ASPI Note: Singapore’s Likely Future Leader
April 20th, 2022 by Shay Wester
What’s Happening: On April 14, Singapore’s Finance Minister Lawrence Wong was chosen as leader of the dominant People's Action Party's (PAP) so-called fourth-generation “4G” team. This positions Minister Wong, 49, to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 70, who has been in office for 18 years and is the son of Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore’s next general election can be called any time before November 2025. This generational shift takes place as Singapore tries to position itself as a trusted, reliable anchor in Asia amid global turbulence.
Background: Minister Wong would be Singapore’s fourth prime minister since independence in 1967. Though the PAP’s vote share dropped to 61.2% in the 2020 general election — a decline of nine points from the previous election in 2015 — it is unlikely that any of Singapore’s other political parties would secure enough of the vote to become the ruling party.
In a regime known for its stability, there has been an unusual amount of uncertainty about the PAP’s next leader after Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat unexpectedly stepped aside as the leader of the 4G a year ago. Mr. Heng cited the need for someone younger with a longer runaway to tackle future challenges. Wong had been serving in a somewhat low profile role as Minister for National Development but more recently distinguished himself as co-chair of the task force on COVID-19, where his calm, clear communications and empathy with his fellow Singaporeans shined throughout the crisis.
The party has long fielded competent technocrats who excel at running the government and growing the economy, but the current generation of leaders has struggled to connect with the people. PAP leaders hope that Wong’s ascent will bring the party’s vote share back up to pre-2020 levels amid an increasingly challenging political environment.
- Minister Wong can be expected to continue a shift from strongly pro-business policies to building an inclusive and sustainable economy. But he must balance this with maintaining Singapore’s competitiveness. To lower inequality and fund recurring needs, several changes in the tax system will be introduced starting in 2023.
- Globally, he has voiced concerns that the pandemic has magnified geopolitical tensions and that “we could be heading into a new era of decoupled globalization.” In response, Wong has called for a “stronger model of globalization, grounded on better cooperation and partnership.”
- Singapore has taken notable steps to strengthen its partnership with the United States in recent months. It has been the only country in Southeast Asia to impose sanctions against Russia since the invasion of Ukraine, earning praise from President Joe Biden for “principled leadership supporting Ukraine.”
- Prime Minister Lee traveled to Washington earlier this month to meet President Biden — the first Southeast Asian leader to do so. The visit served as a welcome opportunity for the Biden administration to demonstrate its commitment to the Indo-Pacific amid the crisis in Ukraine. It also was an opportunity for the U.S. and Singapore to sign several memoranda of understanding (MOUs) to expand cooperation on trade and investment, cybersecurity, space, and more.
- U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai traveled to Singapore soon after in a bid to shore up Asian support for the Biden administration’s forthcoming Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
- In addition, Minister Wong traveled to the United States on his first overseas trip following the leadership announcement to attend G20 and World Bank-IMF meetings. While in Washington, Wong met with Biden administration officials including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, and U.S. Trade Representative Tai. During the trip, he called for fiscal policy to be refocused on public goods, deeper public-private collaborations, and strengthened multilateral cooperation in areas such as health security and climate change.
- These visits underscore Singapore’s central role in Asia’s economic landscape from the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement to forging a series of new digital economy agreements.
- A U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit has been scheduled for May 12-13 in Washington D.C. We can anticipate Prime Minister Lee pressing the Biden administration to prioritize high-level, sustained engagement in the region. Singapore views this as critical to sustaining an open, inclusive rules-based region.
What’s Next: The leadership transition won’t happen immediately, but we can expect Wong to take on increasing responsibilities and a higher international profile. His administration will combine continuity with the current government with an increasing emphasis on building an inclusive society. Internationally, Singapore will attempt to strengthen its connectivity and resilience as it navigates a more dangerous and volatile world. Once he takes on the top job, Wong could be in office for a decade or more given the PAP’s emphasis on stability and past practice of long tenures for its leaders.