Is He the “Eight-wonder” Minister of State or Just a One-Hit Wonder?
As promised, here is the article on Heng Chee How. Thanks to the constant reminders by Ted, I’ve have to be accountable to my word and do the write up on him. Much of the assessment on him is based on my interaction with him, for several events and activities earlier this year.
Basic Background of Heng Chee How
Born on 14 July 1961, Heng Chee How received his secondary and pre-university education at Raffles Institution. In 1980, he was awarded the Singapore Police Force Overseas Scholarship to read Economics at Cambridge University. He graduated with Second Class (Upper) Honours in 1983.
He spent the next twelve years in the Singapore Police Force, where he held both Command and Staff appointments.
In 1991, Heng was awarded the Singapore Police Force Postgraduate Overseas scholarship. He was an Edward S. Mason Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government in Harvard University, where he received his Masters in Public Administration in 1992.
Heng left the Singapore Police Force in 1995 to join the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). Within the Labour Movement, he held numerous appointments, including being the Chief Executive Officer of the NTUC Club, the Executive Secretary of the Singapore Industrial and Services Employees Union (SISEU), the Executive Secretary of the United Workers of Electronic and Electrical Industries (UWEEI) and the divisional director overseeing industrial relations, skills development, productivity improvement and employment assistance.
Heng was also an elected member of the NTUC Central Committee since 1997, and was appointed Assistant Secretary-General in 1997 and Deputy Secretary-General since 1999.
Heng was elected as one of five Members of Parliament for the Jalan Besar Group Representation Constituency in the November 2001 General Election. He was appointed Mayor of the Central Singapore District and Chairman of the Jalan Besar Town Council in November 2001.
On 12 August 2004, Heng was appointed Minister of State for Trade and Industry. He retains the portfolios of the Mayor of the Central Singapore District and Chairman of the Jalan Besar Town Council.
Heng was a Board member of the Economic Development Board (EDB), the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC), the Standards, Productivity and Innovation Board (SPRING), the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS), the National Library Board (NLB) and the People's Association (PA). He also served on the Boards of the NTUC FairPrice co-operative, the NTUC Childcare Co-operative and the NTUC FoodFare Co-operative. He was also a member of the Economic Review Committee (ERC).
Political Life of Heng Chee How
His political career in politics was not a plain sailing one and in fact, he is one of the very few PAP candidates and Minister of State that experienced an election loss. He first entered politics in the 1997 General Election, contesting against Low Thia Kiang in the Hougang constituency ward. Up against the incumbent of Hougang, he lost the battle and scored only 42% of the votes, which is 5% lower than the previous PAP (1991 GE) candidate (Tang Guan Seng). After his loss, he joined NTUC as the Assistant Secretary-General and later, Deputy Secretary-General, a role to prepare him for the next election battle in 2001.
In 2001, he was part of the five men team led by Dr Lee Boon Yang in Jalan Besar GRC contesting in the GE. Like all the other GRC teams, they won with ease, garnering 74% of the votes. In that same year, he was appointed as the Mayor of Central Singapore District, a post he had held until today. The post of a Mayor is almost equivalent to a Minister of State but less prestigious. For a first-time Member of Parliament, the leap to the post of Mayor was quite a significant one. When he first entered the Central Singapore CDC, there was less 10 full-time staffs performing limited functions. Today, the Central Singapore CDC is a full-bodied statutory board serving 830,000 residents. Thus, he was very much credited to the development of the roles of the CDCs and the effective (but debatable) dispersion of funds to the needy.
In 2004, he was promoted to Minister of State for Trade and Industry and National Development while retaining his post as a Mayor. Later, he relinquished his portfolio in Ministry of Trade and Industry to take up the portfolio as the Minister of State for National Development.
His constituency under Jalan Beasr GRC is Whampoa Division. According to my sources, his grassroots at Whampoa is very strong and cohesive, partly because he has the support of majority of the market committees at Maxwell as well as Kim Keat area. Most people expect the Opposition to contest in Jalan Besar GRC in the coming GE as Dr Lee Boon Yang is likely to retire. These leave two questions for Heng Chee How:
First, who will be next incoming anchor Minister for the GRC (since he is unlikely to be promoted before the GE to a full Cabinet Minister)? Second, the incoming Minister for the GRC is likely to require his full knowledge for the election battle but would he still be in this GRC? His role in the GRC is more of being the stabilizing force for the next incoming Minister. Beside, he has election loss experience and would be able to do the ground works while the incoming full Minister adds weight to the GRC. The other strength is his position as the Mayor of Central Singapore CDC. He has the power to disperse financial assistance to the residents of Central District and in particular, his GRC. Considering Jalan Besar’s demographics and population of needy and elderly residents, the prime voting concern is not upgrades or rights issues, but bread and butter issues. And he is in the best position to bring these financial solutions to the residents. He has a wider appeal to older folks than, let’s say, Dr Ng Eng Hen or Dr Vivian Balakrishnan. These other two Ministers is expected to head their own GRC, but I would think that Lim Swee Say is the more likely candidate for Jalan Besar, considering his grassroots appeal to older folks. Swee Say will be the Secretary-General for NTUC, and has a good relation with Heng Chee How during their time in NTUC. Thus, I think in the next GE, both of them would be in the same GRC, making it reasonably strong.
My Experience with Heng Chee How
Earlier this year, I had some interaction with him for several events (undisclosed) and he came across as an unassuming, courtesy, humble and extremely patient gentlemen. One would not have known that he is a politician if they didn’t know his prior background. He definitely doesn’t have the airs of a Minister and has a common touch with laymen like us. Even though it may not be representative, my impression of him is that he lacked the political acumen and shrewdness. He is too nice and perhaps, too gentle to be a politician. He is not as eloquent as Dr Ng Eng Hen, not as charismatic as Dr Vivian, doesn’t have the “Buddhist calm” of Khaw Boon Wan and doesn’t have the analytical mind of Dr Balaji Sadasivan. However, he is a very grassroots and caring MP. He is the kind who gets things done and is more of an administrator than a leader personality type. Talking to him, you could just sense his enthusiasm and genuine concern to get the assistance across to those that desperately needs it. And in a Cabinet, you would need this kind of Minister (another one would be Lim Swee Say) to bring in the “common touch”.
Once, I had a casual conversation with another Minister (was then a Minister of State) and one of the professors asked this Minister (he was then a Minister of State) this question, “Minister, so do you think Lim Hwee Hua would be the first female full Cabinet Minister?” He said, “She is a very intelligent lady, graduate from Cambridge, similar to the likes of Lim Hng Kiang or George Yeo. Put them together, she has no problems blending into the Cabinet” “But do you need that so many highly intelligent (like graduates from Cambridge or Harvard) people in the Cabinet?” The professor asked, “Isn’t that what the Prime Minister (then Goh Chok Tong) is looking for?” Minister replied, “First, a MP should not be chosen just because she is female, but is because of her capabilities. As such, there should be no distinction between a male Minister or a female Minister but based on merits”. “Second, from my view (the Minister’s View), the Prime Minister has a choice from so many intelligent people who were formerly graduates from Ivy League Universities, but the key is not qualifications but is the capable people who can carry difficult policies to the people and convince the people that it is the best alternatives.” “Such Ministers are people like (Khaw) Boon Wan and (Lim) Swee Say, and they are valuable assets to the Cabinet”.
This is very true and in Heng Chee How’s inclusion, you could see how his role adds to the likes of Lim Swee Say and Khaw Boon Wan. Initially, he spends most of his office time in MTI but that role doesn’t really taps on his strengths. Now that he is in MND, he can assist in the role of HDB as well as to combine that of this knowledge and connections on the ground via the CDC. It remains to be seen on how far he will progress but he seems to be traveling with Prime Minister Lee and SM Goh more often than the other Ministers of States. That is one telling sign on their intention to groom him to a full Minister.