Finally... a new heir apparent has been named in Singapore

·4-min read

APRIL 17 — So, the answer to the question that has been bedevilling Singapore’s people and leadership for some time is — Lawrence Wong.

That’s right. After years of uncertainty, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced last Thursday that Wong will lead the ruling People’s Action Party’s “fourth generation” or “4G” team.

And that effectively makes the current Minister of Finance the heir apparent, Singapore’s prime minister-in-waiting.

The People’s Action Party (PAP) — Singapore’s ruling party and the only one to have held power since Independence — divides itself into generations.

The fourth-generation leadership which is made up of ministers in their late 40s and early 50s have been groomed to succeed their forebears for several years now.

The PAP still commands such political power in Singapore (it holds 83 of 93 parliamentary seats) that the leader/candidate chosen by the PAP is almost certain to become prime minister.

So, Wong is in all probability the man who will fill the shoes of long-serving Lee Hsien Loong.

Lee is himself the son of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, but he has proven to be an effective leader in his own right.

Singapore’s economy has more than doubled in size since he assumed leadership in 2004.

It was really during his tenure that Singapore emerged as one of the world’s principal financial centres. Perhaps the main blemish on Lee’s legacy has been the struggle to find a successor.

The leadership question has dragged on for several years. The previous heir apparent — Heng Swee Keat — stumbled badly with poor public speeches and a string of health-related issues.

He lost the confidence of the public and party seniors. The hunt for new leadership extended through an embarrassing period for the ruling party.

A party that has always claimed only it had the talent to lead Singapore seemed to be desperately searching for talent.

But the search now seems to be over. Lawrence Wong was initially something of a dark horse.

From a humble background, he only entered parliament 10 years ago — in contrast to PM Lee who has been in parliament 38 years.

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong speaking during the press conference at the Istana on April 16. — Picture courtesy of Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information
Finance Minister Lawrence Wong speaking during the press conference at the Istana on April 16. — Picture courtesy of Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information

Despite holding ministerial portfolios for several years, Wong only really rose to national prominence during the Covid-19 pandemic.

As chair of the government’s multi-ministry task force against the coronavirus, he was the face of the government’s response to the health crisis.

Wong did well explaining Singapore’s sometimes draconian legislation to the public and was always quick to credit healthcare workers and ordinary Singaporeans for the vital role they played combating the pandemic.

Singapore emerged with one of the lowest Covid-19 death rates in the world and with its economy still in robust shape and a lot of the credit for that success has accrued to Wong.

But even more than his policy successes, Wong acquitted himself well addressing the media and public throughout the pandemic.

He came across as more natural, empathetic and confident than any other potential party leader.

Others have crumbled even at tightly managed public appearances, making gaffes or coming across as disconnected and arrogant.

Wong has repeatedly proved to be a reliable, relatable figure and it’s this ability to relate to and connect with the public that likely motivated party seniors to appoint him as the heir apparent.

So far Wong has been deployed quite extensively on Tik Tok and Instagram and while the content bar for Singapore politicians on social media is not high, he comes across as earnest.

But to lead the nation he will have to up his game.

Singaporeans today are more sophisticated and less forgiving than previous generations.

Opinions can be fickle and the scrutiny of politicians by the public much greater than in the past.

While the state still controls the major newspaper and media outlets in the country, the online domain is now beyond the control of any government.

Wong will now be subject to speculation and scrutiny like never before. Every move is watched for a misstep or misspeech, with trolls and angry commenters waiting to flood every post. It’s a challenging task being heir apparent. Let’s hope Lawrence Wong is up for it.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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