End of An Era in Singapore as PM Lee Prepares to Hand Over Power

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End of An Era in Singapore as PM Lee Prepares to Hand Over Power

Tomorrow, Lawrence Wong will become the city-state’s fourth prime minister. He faces a host of challenges on both the domestic and international fronts.

End of An Era in Singapore as PM Lee Prepares to Hand Over Power

Singapore’s incoming Prime Minister Lawrence Wong takes a selfie with attendees of an event hosted by Samaritans of Singapore Limited in Singapore, May 5, 2024.

Credit: Facebook/Lawrence Wong

Tomorrow, Singapore will have a new prime minister for the first time in two decades, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong steps aside for his deputy Lawrence Wong, in an intricately planned process of succession within the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).

Lee designated Wong as his successor back in 2022, though the exact timing of the handover was only announced last month, with a terse statement from the prime minister’s office. When he takes the oath of office tomorrow, Wong will bring to a close an era in which Lee and his father, Singapore’s inaugural Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, have dominated the city-state’s politics, governing for more than 50 of the last 65 years. As Donald Low of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology noted in an article for Nikkei Asia, “for the first time in independent Singapore’s history, there will not be a Mr. Lee in the premiership or in line as the presumptive next prime minister.”

For his part, Wong says that he will carry on and defend the legacy of his predecessors, promising a mix of assertive and consensus-based decision-making. “I listen carefully to everyone’s views,” he told The Economist in an interview on May 6. “When I go into a meeting, I do not start off assuming that I know all the answers.” But when “push comes to shove,” Wong said that he would have no issues making “hard decisions” like Lee père, as long as the decision is in the interest of Singapore and Singaporeans. As examples of unpopular decisions, Wong cited the tough measures that he introduced as chair of the country’s COVID-19 task force and the raising of the Goods and Services Tax.

“We will always be an improbable nation, forged only through the collective will of our people,” Wong wrote on his Facebook page on May 10. “And my mission is to keep this miracle going for as long as I can, and make our little red dot shine brightly as long as possible.”

Wong will likely face more challenging conditions than those that greeted Lee in 2004 – and circumstances then were hardly rosy, with Singapore’s economy still reeling from the effects of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the SARS epidemic, and the ramifications of the U.S.-led “global war on terror.”

In a characteristically uncompromising assessment published by East Asia Forum, Michael Barr described Wong as the “epitome of technocratic continuity” – a figure groomed and vetted to preserve and extend the PAP’s long record of economic success.

While such continuity “is very important in the civil service and in good times is generally considered a virtue in politics,” Barr wrote, “the problem is that these are not good times. Singapore is facing challenges on many fronts that cry out for radical new ideas rather than technocratic continuity.”

On the home front, Wong will inherit an economy that Lee helped catapult into the world’s top ranks. During his two decades in office, the country’s per capita GDP rose from $27,610 in 2004 to $88,450 in 2024, according to IMF data, a figure two-and-a-half times the size of Japan’s, 1.6 times larger than Hong Kong’s, and six times larger than that of Singapore’s rivalrous neighbor Malaysia.

Wong will now face the challenge of how to preserve this in a context of growing domestic discontent and geopolitical turbulence. Lee’s growth agenda was stunningly successful in statistical terms, Low wrote in Nikkei Asia, but this “came at the price of increased local unhappiness at the rapid increase in the country’s population. This was felt to have brought about increased congestion, greater competition for jobs and public goods, higher housing costs and, arguably, an erosion of a sense of citizenship and identity.”

Singaporeans may earn more, on average, than their peers in other Asian countries, but they also spend much more on housing and education. The cost of renting an apartment in Singapore has more than doubled in the past two decades, according to statistics from the housing authority cited by Kyodo News, and the country routinely tops the annual surveys of the most expensive cities in the world. The country also has a rapidly greying population: the proportion of citizens aged 65 and above has increased from 11.7 percent to 19.1 percent since 2013, and is projected to reach nearly a quarter by 2030. This challenge is compounded by Singapore’s low fertility rates, which last year fell to an all-time low of 0.97.

Both of these trends will increase further Singapore’s reliance on immigration, which has pushed the population up from 4 million in 2000 to just shy of 6 million today. This has put a strain on public services, weakened national cohesion, and where migrants from the People’s Republic of China are concerned, prompted official fears of susceptibility to Chinese influence operations.

And Wong will have to manage these challenges in an increasingly competitive electoral environment. The PAP continues to dominate Singaporean politics, as it has done since independence, but despite winning 83 of the 93 seats in parliament at the last general election in 2020, the party’s share of the popular vote fell by 9 percent from the election in 2015.

Some analysts put this down to a generational shift and younger voters’ growing discontent with the country’s carefully managed political system, which offers little room for impactful activism or dissent. 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 response to the loss of support, the PAP promised “soul-searching,” while also equipping itself with additional tools to punish dissent. These include the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, which seeks to prevent Singaporeans from “online harm,” and the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, which targets “foreign actors seeking to manipulate our domestic politics, including through covert and deceptive means, to undermine our political sovereignty and harm our social cohesion.” Critics of the government say that both these laws are likely to be used to target legitimate criticism of the PAP and its performance.

Wong’s first major challenge will be to guide the PAP to the next general election, which has to take place by November 2025  but could happen as early as September. The result would well determine the course of the remainder of Wong’s term, and beyond. As Barr wrote for East Asia Forum, “another swing against the government on top of the result in 2020 might put his position as prime minister in doubt.”

Like his peers in other Southeast Asian countries, Singapore’s new leader will face more challenging international conditions, marked by the Russia-Ukraine war, the divisive Israeli assault on Gaza, U.S.-China competition, and the associated fracturing of the international order that has undergirded Singapore’s economic success over the past six decades. All offer a much less auspicious environment for the continued amassing of economic miracles. “Being considered exceptional gets more difficult as the decades pass,” Daniel Moss wrote this week for Bloomberg, adding, “The years of head-turning economic expansion are probably behind Singapore.”

The PAP has in recent years navigated these international obstacles with considerable skill, and Singapore will likely continue to cultivate the special relationships that it enjoys uniquely with both, China and the United States. Nonetheless, maintaining the balance between these two increasingly volatile powers is set to become increasingly tricky in the years to come – with possible implications for Wong’s performance on the home front.

How Wong attempts to navigate these various challenges will determine whether he is ultimately seen as a placeholder PM – a sort of post-Lee PAP palate cleanser – or a history-maker in his own right.