Lawrence Wong set to take centre stage as Singapore’s new prime minister

The 51-year-old will be sworn in as the city-state’s fourth leader since 1965 in a ceremony on May 15.

Lawrence Wong. He is wearing a suit and a white, open-necked shirt
Lawrence Wong began his political career in 2011 [File: How Hwee Young/EPA]

Singapore – For the first time in 20 years, Singapore will inaugurate a new prime minister, Minister for Finance and Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, who will take the reins of power in a ceremony on Wednesday, May 15.

The 51-year-old will replace Lee Hsien Loong – the eldest son of the country’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew – who has been in the job since August 2004.

Wong is only the fourth leader in Singapore’s 59-year history as an independent nation. Like his predecessors, he is a member of the People’s Action Party (PAP), co-founded by the elder Lee and the only ruling party Singaporeans have ever known.

The stage is now set for a general election in the city-state of 6 million people, which observers say could be held as early as this year, although the term of the current government does not expire until 2025.

At the last election in 2020, the PAP secured more than 61 percent of the vote, losing just 10 seats in the 98-member parliament to the opposition, but this was considered a sub-par performance given the opposition had won only six seats in the previous parliament.

Lawrence Wong tossing 'yee sang' with Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, wife of Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar Ibrahim, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife Ho Ching. They are around a table. The plate of yee sang is in the middie and they are using chopticks to mix the dish.
Lawrence Wong (left) has had less time than his predecessors to prepare for the top job [How Hwee Young/Pool via EPA]

The stakes are higher now, and a new leader is traditionally expected to gain a strong mandate from voters. Wong will be tasked with maintaining the dominance of the PAP in the face of an increasingly demanding electorate who want a greater say in governance and eschew the knuckleduster tactics and paternalistic politics of previous governments.

They are also tiring of the rat race, which Wong himself has acknowledged.

Among the most pressing issues on his plate: tackling the rising cost of living, an ageing population, a slowing economy and immigration. The PAP has also been rocked by a rare corruption scandal.

In addition, Wong must navigate the ever-present China-United States rivalry as the tiny island is a key ally to both superpowers.

Who is Lawrence Wong?

The mild-mannered Wong was selected by his peers among the “4G”, or fourth generation of leaders in Singapore’s political jargon, to be a successor to 72-year-old Lee in April 2022.

Something of a compromise candidate, he was not their first choice.

That was former central bank chief and Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat, 63, who had been appointed to succeed Lee in 2018. In a country renowned for its political stability, Heng sparked a mini political crisis by stepping aside two and a half years later, citing his age and admitting that he had not felt up to the task from the start.

Unlike many of his PAP peers, Wong did not come from the island’s establishment or attend its top schools. Going to university in the US on a government scholarship, he started out as an economist in the trade and industry ministry before entering politics in 2011.

After stints as a minister in less glamorous portfolios such as national development, he was not considered a potential prime minister, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.

As co-leader of the country’s COVID-19 task force, Wong emerged as the public face of the government’s pandemic response, adroitly fielding questions from foreign media outlets in televised news conferences. Such events are a rarity in a country that performs dismally in the annual World Press Freedom rankings – Singapore was ranked 126th out of 180 countries and territories this year.

Heng Swee Keat meeting members of the public during the 2020 election campaign. He is wearing white - the colour of the People's Action Party. He is in a hawker centre and there are food stalls nearby. He is handing out leaflets.
Heng Swee Keat, seen campaigning in the 2020 election, was the first choice of the ruling People’s Action Party but decided he no longer wanted the job and stepped aside [How Hwee Young/EPA]

“Mr Wong is seen as a technocrat, [who is] friendly and approachable. He delivered well for the COVID-19 crisis, so he can be viewed as competent,” said former PAP lawmaker Inderjit Singh, who served alongside Lee in his central Ang Mo Kio ward for two decades.

Noting that Wong was only chosen two years ago after a period of political uncertainty, he added: “Anyone in his position will have his work cut out to show that he is indeed the right leader. He has a big task to quickly show that he is indeed the right person who can deliver.”

Leadership succession

Historically, leadership succession in Singapore has been a well-oiled process, with the heir apparent announced well in advance and groomed for years. This has been facilitated by a sterling record of governance, the PAP’s longstanding parliamentary supermajority – at its peak, there were no opposition lawmakers – and its dominance of key institutions.

Heng’s sudden departure was therefore unprecedented. Wong will also have the shortest runway of all – he became Lee’s deputy just two months after being anointed his successor. By comparison, the younger Lee served as deputy prime minister for 14 years before taking over the top job.

This perhaps explains Minister of Law and Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam’s prickly response to what he termed a “sneering” commentary in The Economist last month, which labelled Wong a compromise candidate and the Singapore media “docile”. Weeks later, the United Kingdom weekly conducted a wide-ranging interview with Wong where he stressed that as prime minister, he would not shy away from making unpopular decisions.

“Wong comes across as being very personable. He doesn’t portray the image of a hardliner,” said former newspaper editor PN Balji, who interacted extensively with Wong’s predecessors. While he is optimistic that Wong will come to prove himself, he added: “If you look at the leadership from Lee Kuan Yew till now, the quality of leadership has declined somewhat.”

Lawrence Wong taking a selfie with two members of Singpore's team at the ASEAN Para Games in 2015. They all look happy and relaxed.
The social-media-friendly Wong is seen as approachable [File: Sport Singapore / Action Images via Reuters]

Perhaps this is why Lee Hsien Loong is not going away – he will remain in the cabinet with the title of senior minister, just as his predecessors did.

“Given the short runway, I think Wong will benefit from [Lee’s] presence, especially in helping keep [good] external relations,” said Singh.

What do Singaporeans think of him?

Despite his increased profile during the pandemic, the guitar-playing, dog-loving, social media-friendly Wong remains something of an unknown quantity to Singaporeans.

According to a recent YouGov poll, just more than half of respondents considered him competent, with less than a third agreeing that he was a strong leader. Some 40 percent said he seemed trustworthy, a number that was significantly higher among Gen Z respondents. A fifth felt hopeful about Wong’s appointment, while 36 percent stated indifference.

Many also indicated high expectations for the incoming prime minister, perhaps reflecting the fact that Singapore’s government leaders are the world’s highest-paid, with the prime minister taking home 2.2 million Singapore dollars ($1.6m) a year including bonuses.

“Wong’s biggest challenge in the short term will be to articulate an easy-to-understand, inclusive, and progressive political vision that will draw widespread support for his government in the upcoming elections,” Elvin Ong, an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore’s political science department, told Al Jazeera.

Wong, who has stressed that he did not seek out the role or expect to become leader, is certainly working hard to win over the electorate. “Every ounce of my energy shall be devoted to the service of our country and our people,” he said in a post to his 200,000-odd Instagram followers after the handover date was announced. “Your dreams will inspire my actions.”

Calling Singapore the “improbable, unlikely nation”, he told The Economist: “My mission is to keep this miracle going for as long as I can.”

Source: Al Jazeera