Here’s the letter reproduced in full:
Dear Prime Minister,
COVID-19 struck last year. The crisis has disrupted lives and livelihoods around the world, and created profound uncertainties. The virus has also accelerated significant structural shifts, such as strategic competition between major powers, discontent with globalisation and the digital revolution. Also we must deal with the challenges of an ageing population, and a desire for greater diversity in politics.
Our top priority is to deal with the immediate crisis and keep our people safe. I thank you for your commitment to stay on as prime minister until the crisis is over, so that you hand over a Singapore that is in good working order to the next leader. Notwithstanding the rollout of vaccinations, the pandemic is still raging worldwide. With new variants emerging, many expect this to be a prolonged crisis.
The next Prime Minister should have a sufficiently long runway – to master the demands of leading our nation; formulate and see through our longer-term strategies for our country; and win the confidence and support of Singaporeans to build this shared future together. This long-term orientation of successive PAP governments and the support of our people have been critical to Singapore’s success.
This year, I am 60. As the crisis will be prolonged, I will be close to the mid-60s when the crisis is over. The 60s are still a very productive time of life. But when I also consider the ages at which our first three Prime Ministers took on the job, I would have too short a runway should I become the next Prime Minister then. We need a leader who will not only rebuild Singapore post-COVID-19, but also lead the next phase of our nation-building effort.
When I had a stroke in 2016, you and Cabinet colleagues were unstinting with your support. With the great work of my medical team, and the care and encouragement of my family, friends and fellow Singaporeans, I was able to recover fully. Having worked with you, ESM Goh Chok Tong and MM Lee Kuan Yew, I know that the top job imposes exceptional demand on the office holder. In a very different post-COVID-19 world, the demands will be even more exacting. While I am in good health today, it is in the best interests of the nation for someone who is younger to tackle the huge challenges ahead.
After careful deliberation and discussion with my family, I have decide to step aside as leader of the 4G team, so that a younger leader who will have a longer runway can take over. It will be for the 4G team to choose this person, and I stand ready to support the next leader.
Let me express my deep appreciation to you, Cabinet colleagues and my 4G team for your confidence in me, and for the privilege and honour to serve Singapore together with you. I also thank ESM Goh who has been my mentor since my time at the MAS.
Heng Swee Keat
PM Lee’s reply and acceptance
Dear Swee Keat,
Thank you for your letter informing me of your decision to stand aside as the leader of the 4G team of Ministers. I understand and respect your decision. We discussed the matter and I am glad that you have agreed to stay on in Cabinet as Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies. We also agreed that you will relinquish Finance at the next Cabinet reshuffle, as we had earlier planned.
You have done exceptional work as Minister for Finance, especially during the past year in the trying circumstances wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Within 12 months, you delivered an unprecedented five budgets that supported Singaporeans and their families, helped businesses to survive and kept everyone safe. Indeed, in the five years you have been Finance Minister, you have delivered a record ten budgets.
When I asked you to take on the Finance portfolio in 2015, we both knew that you had a difficult job. Even before COVID-19 hit, Singapore had reached a crossroads. We had to overcome fiscal challenges while strengthening social safety nets as well as transform our economy in the face of seismic global disruptions. You did not hesitate to take up the challenge, putting your heart and soul into the task. Your work, co-chairing the Committee on the Future Economy and chairing the Future Economy Council, will help our workers to master new skills and capabilities, and build new industries and sectors for the future.
I look forward to you carrying on this work as Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies, and setting Singapore on the path to emerging stronger from COVID-19. This dovetails with your role as chairman of the National Research Foundation, where under your guidance we are making steady progress developing research, innovation and enterprise.
Before you went to Finance, you spent five fruitful years in the Ministry of Education. There, your inclusive vision of excellence in every school inspired educators and students alike. You proposed raising government funded university education to 40% of each cohort which Cabinet approved. This paved the way for us to create two new universities – the Singapore Institute of Technology and the Singapore University of Social Sciences. You also made bold moves to widen the definition of success, which led to the national SkillsFuture programme. Your belief in the holistic development of our young led you to place particular emphasis on character and values. The result is an education system that not only prepares our young to access good jobs, but also nurtures upright, public-spirited citizens.
I thank you for your selfless decision to stand aside. Your actions now are fully in keeping with the spirit of public service and sense of duty that motivated you to step forward when I asked you to stand for election in 2011.
Together with the senior ministers, you will help me mentor the younger Ministers as the team develop and identify from among themselves another leader in order to make a smooth and timely leadership transition. By working closely together, we will steer Singapore safely through this health and economic crisis, and secure our future for many years to come.
Lee Hsien Loong
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