Singapore's premier-in-waiting Lawrence Wong is seen as a team player. Image: Twitter / Singapore Press

SINGAPORE – Until a few years ago, Singapore’s Finance Minister Lawrence Wong was a relatively little-known civil servant turned politician. But on April 14, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) endorsed him as leader of its fourth-generation (4G) team, putting him in line to become the city-state’s next prime minister.

The announcement of a confirmed successor to long-serving Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, whose eventual exit after roughly two decades will mark a major turning point in the nation’s politics, has appeared to put minds at ease, with 49-year-old Wong now well-positioned to cast himself as a symbol of Singapore’s meritocracy.

Few previously considered Wong a potential national leader, but analysts say his competent performance as co-chairman of a multi-ministry task force leading Singapore’s Covid-19 response has proven pivotal to his rise, allowing him to cultivate an affable public image and ultimately win the confidence of his governing party peers.

What is less clear is how Wong, who would only be Singapore’s fourth leader since achieving independence, intends to step out of Lee’s shadow to fashion his own brand of leadership as the new face of the historically-dominant PAP at a time when the city-state’s politics are becoming more hotly contested amid rising calls for greater diversity in parliament.

At his first press appearance after being chosen as 4G leader, Wong emphasized teamwork ties and seemingly advocated a collective approach to governance, saying on April 16 that political leadership is “never about one person.” Observers believe he intends to share responsibility and govern closely with other high-profile politicians of his generation.  

“Collegial leadership and partnership will likely characterize PAP dynamics going forward,” said Nydia Ngiow, Singapore director of the BowerGroupAsia consultancy, who added that the other 4G ministers who were front-runners to succeed Lee “are expected to serve as Wong’s right-hand men in leading the country.”

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, 52, and Education Minister Chan Chun Sing, 52, had both been regarded as strong contenders for the top job, with the latter holding a more senior position in the ruling party. Chan was at one point even rumored to be Lee’s preferred successor. Both politicians posted upbeat messages on Facebook affirming Wong’s selection as 4G leader.

Speaking alongside Lee at a press briefing at the Istana Negara, or national place, Wong said he was “under no illusions about the demands of the job” and added that a “major agenda” for his 4G team would be to “engage the public” and conduct a comprehensive review of policies “to see what needs to be adjusted and improved.”

Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong has pushed back his planned retirement. Photo: AFP / Sergey Guneev / Sputnik

There is no indication yet as to when exactly the power transition will take place. Lee, who turned 70 in February, told the press briefing that he would “decide later” when to hand power to his newly named heir apparent, noting that the timing of a general election due by 2025 will be a factor in the leadership transition.

Lee elaborated by saying he and Wong would discuss the “best strategy” for the handover, either with the premier bowing out to allow Wong to consolidate and lead the PAP into the next election as 4G leader, or with Lee continuing to helm the ruling party and stepping down at some point after the polls – assuming the PAP is victorious.

The consensus among observers and analysts is that the ruling party is unlikely to lose power any time soon. The PAP has governed the island nation without interruption since 1959, though polls in July 2020 saw its popular vote share slip to 61%, one of the lowest levels in decades, while the opposition Workers’ Party (WP) won a record number of seats in parliament.

A weak electoral showing at those polls by Lee’s earlier designated successor, deputy premier Heng Swee Keat, foreshadowed his decision to step aside as prime minister-in-waiting last April, a shock announcement that stalled Singapore’s leadership transition and ultimately opened the way for Wong’s rise as a dark horse candidate.

Heng, 61, emerged as Lee’s heir apparent and 4G leader in 2018 but took himself out of the running by citing the need for a younger politician to helm the country once the Covid-19 pandemic abates. Wong was appointed as finance minister, a key portfolio previously held by Heng, in a cabinet reshuffle shortly thereafter.

Rather than hold open leadership contests, PAP leaders are chosen via a selection process that has always been scant on details. Heng was named primus inter pares, or first among equals, by way of a consensus decision by 4G cabinet ministers. But likely due to the vacuum created by Heng’s surprise withdrawal, the PAP opted for a consultative process in selecting Wong.

Media reports citing party sources previously indicated that the 4G team had narrowed their choice of leader to three ministers, but was unable to reach a consensus on a single candidate. Wong was ultimately chosen through a series of private, one-on-one consultations facilitated by former minister and ex-PAP chairman Khaw Boon Wan.

Khaw told local media that 15 out of 19 “stakeholders” he spoke to had preferred Wong to lead the 4G team. Opting not to reveal who else was in contention, Khaw said “none of the other names garnered more than two votes.” Observers took his admission that the vote was not unanimous as uncommonly transparent by PAP standards.

“The PAP is a cadre party. What it means is that the selection process is very self-contained and it’s very thorough, and leaders are selected and not elected. Therefore, most of the members of the party are ideologically aligned to one another,” said Walid Jumblatt Abdullah, an assistant professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

Education Minister Chan Chun Sing was in the running for the premiership. Image: Twitter

“If you really think about it, other than personal characteristics and demeanor, there isn’t much of a difference between ministers Chan Chun Sing, Lawrence Wong, or Ong Ye Kung. Sometimes in our minds, we have an exaggerated idea of different personalities, but the PAP structure doesn’t really allow for such individuals,” added the academic.

Nonetheless, Wong’s background differs from those of his 4G peers. The son of a sales manager father and schoolteacher mother, Wong studied economics on a government scholarship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States, unlike many of his colleagues who attended top-ranked British universities such as Oxford or Cambridge.

According to local broadsheet The Straits Times, Wong said he “chose the United States as it was home to his favorite musicians.” Passionate about rock, blues and soul and a guitar player from the age of eight, Wong earned pocket money busking as a street musician during his university years before beginning a civil service career in 1997.

He went on to hold some of the top jobs in the country’s bureaucracy, leading Singapore’s Energy Market Authority and also serving as Lee’s principal private secretary. Wong was elected to parliament for the first time in 2011, and has held positions at the ministries of defense, education, communications and national development, among several others.

But the gamechanger was his appointment as co-chair of Singapore’s Covid-19 task force, a position that made him one of the city-state’s most visible leaders. Occasionally on the receiving end of criticism over the city-state’s shifting pandemic rules, Wong appeared unflustered in daily televised briefings and showed a willingness to admit certain shortcomings.

He also won public goodwill as he choked back tears in a speech to parliament in March 2020 that paid tribute to front-line medical workers. Wong’s appointment to the finance portfolio in April 2021, a position Lee and his predecessor Goh Chok Tong both held prior to becoming premier, suggested confidence in him from within the PAP leadership.

Singapore has seen only two transfers of power since independence, in 1990 and 2004. Wong, should he become Singapore’s next prime minister, will lead one of the world’s fastest aging countries at a time of rising anxieties over the city-state’s openness to foreign professionals, widening wealth inequality, high inflation and rising costs of living.

Views of the ruling PAP are also changing, with a younger set of voters valuing diversity and minority representation aspiring for broader political liberalization in a country with strict regulations on speech and public assembly. But rather than appealing to progressive causes, Wong will likely focus on bread-and-butter issues, say analysts.

“I think under the 4G, the country will move economically left, the party will move economically left, as we have already seen anyway, and I think these gradual movements will continue to persist. Politically, I am not sure whether there will be a substantive opening up and liberalization of the political system,” said scholar Walid.

Singaporean Finance Minister Lawrence Wong on the mic. Image: Wikimedia

BowerGroupAsia’s Ngiow said that Wong “now has the unenviable task of building public confidence in the 4G leadership,” and that he and Lee would concentrate on “hastening initiatives and policies to secure better social outcomes for Singaporeans and help the PAP gain more public support ahead of the next general election.”

Wong is widely expected to be anointed as deputy premier in a cabinet reshuffle that Lee has confirmed would happen “soon”, following a trajectory that both the incumbent premier and his predecessor assumed before assuming the premiership. Lee had served as deputy premier for nearly 14 years before taking the top job in 2004.

By comparison, Wong will have spent much less time in politics than the premier he is set to replace. As a partial consequence of Heng’s withdrawal from the previous succession plan, Wong will inevitably have a far shorter period serving as deputy premier than Singapore’s previous two leaders, leading some to believe he will continue to lean on PAP’s old guard.

Walid thinks Wong could retain at least two or more senior ministers from Singapore’s third-generation, or “3G”, team in his cabinet after taking office. The academic said Lee himself could be retained as a senior minister, while powerful Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam could receive a senior minister a deputy premier post.

Wong will also face the dilemma of who to select as his deputy, which Lee has said his successor will have to decide “in due course.” Heng had chosen Chan, the education minister, as his deputy in 2018. But Wong has outwardly worked more closely with Ong, the health minister and his fellow co-chair of Singapore’s pandemic task force.

The PAP’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) elections in November, where cadre members vote to elevate party leaders, will be a more immediate watchpoint. The party’s central decision-making body elevated Heng to the position of first assistant secretary-general and Chan to second assistant secretary-general in 2018.

“As a result of his being endorsed as the new 4G leader, Wong will be widely expected to be elected as first assistant secretary-general at the upcoming CEC elections. A key question will be whether Chan will remain as second assistant secretary-general, as well as what position Ong will be elected to,” Ngiow told Asia Times.

Follow Nile Bowie on Twitter at @NileBowie