress, entered politics in 2011 and served in a range of portfolios -- including Minister for Social and Family Development (MSF) and Second Minister for Defense. He was appointed Minister for Trade and Industry in May.

Seven other fourth-generation leaders may also become increasingly prominent in the coming months, the Straits Times said. They include Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Indranee Rajah.

“Several Singaporean intellectuals have argued staunchly for fundamental changes to Singapore’s model of governance and policy making,” Kenneth Tan, associate professor at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said in an email.

“They, and others, will especially be hoping for bold and courageous leadership that is more ready to accommodate a greater diversity of values, perspective, and aspirations from inside and outside the establishment.”