Wong’s selection was widely greeted as a resumption of business as usual after a long period of missteps and uncertainty. Supporters looked forward to more competent handling of both the business of government and the business of politics, especially given Wong’s impressive track record as one of the key managers of the COVID-19 pandemic. Critics feared that levels of repression and intolerance are unlikely to ease.
Both critics and supporters may be right. There was no sign of the government becoming of more open to fresh ideas or criticism in 2022. The year opened with strategically publicised but unfulfilled threats to prosecute the leader of the opposition, Pritam Singh, for supposedly deceiving parliament. It closed with Lawrence Wong deploying his ministerial powers to censor and intimidate a former establishment figure who criticised the government’s fiscal priorities on Facebook.
On the other hand, there are signs of a more nuanced approach to the politics of hot-button issues such as housing and reliance upon foreign workers, though there is no indication that the government is reviewing the macro policy settings that generated these problems in the first place.
The legalisation of homosexuality was one of the more spectacular policy revisions, but we should not to read too much into it. In the 1960s an earlier iteration of this government legalised both abortion and prostitution, so legalising homosexuality was very much in step with an established pattern of pragmatism on such issues.
Among the many signs of continuity that can be identified in Wong’s selection, perhaps the most significant feature is found in a change — the end of the military career as a preferred pathway to high office.
The political ascendency of the military originated in 1971, when then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew established a program of salaried university scholarships for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), enabling a select group of young officers to study overseas after completing their national service. His son, Lee Hsien Loong, was in the first cohort of scholarship winners. In 1974 Lee Kuan Yew instituted an elite training program for promising new SAF officers. Lee Hsien Loong was in the first cohort of that program too.
By 1982 the younger Lee was an army general and chief of staff of the SAF. Despite having only worked as a deployed officer for about three years of his military career, he retired from the military in 1984 to stand for parliament. He was elected, of course, and became the first of a long list of such scholarship winners to enter parliament — and cabinet — immediately following retirement from the senior ranks of the military.
In 1991, former prime minister Goh Chok Tong’s cabinet of 16 men included just two retired brigadier generals — Lee Hsien Loong and George Yeo. By 2005, four of the 18 members of Lee Hsien Loong’s cabinet were retired SAF flag officers, including the prime minister himself. In 2012 the figure was six out of 15, despite the unplanned absence of George Yeo, who had been unexpectedly defeated in the general elections of 2011.
But in the current 21-member cabinet, there are only three former military officers, two of whom are close to retirement. The third, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing, is the person Wong beat to become Lee’s successor. Chan was also runner up in the People’s Action Party (PAP)’s 2018 leadership contest, where the winner, Heng Swee Keat, proved to be such a flawed candidate that he stepped aside three years later — despite having had the great advantage of being personal private secretary to former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.
The decline of the military within cabinet is not just marked by its declining numbers. Chan’s two rejections are just the most recent in a series of episodes in which retired generals have been rejected or otherwise failed in their bids for high office, reflecting the emergence of a persistent pattern of disappointing performances by these supposed highflyers.
After former foreign minister George Yeo’s lost his seat at the 2011 general election, he was widely canvassed as a potential candidate for president, but was passed over. Then, in 2017, Lee suddenly shifted retired brigadier general and prime ministerial contender Tan Chuan-jin sideways to the role of parliamentary speaker— which necessitated his resignation from cabinet and removal from the leadership race. Then another retired general, Ng Chee Meng, lost his seat in the 2020 general election.
There remain plenty of retired flag officers in the machinery of government, but it is clear that they no longer have a near-seamless fast track to political high office. Former civil servants seem to be back in favour — especially those who have worked as personal private secretary to a member of the Lee family.
Michael Barr is Associate Professor at Flinders University and Associate Editor of Asian Studies Review. He is also author of ‘The ruling elite of Singapore: networks of power and influence in Southeast Asia’ and ‘Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-Building Project’.
This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2022 in review and the year ahead.