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Singapore's PM Lee Passes Torch to Finance Minister Wong
Announcement of November 2024 handover ends months of uncertainty
By: Andy Wong Ming Jun
The announcement today by Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong that he would step down as the country’s third prime minister by November 21, 2024, brings down a tentative curtain on what is one of the longest-running political succession convolutions in Southeast Asia for what is sometimes described as the “Lee Dynasty.”
Lee Hsien Loong, the 71-year-old leader of a fantastically prosperous city state molded entirely in the image of his late father Lee Kuan Yew, who died in 2015, passes the baton to Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Lawrence Wong, ending months of speculation over the succession, which has been messy and prolonged. Speaking at an annual awards convention held by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), Lee said he intends for the leadership transition to happen before the 70th anniversary of the PAP’s founding and the next general election, due before November 2025 “if all goes well.”
Indeed, the phrase “if all goes well” raised suspicions among the cynical that he could well be tempted to seize the reins if things go awry. Few expect Hsien Loong to fully retire from national politics altogether, given the likelihood he will serve on as a “Senior Minister” or “Minister Mentor” as his father did after stepping down as prime minister in 1990, and further accentuated by his declaration of readiness to “go wherever (Lawrence Wong) thinks I can be useful” in helping the PAP under its fourth-generation leadership team to contest the next general election.
The choice of Wong to be Singapore’s fourth premier was not clear cut from the start. Original plans for Hsien Loong to hand over power to then-Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat fizzled in April 2021 when he announced that at the age of 60, he felt that he would be too old for the job (euphemistically described by Heng as “too short a runway”) and raised speculation that Hsien Loong had soured on him. This came less than a year after Hsien Loong in July 2020 called for a delay in the transition owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, and almost three years after Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong expressed his desire for the PAP’s fourth generation leadership post-Lee Hsien Loong to be settled by 2018. Goh Chok Tong was Singapore’s second prime minister between 1990 and 2004, serving as the only non-Lee interregnum in the country’s top leadership between the Lee father and son.
Lawrence Wong won the contest to be Singapore’s fourth premier in April 2022 via a secret cabinet vote, beating out previous frontrunners such as Ministers Chan Chun Sing (Trade and Industry, Public Service, Education) and Ong Ye Kung (Transport, Health) owing to his performance and rising public persona as the co-chair but de-facto leader of Singapore’s Multi-Ministry Task Force (MMTF) during the Covid-19 pandemic. Wong previously served in various ministerial-level appointments ranging from communications and national development to education and finance as well as past civil service work under Singapore’s trade, finance, and health ministries. This is on top of also serving as Hsien Loong’s principal private secretary between 2005 and 2008 prior to his entry into politics in 2011. Since his anointing as PM-in-waiting in April 2022, Singaporean state media have embarked on a concerted campaign to cement his status as “first amongst equals” within the fourth-generation PAP leadership, as well as a non-orthodox PAP politician who is not the archetypal soldier-scholar, Oxbridge-educated Anglophile.
However, it cannot be assumed that selection will be as smooth a transition in popular voter appeal for either himself or the PAP, as had been the case in Singapore’s only two leadership transitions thus far in its independent history. As Minister of Finance since 2021, Lawrence Wong’s flagship public policy has been announcing the raising of Singapore’s Goods and Services Tax (GST) from 7 percent to 9 percent in two tranches by 2024. This is despite ongoing rising inflation and cost of living levels in Singapore, making the country regularly one of, if not the most expensive countries in the world to live in by various metrics, and flying in the face of past political rhetoric by Hsien Loong stating that only “profligate spending and irresponsible, unsustainable plans will hurt and require you to raise taxes and GST”.
In this light, Hsien Loong’s announcement of Wong’s elevation by November 2024 before general elections are due a year later has a strong sense of hot potato-passing, as it effectively means that Wong will have to politically front and own the GST tax rise and its potential consequences on the PAP’s political fortunes. Regardless of justifications along the lines of saving and funding public finances and social spending, it is never a good look for any politician (much less a top leadership contender) to call for higher taxation when public society is instead calling for controlling inflation and lowering prices.
Furthermore, if opinion polls are to be believed, Wong looks set to have a rough ride of convincing voters that he and his fourth-generation PAP leadership team have what it takes to lead the country. A survey conducted by the Singapore government’s Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) thinktank right after Wong’s initial anointing as PM-in-waiting between April and May 2022 threw up some potentially concerning statistics: only six of 10 Singaporeans trusted that the PAP government found the best possible fourth-generation leader to navigate divisions within local society. Wong’s personal approval ratings only come up to 59 percent with him only enjoying a simple majority support among those who have a university degree education or more (59 percent), and lacking support from those with only a post-secondary diploma (44 percent) or lower level of education (49 percent).
This is in contrast to the recently-elected President of Singapore Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who regularly commanded popular vote percentages across all segments of society between 74 to 80 percent throughout his political career as a PAP minister since 2001 before his retirement from politics to run for President in July 2023. Indeed, such was the elephant in the room about Tharman’s non-anointing as PM-in-waiting despite his excellent public support ratings as far back as 2016, that in 2019 the previous PM-in-waiting Heng Swee Keat openly stated in a now-infamous remark that “Singapore was not yet ready for a non-Chinese prime minister.” The irony is not lost that Heng would publicly decline to be Singapore’s next prime minister barely two years later.
Questions remain to be asked if anointment is a blessing or curse to both his personal political fortunes, as well as that of the PAP he is to lead into the next general election. Given the history of Singapore’s political leadership successions, many suspect that like Goh Chok Tong, Wong will become another benchwarmer for a future Lee scion, no matter how many publicly state any lack of interest in politics today.