Who Is Lawrence Wong, Singapore’s Next Prime Minister?

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Who Is Lawrence Wong, Singapore’s Next Prime Minister?

The deputy prime minister will take over from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong next month.

Who Is Lawrence Wong, Singapore’s Next Prime Minister?

Singaporean Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong speaks to the media in Singapore, after the announcement that he will take the reins from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong next month, on April 16, 2024.

Credit: Facebook/Lawrence Wong

On Monday, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made the long-awaited announcement that he will step down on May 15 after nearly two decades in office, and hand power to his deputy Lawrence Wong.

In a short statement, Lee’s office said that the leader “will formally advise the President to appoint Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Mr Lawrence Wong to succeed him.” It added that Wong has the “unanimous support” of lawmakers from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).

In a video message posted on social media shortly after Lee’s announcement, Wong said that he “accept[ed] this responsibility with humility and a deep sense of duty.”

“I pledge to give my all in this undertaking,” Wong said, according to The Straits Times. “Every ounce of my energy shall be devoted to the service of our country and our people. Your dreams will inspire my action. Your concerns will guide my decisions. Share your ideas, share your passions and dreams. Walk with me and my team, together we can build a future that shines brightly for all Singaporeans.”

The choice of Wong was no surprise – back in April 2022, he was named as the leader of the PAP’s fourth-generation (4G) team, after Lee’s first designated successor, Heng Swee Keat, stepped aside the year prior – but the announcement took place earlier than expected. This has now set Wong up to preside over the National Day Rally in August and lead the PAP into the country’s next general election, which has to take place by November 2025  but could happen as early as September.

Who is Wong and how will he lead Singapore? It is a hard question to answer. Singaporean media coverage has given detailed coverage of the 51-year-old’s curriculum vitae and political career. This includes his 14-year stint as a civil servant; his election as a Member of Parliament in 2011; and his subsequent service as minister of culture, minister of national development, and minister of finance.

The coverage has focused on the prominent role he played during the COVID-19 pandemic, when he served as co-chair of the government’s response committee, alongside then-Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and his successor Ong Ye Kung. There have also been descriptions of his education in the United States and coverage of his hobbies.

However, this recitation of roles offers little indication of Wong’s political vision and how his approach to governance might differ from Lee’s. It is clear that he will take office at a challenging time both for Singapore and the PAP. Externally, the city-state faces the headwinds of U.S.-China tensions, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, and the fracturing of the international order that has undergirded its economic miracle since independence in 1965.

Domestically, the PAP has seen a decline in support among younger voters. Despite winning 83 of the 93 seats in parliament and 61 percent of the popular vote at the last general election in 2020, the PAP’s support fell 9 percent from the general election of 2015. Some analysts put it down to a generational shift and younger voters’ discontent with the country’s carefully managed democratic system and stifling social and political consensus. Post-election surveys found that support for the opposition Workers Party, which won the remaining 10 seats, was highest among those aged 21-25. The Progress Singapore Party, a new party headed by an ex-PAP stalwart, missed out on seats but won 10 percent of the popular vote.

In the aftermath of the election, senior PAP figures promised “soul-searching” and the party said that it would seek to reconnect with the people. “The young people have significantly different life aspirations and priorities…This will have to be reflected in our political process and government policies,” Lee said after the election results were released.

One result of this was the Forward SG initiative, spearheaded by the PAP’s 4G leadership team from mid-2022, which was billed as “an exercise for us to come together, examine our values and aspirations, and build consensus.” In late 2023, Wong and his fellow 4G leaders launched the Forward SG report, recommending a host of measures to renew the Singaporean social compact and lay out a path toward a more prosperous and equitable future for the city-state. According to The Straits Times, this included “increasing salaries and respect for a wider range of vocations, better social support for those who face career hurdles, and nudging those who succeed to give back to society.”

While the 180-page report offers a clear guide to how Wong will govern, whether the proposed changes are sufficient to arrest the decline in PAP’s support, and how Wong will otherwise handle unforeseen challenges within and without, remains to be seen.

As the journalist Kirsten Han noted in her newsletter earlier this week, Wong’s public comments are hard to parse. They “tend to be painfully cookie-cutter – it’s hard to figure out what the man’s actual political vision is,” she wrote. “It’s allowed people to project all sorts of wishful thinking onto him, hoping for a more open and responsive form of governance, but there’s little clarity.”

In some ways, this is not too surprising. One does not rise to the top of a generational cohort within the PAP without a singular ability to personify institutional continuity and the smooth technocratic management that is the party’s core competency and claim to legitimacy. It is clear that if Wong had ever expressed heterodox views about free speech or social justice, he would never have been anointed Lee’s successor-in-waiting.

While the PAP has historically shown a willingness and ability to change its approach in line with changing circumstances, these changes have usually taken place within tight political boundaries. Whether these limitations are capacious enough to allow the party to move with Singapore’s changes, and whether Wong has the personal inclination to push it in that direction, warrant scrutiny as the first term of Singapore’s fourth prime minister gets underway next month.