Lawrence Wong as Singapore’s Next PM: Meet the New Boss… Same as the Old Boss

PM Lawrence Wong is going to be merely a “safe pair of hands” who won’t rock the boat after PM Lee’s retirement.

Recent domestic political discussion in Singapore’s mainstream media and establishment circles have been largely centred around the anointing of Finance Minister, Lawrence Wong as the PAP’s 4th Generation Prime Minister-in-Waiting for Singapore.

A concerted media campaign is currently underway to raise Lawrence Wong’s public profile and further cement his “first amongst equals” status within the PAP’s political leadership framework, and present him as something akin to a “break from the past” figure who’s not of the traditional PAP mould of the military scholar-turned-politician.

This reselection of Singapore’s Next Prime Minister after the previous PM-in-waiting (Heng Swee Keat)’s disavowal of his role in the leadership succession plans of PM Lee, has been nothing short of torturous and convoluted.

The Multi-Ministerial Task Force (MMTF)

Any astute political observer of Singapore would have noticed that for a country so hinged on centralised executive leadership under the Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong had been conspicuously low-key and missing throughout the entire Covid-19 pandemic.

All his high-profile appearances and leadership of Singapore’s pandemic strategy came largely before the July 2020 national elections, with only a few national addresses and fronting of government pandemic policymaking and measures that can be counted on one hand (mostly to take credit for announcing good news such as loosening societal restrictions and lowering travel barriers).

PM Lee had chosen to take a backseat for two reasons: firstly, Lee could avoid taking any negative hit on his popularity and political support during the early dark days of the pandemic, and secondly, Lee preferred to leave national leadership through the pandemic to “rule by committee” in a bid to blood his successor 4th generation ministers for the task of governing and leading Singapore after his impending retirement.

It is not surprising that in Singapore’s current pandemic leadership model of “rule by committee” straight out of 1970s Soviet Russia, there is no unity of command or consensus between different ministers leading different ministries.

With overt signs of differences in strategy and even how to assess the pandemic (by infection case numbers or ICU/hospitalisation numbers), Singapore’s technocratic government and civil service have come up with convoluted, incoherent pandemic societal measures only statisticians could draw up and comprehend.

This is the pandemic leadership model that has birthed Lawrence Wong as the future PM-in-Waiting.

Ostensibly, this looks like a good decision. Lawrence Wong, the technocrat. Lawrence Wong, cometh the hour cometh the man. Lawrence Wong, the leader who could make tough decisions and front them to Singaporean society. Lawrence Wong, the man whom in his own words “was brought up to do his best in anything that he’s assigned to do”.

But a deeper look into Lawrence Wong’s performance throughout the pandemic as part of the MMTF betrays the image of a leader who stepped up to the plate with a capacity to rally full support behind a single centralised message and policy.

More disturbingly, it also exposes that contrary to the image now being propagated of him being what passes for an “unorthodox” PAP politician, Lawrence Wong is still painfully orthodox and in some key ways just as dogmatic, if not more so than PM Lee and the 3G PAP leadership cadres before him.

Lawrence Wong was one of the main proponents of measuring Singapore’s progress through the Covid-19 pandemic with a single-minded fixation on infection case counts in a “casedemic”, aiming to flatten numbers regardless of any financial and mental costs to society.

It was a literal soap opera between Lawrence Wong and Ong Ye Kung during the second half of 2021 in particular, when each minister directly contradicted and ultimately attempted to countermand/reverse each other’s pandemic policy foisted on Singaporean society with whiplash-inducing policy flip-flopping.

It should concern any observer to note that Lawrence Wong had consistently been demonstrating his ideological dogma that seemed to make him unable to price in the risks of endemic living on public health in one of the most vaccinated countries in the world to avoid economic stalling.

Lawrence Wong’s Finance Portfolio

Lawrence Wong’s tenure as Finance Minister has not started off on a good footing either. His flagship public policy thus far has been the announcement of raising Singapore’s Goods and Service Tax (GST) from 7% to 9% by 2024, in the face of ongoing rising inflation and costs of living in Singapore.

On the surface, Lawrence Wong looks to have gotten away with the best of messaging on an unpopular decision made in worsening times, but this could still come back to haunt him by the next General Election (to be held by 2025) if global economic headwinds continue to buffet Singapore’s uneven economic recovery and fuel high inflation and costs of living in the country.

It is never a good look for any politician to call for higher taxation for public expenditure and societal subsidies, when public society is instead calling for controlling inflation and lowering prices.

Is Lawrence Wong just another “safe pair of hands”? A seatwarmer?

One wonders about the motivations behind Lawrence Wong’s anointing as PM-in-Waiting by the PAP.

A man who was PM Lee’s principal private secretary somehow could only secure 15 out of 19 votes within the PAP higher leadership for him to become PM-in-Waiting. This paints a picture of Lawrence Wong being a compromise figure selected for the top job succession in Singapore.

In a broader perspective, this also shows the paucity of positive character and public reputation of the PAP 4G leadership batch which Lawrence Wong hails from: everyone including Lawrence Wong himself is more easily defined by “who they are not” rather than “who they are”.

Make no mistake. Lawrence Wong might not be the archetypal soldier-scholar, Oxbridge-educated Anglophile politician that makes up much of the PAP’s top leadership cadre, but he’s no less blue-blooded in his educational pedigree (BA Economics, University of Wisconsin-Madison; MA Economics, Michigan-Ann Arbor; MPA, JFK School of Government, Harvard University), or his political history (PSC scholar, assistant directorships in Ministries of Trade and Industry/Finance, Principal Private Secretary to PM).

He’s no everyman leader, no matter how much is now made in Singaporean state media of his hobbies such as guitar playing or him “not being an Oxbridge grad”.

His extensive background within Singapore’s financial political leadership through his involvement with the finance ministry and MAS also marks him out to be just as orthodox and old-school dogmatic in financial nous as his peers around him, in an era where the world is increasingly seeing established financial and economic models being disrupted and fragmented by technology, societal changes, and geopolitical shifts.

This is not going to be a Prime Minister with innovative ideas and inspirational leadership for Singapore; PM Lawrence Wong is going to be merely a “safe pair of hands” who won’t rock the boat after PM Lee’s retirement, particularly when it comes to balancing government spending/taxation/saving in reserves.

And this plays a lot into another potentially corrosive public impression of Lawrence Wong becoming Singapore’s next PM: given the history of Singapore’s political leadership, there’s very few people who don’t even marginally suspect that Lawrence Wong would just become another Goh Chok Tong benchwarmer for a future Lee scion to become Prime Minister, no matter how many of them publicly state any lack of interest in politics today.

How Lawrence Wong manages to finally create his own political leadership legacy and mark himself as his own man in future is still uncertain, but there’s little from his political history that brooks any confidence in the best hopes for Lawrence Wong to truly chart his own course, and Singapore’s political course away from elitist, dynastic politics.

Singaporean state media is now furiously turfing the public narrative for Lawrence Wong as future Prime Minister, as one would expect them to do. But do not be mistaken. When Lee Hsien Loong finally decides it’s way past bedtime for him to retire as Prime Minister and let Lawrence Wong take over, it’ll just be “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.