Lawrence Wong, Singapore’s next PM faces an ever trickier balancing act

Shortly before Taylor Swift arrived in Singapore in March, the country’s deputy leader, Lawrence Wong, went viral after posting an awkward TikTok video of himself playing her “Love Story” on his guitar. The unassuming US-trained economist will have to get used to the spotlight. On May 15, Singaporeans will wake up to Wong becoming their first new prime minister in 20 years. He will be only the second non-member of the Lee family dynasty to lead the tiny, affluent island city-state of 6mn people.

This is just the third transition of power since Singapore’s independence from Malaysia in 1965. Last month Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced he would step down as head of the ruling People’s Action Party. His late father, Lee Kuan Yew, regarded as the architect of modern Singapore, led the nation from 1959 until 1990.

The older Lee’s combination of economic planning, investor-friendly policies and openness to trade gave the nation some of the highest living standards in the world. Under the current Lee, it has flourished as a global financial centre. But Wong, a former civil servant, will take the reins as the city-state navigates a challenging geopolitical environment. Cracks are also emerging in its heavily state-directed society.

“We punch above our weight in global affairs,” says Chan Heng Chee, a Singaporean academic serving as ambassador-at-large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But she warns against complacency. “The economic model is changing,” she explains, “shifting away from the globalising forces that helped make Singapore a success towards greater protectionism. Different times call for different leaders.”

Not that Wong’s appointment signals a revolution. He has been preparing for a carefully choreographed transition since April 2022. Meanwhile, fissures in society have widened with a rising cost of living and greater inequality. Resentment of foreign workers, a large part of the city’s labour force, has increased while the PAP faces pressure to transform from an illiberal leadership to a more inclusive government. In addition, the US-China rivalry is playing out in neutral Singapore’s backyard, necessitating an ever trickier balancing act.

Wong, 51, comes from humble origins and did not attend elite schools. His father was born in China but moved to Singapore and his mother was a teacher. His political rise was swift. He served as Lee’s principal private secretary from 2005 to 2008, then led the education and national development ministries before becoming finance minister in 2021 and deputy prime minister in 2022. One person who knows him calls him “relatable, if a little uptight”.

As co-chair of the Covid-19 task force, Wong was associated with Singapore’s efficient handling of the pandemic. “It paved the way for his visibility with everyday Singaporeans for the first time,” says Linda Lim, a professor emerita at the University of Michigan, who knew Wong when he studied economics there. Yet it was not the public that chose Wong. Lim claims he was selected because he was acceptable to the largest group of people within the PAP, rather than for being a visionary. “He is a piece of the puzzle, but the party is still everything in Singapore,” she says. 

Others are more blunt. “He wasn’t the first choice for many but he is close to the prime minister,” says one public servant who dealt with Wong as Lee’s principal private secretary. “Never did I think back then that he would be the next leader of Singapore.”

Despite carefully curated videos of his guitar playing and enjoying local landmarks, Wong, who is twice married with no children, has remained relatively private. “He is not a natural politician, he is a technocrat by training and inclination and he will need to learn the cut and thrust of politics,” says Eugene Tan, a professor at Singapore Management University. “Right now, though, he still needs to prove he can rally not just the public but also his colleagues behind him.”

Donald Low, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, has known Wong for decades and describes him as an “open-minded conservative” whose ability to adapt quickly is often underestimated. “He favours incremental over radical change, evolution over revolution,” he says. 

Wong has stressed continuity and said there will not be cabinet changes until after a general election. Prime Minister Lee will stay as a senior minister. Others, though, would like to see more original policies. “In a more tumultuous world, will just some policy tweaks by the new leadership be enough?” says Ja Ian Chong, associate professor at the National University of Singapore.

But first, Wong will need a mandate. The next general election is now expected as soon as this year. It will be a consequential poll, even though a PAP victory is all but assured. The party, which has governed since independence, earned one of its lowest vote shares in the 2020 election. The opposition Workers’ party meanwhile won the highest number of seats since independent Singapore’s first general election in 1968 and has repeatedly called for more inclusive governance.

“This is the first time in independent Singapore history where the prime minister can no longer look to more advanced economies and say we just need to catch up,” Low says. Strong leadership with more participation from voices outside the PAP is needed, he adds. “The road map has to come from within. That is now Lawrence Wong’s challenge.”

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