On Monday (13 June), Singapore’s prime minister-in-waiting, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, takes a step closer to his anticipated and eventual succession as Singapore’s next leader. The 49-year-old former civil servant began his role as Deputy Prime Minister (DPM), as part of the Cabinet reshuffle announced last week by current Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong, who Mr Wong served as Principal Private Secretary more than 15 years ago.
Since entering politics in 2011, DPM Wong has been a trusted and reliable member of PM Lee’s team. He has served ably in varied and key ministry portfolios of defence, education, finance, communications and information, culture, community and youth, as well as in national development. To top it all, he has also led several key government committees, including taking on the high-pressured role as co-chair of Singapore’s COVID-19 taskforce.
During the pandemic thus far, including at many of the public press conferences, Mr Wong won the hearts and minds of Singaporeans through his calm, rational and compassionate handling of the complex issues at hand and explaining them simply and with empathy.
Moreover, Mr Wong is not necessarily cut from the same cloth as many of his predecessors and colleagues. His schooling years came in the less distinguished schools that many of the country’s political and bureaucratic elites traditionally come from. Although Mr Wong eventually won a government scholarship to study for his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in the United States, even these were at public universities and not at the Ivy League institutions that Singapore’s public sector talent pipeline is sent to. Still, Mr Wong – the son of a salesman and a teacher, who grew up in public housing – worked his way up the system, eventually being promoted to the civil service’s elite Administrative Service where he also attended Harvard University to earn a Masters in Public Administration.
This hardworking rise from a humble start accentuates Mr Wong’s relatability to the masses. He is equally adept at strumming a guitar at a public event as he is speaking on difficult issues – his much-touted address at the Institute of Policy Studies on race issues in Singapore, being a case in point.
These are some of the qualities of Mr Wong that has won him the respect of not only Singaporeans but also his People’s Action Party (PAP) colleagues. On 14 April 2022, Mr Wong was announced as the leader of the PAP’s fourth generation (4G) team as a result of a robust selection process in which 15 out of 19 of them endorsed him.
With this primus inter pares honour bestowed on him along with his new designation as DPM, the path seems clear for Mr Wong to be Singapore’s fourth prime minister since its independence. There is of course the small matter of the PAP still having to win the next general election, due by November 2025, to form government.
But then, the PAP has not lost a single election since Singapore’s independence in 1965.
A Recovering Economy
Even with that seemingly unobstructed path to prime ministership for Mr Wong, in reality he has a few hurdles to jump over as the PAP prepares for a smooth transition of power.
The immediate and pressing concern would be to steer the economy to full recovery from the pandemic. As Minister of Finance and Vice Chairman of the central bank, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), Mr Wong is in a driving position to help the economy get back to firing at full cylinders.
However, with strong global headwinds from rising inflation and the Ukraine War, that could be easier said than done. In the most recent MAS’ quarter poll, private sector economists expect Singapore’s headline inflation to come in at 5 percent this year, up sharply from the estimated 3.6 per cent in the previous survey.
The central bank itself expects headline inflation for 2022 to average at 4.5 percent-5.5 percent as it has already tightened monetary policy thrice since October in response to increasing prices. With impending inflationary pressures and corresponding actions from the central bank, private sector economists have downgraded their forecasts for economic growth for the year at 3.8 percent, down slightly from the 4 percent estimated earlier.
Already, to counter the effects of the pandemic and boost the economy, the government has drawn S$42.9 billion (US$30.9 billion) from its reserves since 2020. Keeping the economy growing at a healthy and sustainable rate will therefore demand skilled policy-making from Mr Wong and his team – undoubtedly a baptism of fire and test of his resolve before he becomes the country’s prime political leader.
Keeping the Policitcs Right
Navigating these economic headwinds will also require Mr Wong to rally Singaporeans towards a new future that responds to the events of the last few years and establish a new social compact. On one hand, Singaporeans continue to look at the government to drive many societal outcomes, which include opportunities for all Singaporeans as part of a growing economy and a more equitable society. On the other hand, they also want more diversity and pluralism in politics and governance while also voicing out against an increasing cost of living and the presence of a seemingly high proportion of foreigners in employment in Singapore.
“We will seek to hear your thoughts on the economy, healthcare, housing, education and many other areas, including how we can continue to support and uplift every worker. We will consider what we need to do differently, but also affirm what is being done well and how we can do it even better,” Mr Wong stated during his Labour Day rally speech in May as he announced a Forward Singapore exercise where his 4G team and he will consult stakeholders, including the public, on the country’s future roadmap.
The success and efficacy of this exercise will allow Mr Wong to earn even more trust and respect from a rapidly evolving electorate and help cement his role as the country’s next leader.
The Dream Team
But the future of Singapore doesn’t just rest on one man’s shoulders. Mr Wong knows this well and is a point he has repeatedly made. So, while he keeps one eye on the economy and another on the politics of the country, Mr Wong also has to dedicate enough energy to build the core of his 4G team. In the Cabinet reshuffle last week, PM Lee promoted three younger political office holders and moved around five more into new portfolios. Though it was less movement than many of the previous reshuffles, the changes were still telling that the current prime minister was setting the wheels in motion for leadership transition and a younger team to helm the country.
As DPM, Mr Wong will continue this momentum as he identifies who among the younger generation of PAP politicians could be his trusted and able lieutenants. As many of Singapore’s current heavyweight ministers look to join PM Lee to transition out of key Cabinet positions, Mr Wong will have to ensure that their replacements for key ministries are lined up and ready for these roles. At the same time, in line with the PAP’s emphasis on succession planning, Mr Wong will also use the next and future elections to not only strengthen the 4G leadership but also building the pipeline for when the next generation takes over.
There is a lot thus for Mr Wong to look into as he works his way towards prime ministership. On many levels, he is different from the leaders before him who have expertly navigated Singapore from third world to first. Perhaps Singapore demands a different type of leader for the next phase of its journey. The unassuming, humble, compassionate and policy wonk Mr Wong has shown thus far, he has all the right attributes and necessary experience to cater to Singapore’s future needs.