Interviews | Politics | Southeast Asia

Assessing Singapore’s Next Leader

Insights from Linda Lim.

Assessing Singapore’s Next Leader
Credit: Facebook/ Lawrence Wong

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy.  This conversation with Dr. Linda Lim, professor emerita of corporate strategy and international business at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, is the 320th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

In what capacity do you know Singapore’s next prime minister, Lawrence Wong, and how would you describe his leadership style?

I first met Minister Wong when he was studying for his economics master’s degree at the University of Michigan, where I am a faculty member. After that I met him occasionally in Singapore to discuss professional matters – like energy and the environment, and higher education – or at social gatherings with other University of Michigan alumni.

His leadership style is that of a thoughtful, deliberative consensus team-player, who asks good questions and is a good listener.

How might incoming PM Wong advance Singapore’s national interests vis-à-vis China-U.S. rivalry?

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He will continue with Singapore’s long-established policy of neutrality and balance between the two superpowers, which is in its national interest, and which is jointly decided in the Cabinet, in which his predecessor, the current PM, is likely to remain.

What should be the new prime minister’s strategic priorities for Singapore’s approach to China’s regional ambitions?

First, he should make it clear that Singapore supports continuation of, and will act according to, the existing multilateral rules-based international order under which the U.S., China, and other countries enjoy equal rights and treatment.

Second, Singapore, as part of ASEAN, will continue to welcome China’s (and where relevant, the U.S. and other countries’) participation in regional groupings such as APEC, ASEAN+3, RCEP, and CPTPP, maintaining an open and inclusive approach to international trade and investment.

Third, Singapore will continue to welcome and participate in Chinese regional economic initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative and AIIB [Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank], where they are mutually beneficial.

Fourth, Singapore will continue to uphold the territorial integrity and sovereign rights of countries everywhere, including in Southeast Asia, and with respect to both U.S. and China actions.

Identify short and long-term geopolitical and economic challenges that Singapore’s incoming leader will face.   

Economic challenges are paramount:

  • Countering and adjusting to deglobalization trends (e.g. the spread of nationalist industrial policies, an end to global tax-shifting practices, efforts to reduce carbon footprints) that could undermine Singapore’s role as a preferred intermediary in international and regional trade, investment, service and technology flows.
  • Developing domestic productive capabilities to limit dependence on international actors, particularly in entrepreneurship and technology, thereby enhancing national resilience.
  • Dealing with the social, financial, economic, political and cultural challenges posed by a rapidly aging society, which is heavily dependent on foreign labor and talent.
  • Dealing with the economic and environmental challenges posed by global climate change and its regional impacts and preparing to cope with the economic disruptions likely from the next pandemic.

Geopolitical challenges include:

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  • Most importantly, the need to smoothly navigate continued and possibly increasing U.S.-China tensions in the military-security as well as economic-technology realms.
  • Maintaining common interests, deeper economic engagement, and good bilateral relations with neighboring countries (fellow ASEAN members, Japan, South Korea, and the countries of South Asia) and more distant international partners (in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America)

What should U.S. policymakers and business leaders understand about Lawrence Wong’s leadership approach and decision-making process?

There should be no surprises, both because Minister Wong has been selected for “stability and continuity” (according to the announcement of his elevation), and because he will (as he himself has said) be making decisions as part of a team that has already been working together for some time (e.g. with respect to pandemic management).

That said, since we are not in a status quo world, U.S. policymakers and business leaders should expect that Minister Wong’s team may try (or be forced to try) new policies to deal with changing local and global circumstances, including (hypothetically) less generous investment incentives, more fiscal redistribution, more restrictions on the import of foreign labor and skills, tighter energy and environmental standards, and greater efforts to develop closer relations with other Asian countries (including but not limited to China).

Given Minister Wong’s background and predilections as an efficient technocrat, any policy changes and the trade-offs they entail will be carefully thought through, in consultation with international partners, business and labor leaders, and (one hopes) the general public. The risk in this process is that changes may end up being “too little too late” in dealing with the domestic and international challenges the country faces in an increasingly turbulent and uncertain world.