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Lawrence Wong is the ultimate ‘safe’ pair of hands for Singapore

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Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shakes hands with Finance Minister Lawrence Wong during a news conference at the Istana, in Singapore, 16 April 2022 (Photo: Reuters/SPH Media/The Straits Times/Lim Yaohui).

In Brief

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that his deputy, Lawrence Wong, would be the next leader of the country. Wong is widely seen as a competent technocrat with a common touch, and his appointment is expected to bring continuity to the government. However, Wong may lack the vision needed to address the numerous challenges facing Singapore. Amid political scandals and an increasingly vocal opposition, Wong will need to balance continuity with bold leadership to ensure Singapore's continued success.

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On 15 April 2024, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave a month’s notice that he was stepping down after 20 years in the job and that Lawrence Wong — his 51-year-old deputy — would succeed him.

The official announcement was remarkably prosaic, reading and feeling more like the notification of a high-level personnel change in the civil service or a large corporation than the arrival of a new prime minister. The message was clear that everything is proceeding as planned and there is no need for concern because not much will change.

That messaging is accurate in part because Wong is the epitome of technocratic continuity. As a bonus, he possesses a ‘common touch’ as well. Wong was indisputably competent as a civil servant and cabinet minister both in domestic — and mainly economic — roles and as co-leader of the government’s COVID-19 taskforce. He successfully managed public policy and public expectations through a difficult period while displaying a gift for mass communication that most of his Cabinet colleagues lack. He is also the only senior member of Cabinet who does not come from a privileged family background.

There is another reason for expecting continuity from Wong’s prime ministership. Several of the key power holders in the current Cabinet will likely be sitting at his elbows for years to come. This includes Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who employed Wong as his Principal Private Secretary for three years before he entered politics, remaining his patron.

No wonder Wong greeted the news of his promotion with the words, ‘I am ready for my next assignment’.

Continuity is very important in the civil service and in good times is generally considered a virtue in politics. But the problem is that these are not good times. Singapore is facing challenges on many fronts that cry out for radical new ideas rather than technocratic continuity.

These challenges have arrived in a time of unprecedented political difficulties for the country’s ruling elite. In recent years its reputation has been tainted by corruption and money-laundering scandals and an embarrassing attempt at leadership succession that began in 2016 and collapsed spectacularly in 2021 when then-prime-minister-in-waiting Heng Swee Keat stepped aside.

At the same time, the government is struggling to tame an expanded and energised opposition in Parliament and an increasingly vocal civil society. It is indicative of the level of insecurity in Cabinet that its primary response to criticism since 2017 has been to draft new laws that make it easier to silence and intimidate independent voices. Meanwhile Cabinet leaves it to Parliament to initiate time-consuming legal actions of dubious merit against members of the opposition.

It is unclear whether heavy-handed lawfare will really hurt the opposition at the next general election, which must be held before the end of 2025 and will likely be held sooner. But Wong knows he must do everything he can to secure a strong result for the People’s Action Party.

Not that he fears losing the election, but another swing against the government on top of the result in 2020 might put his position as prime minister in doubt. The 2020 result ended Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat’s hopes of taking on the role, despite his all-but-finalised succession having already been announced.

With the drawbridges drawn tight against external criticism, the real challenge for the first Wong Cabinet will be internal rivalry. It would be unfair to suggest that Wong has been set up to be a mere figurehead, but it is reasonable to think of him as a ‘chairman of the board’ rather than a CEO.

Wong has no power base in Cabinet, Parliament or the party apart from Lee Hsien Loong’s patronage. He will be surrounded by men who consider themselves better qualified to shape government policy, even if he might be the best choice to front the cameras. The tension suggested by this context will inevitably infect the dynamic of Cabinet decision-making in increasingly uncomfortable ways, especially if Lee’s umbrella of protection begins to wear thin. Wong is unlikely to face direct challenges before the next general election, but afterwards it is anyone’s guess.

The serious task of governance is likely to be neglected in the meantime while Wong engages in ‘pork barrel politics’ — the use of government funding to target certain voters for political gain — to shore up his electoral performance. The government has spent the last several months sprinkling Singaporeans with cash giveaways and small but highly visible welfare initiatives. Most of the current round of initiatives were announced by Wong himself in his role as Minister for Finance and he will accept the keys to the office amid this shower of gifts.

Perhaps in the interests of serious government, Singaporeans should be hoping that the general election will be held sooner rather than later.

Michael Barr is Associate Professor of International Relations at Flinders University. He is author of ‘The ruling elite of Singapore: networks of power and influence’ and ‘Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-Building Project’.

One response to “Lawrence Wong is the ultimate ‘safe’ pair of hands for Singapore”

  1. This dynamic of internal rivalry perhaps explains his choice of Deputy Prime Minister, the truly inoffensive and unmemorable Gan Kim Yong. Notably, he did not pick any of his presumptive rivals–Heng Swee Keat, Ong Ye Kung, and of course, Chan Chun Sing, the man who was once considered **the** presumptive candidate for the top job. Chan too came from a humble background, and despite some high-profile gaffes, is considered by those who work with him to be highly competent and intelligent. (He even won the Distinguished Master Strategist Award while attending US Army Command and Staff College!) Time will tell what the actual dynamic among the 4G leaders will be, and what the implications will be for Singapore.

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