Singapore After the Lee Political Dynasty

Recent Features

Interviews | Politics | Southeast Asia

Singapore After the Lee Political Dynasty

Insights from Ja Ian Chong. 

Singapore After the Lee Political Dynasty
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

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. Ja Ian Chong, associate professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore, is the 323rd in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Examine the impact of the Lee Kuan Yew family legacy on Singapore’s governance system, national identity, and political culture.

The Lee family has, of course, been deeply closely connected with Singapore politics since the 1950s, before independence. Cambridge-educated Harry Lee Kuan Yew first made his name as a lawyer for the independent trade unions that existed at the time. He served as prime minister of independent Singapore from 1965 until 1990, but remained a dominant political influence until his death in 2015. His elder son, Lee Hsien Loong, was a career Army officer who entered partisan politics in 1984, before becoming prime minister in 2004.

Singapore had been a successful port and commercial center since the 19th century, leveraging on its geographic position at the intersection of several important sea lanes of communication. Singapore’s commercial success was also built on its ability to benefit from the post-World War II and post-Cold War liberalization of the world economy and U.S.-backed rules-based order. Singapore historically seeks to maintain close ties with the United States, China, Europe, Japan, and its neighbors.

Compare and contrast how new leadership under Lawrence Wong will differ from the Lee family’s political leadership. 

Little is publicly known about Lawrence Wong’s own political proclivities. As a career bureaucrat before entering partisan politics, the Singapore public is also less familiar with Wong. Like other PAP [People’s Action Party, Singapore’s ruling party since 1959] politicians of his generation, Wong is not associated with any major policy initiative or key political ideas. He has a reputation of being a good implementer of policies as well as somewhat open to differing views within the political and public service establishment, however.

There is speculation that Wong is a compromise candidate for PAP leader. Such conditions suggest that Wong’s leadership is likely to be a continuation of the younger Lee’s. That said, it is possible that Wong could display his own distinct set of preferences more after consolidating his position.

Identify the top three strategic priorities for Singapore’s new administration.   

My guess would be that these are likely to be managing relations with Washington and Beijing; seeking to engage key partners such as the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and others; and working with its Southeast Asian neighbors through ASEAN.

Stability in U.S.-PRC ties allows for predictability; escalation in tensions can prove harmful to the regional peace on which Singapore’s prosperity depends. Singapore’s strategic partnership arrangements with the United States means that it may become an important logistics hub in an East Asian contingency involving Washington. Should such an emergency entail confrontation with the PRC, Beijing may have an incentive to disrupt Singapore’s ability to perform this role.

Engagement of other partners aims to open more strategic and economic opportunities for Singapore. This helps it diversify somewhat from the United States and PRC. There is also hope that involving these other actors in regional affairs can encourage them to provide a moderating influence on Beijing and Washington.

Singapore has to work with its neighbors due to the reality of geography. Good relations with its neighbors can help secure Singapore’s immediate environment. Singapore also has substantive societal, familial, and economic ties with its neighbors, especially Malaysia and Indonesia.

How might Singapore balance east and west with rising stakes in U.S.-China competition under the new prime minister?

Wong and Lee have stated their desire to maintain stable, cooperative relations with both Washington and Beijing. They also wish for the two major powers to resolve their differences amiably, or at least find ways of competing that limit negative externalities.

Given the trajectory of increasing tension between the United States and PRC, questioning the feasibility of the hopes Wong and Lee expressed is reasonable and probably quite pragmatic. Positions in both countries toward each other are hardening, with little sign that there are strong domestic incentives to moderate these views. Washington and Beijing have floated ideas like decoupling and dual circulation, which point toward reducing or even reducing globalizing trends taken for granted over the past decades.

Singapore needs to prepare for contingencies that result in a world that is less like what it is familiar with and undergirded its past economic success. This means both having policies in place and preparing the public. This goes beyond the trope of “not wanting to choose sides.” Singapore needs to lay out a positive vision of what it wants to do and how it intends to mitigate the apparent risks it faces.

Assess the calculus behind Wong’s approach to maintain Singapore’s partnership with the U.S. and, concurrently, manage China’s aggressive regional ambitions.  

Based on Wong’s statements – and that of Lee Hsien Loong – Singapore seems to be hoping that the world in the future will not be too different from the past. A key consideration is to maintain consistent, pro-status quo U.S. involvement in Asia such that it remains an active force for stability. Such considerations may undergird the reiteration of Singapore’s preference for a rules-based international order.

Singapore’s leaders were uncomfortable with [former U.S.] President Trump’s unpredictable and confrontational approach to foreign policy, including longstanding U.S. allies and partners. This is observable from repeated lamentations over Washington’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and previous isolationist turn. So a key consideration is to maintain consistent, pro-status quo U.S. involvement in Asia such that it remains an active force for stability. This desire to bind Washington to regional cooperation and stability may explain Singapore’s willingness to engage the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and other U.S. initiatives, such as its relative openness to AUKUS and the Quad.

Singaporean leaders, Wong and others included, are likely not enthusiastic about an overly assertive PRC, since such actions can be destabilizing and embroil several regional actors, not just the United States. Such considerations may undergird the reiteration of Singapore’s preference for a rules-based international order. However, Singaporean leaders are wary of actions that Beijing sees as openly critical, especially after a period of friction surrounding the South China Sea arbitration during the middle of the last decade. The Singapore state has been very careful about stating attribution for influence operations, disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, and espionage cases independent observers suspect have to do with the PRC, for instance. They may opt for quiet diplomacy with the PRC, but whether this is effective remains to be seen. After all, there is little reason why Beijing, or for that matter Washington, will weigh Singaporean opinions more than other considerations.

The risk for Singapore is that its middle of the road approach leaves it worse off in the eyes of both Washington and Beijing. One or both major powers could suspect Singapore of duplicity, siding with the other while stating otherwise to interlocutors and the public. Singapore could also end up being perceived as an uncommitted, unreliable partner. Such risks may increase if U.S.-PRC competition intensifies, leading both Washington and Beijing to be less tolerant each other’s initiatives and to see actions taken by other states to tack between them as damaging to their own interests. This was the case between the United States and Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Beijing’s statements that an economic initiative like IPEF is really “containment” may foreshadow such thinking. As mentioned earlier, how Singapore intends to mitigate such risks is currently less clear.