🇸🇬 Lawrence Wong, it's your time to shine

Lee Hsien Loong's last full day at the helm

Lee Hsien Loong must be looking forward to a sleep-in on Thursday. With Lawrence Wong officially taking over tomorrow, it’ll be the first day in nearly 20 years that he hasn’t led the show! Do senior ministers get sleep-ins?

One thing I’ve been really intrigued by with all the coverage is that much of the ‘US-China and what does it all mean’ is coming from Singapore — this is an angle that’s often ignored and/or uninteresting to local media but perhaps the anxiety is strong, particularly given a US election is due.

I couldn’t find a place to fit this report from Al Jazeera so would like to flag it here. Amid all the economic reports and questions, Toh Ee Ming spoke with Singaporeans who have had enough of the great ‘rat race’ of the city and are far more interested in hanging out, taking up some hobbies and not caring all that much about what the culture expects. 

I have never seen a changing of the guard like this so I am not sure what happens next, but with everyone writing and reporting this well I’ll be back!

In all things we trust, Michael Barr

Every paragraph in this Barr piece for East Asia Forum is quotable — unfair for academics to be good writers and good researchers! — and ought to be read in full. His thesis is that Lawrence Wong, the deputy prime minister tapped for ascension a couple years back, will not rock the boat for either the country or the governing People’s Action Party. That’s part Wong, part that the cabinet (which had a little shuffle last night) will look much the same. 

“No wonder Wong greeted the news of his promotion with the words, ‘I am ready for my next assignment,’” Barr writes. “Continuity is very important in the civil service and in good times is generally considered a virtue in politics. But 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.” 

Wong speaks

“Lee Kuan Yew said whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him. And there has always been a sense that Singapore's post-independence leaders have been strong men and sometimes even hard men. Do you see yourself as that kind of leader? Do you have iron inside you?” asked the Economist in Wong’s major international pre-PM interview (via CNA). That’s such a good line Singaporean leaders for centuries will be asked this. 

Yeah, he’s got that iron, he reckons. He’s made some difficult and unpopular decisions in the past, particularly when he was running the government’s response to COVID-19. But it’s no iron fist, “I listen carefully to everyone's views. When I go into a meeting, I do not start off assuming that I know all the answers,” he added. 

Singapore in the world

The Straits Times’ US bureau chief, Bhagyashree Garekar, gives her take from DC. Currently, there’s a vibe of mutually assured destruction between the US and China — harsh words could lead to a breakdown. “There’s a slight stabilisation because it suits both sides to make sure that the relationship doesn’t go over the cliff,” Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee told the ST. But that’s this week. With the US heading to a messy election, anything is possible and Wong needs to be prepared.

“Reconciling Singapore’s respective strategic partnerships with the US and China while maintaining its freedom of action and safeguarding its interests constitutes a formidable challenge for Lawrence Wong,” Daniel Russel, vice-president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York, added.

Harvard professor and Destined for War author Graham Allison took stock of the recent Lee years and commended his ability to walk that tightrope. “This has required many difficult, candid conversations with leaders of both great powers, as well as artful adaptation. But under his leadership, Singapore has managed to have trade arrangements with both countries and military agreements with both countries. Finding ways to sustain this straddle will be a big part of the challenge for the new prime minister, Lawrence Wong.”

None of this is news to Wong — and he’s prepared, he told the Economist in the widely reported interview (using an ST link here for easier access for readers). It’s his Taiwan comments that seem particularly revealing. He rejected any characterisation that potential future conflict is similar in kind to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “We are very careful when we conduct relations with both China and Taiwan that is consistent with our ‘one China’ policy. And we do not allow ourselves to be made use of for any causes supporting Taiwanese independence,” he said.

Singapore is not a US ally, he clarified, and while there have been fantastic benefits to both sides of the relationship via the Major Security Cooperation Partner arrangement, that’s unlikely to change any time soon since Singapore and the US both work closely together as it is. 

In his overview for GIS, Prashanth Parameswaran takes stock of foreign policy as it stands and notes it’s unlikely to change much under a new PM. Foreign interference will remain a top concern, as will balancing relations not just with global superpowers, but with neighbours — Indonesia and Malaysia. 

Cold data, hot takes

“Being considered exceptional gets more difficult as the decades pass,” writes Daniel Moss for Bloomberg. Don’t I know it. Losing that status both for the city-state and for the governing party appears to be the major motivation in just about everything both have done in recent years and it’s paid off — you’d be forgiven for thinking Taylor Swift had never sold out a stadium before or nobody had built an airport. It’s all the culmination of decades of slow and steady growth, long-term planning and a very strong public sector, Moss notes.

But that momentum has slowed now and Wong likely won’t have such a stunning economic trajectory to toy with, or fund policy. “The years of head-turning economic expansion are probably behind Singapore,” Moss writes. Wild growth has reined in and the global economy is stressed while cost of living soars and Singapore continues to hover around the top of the world’s most expensive city lists. 

Hong Kong University of Science and Technology lecturer and one-half of the duo behind the fascinating PAP vs PAP, Donald Low took to Nikkei Asia. He takes stock of the slightly-pre-Lee Hsien Loong years — off the back of the dotcom boom, 9/11, SARS! — all of which contributed to a sluggish few years for the economy leading up to his premiership. 

Years of intense reform and Lee’s ‘go for growth’ strategy, as Low puts it, led to enormous gains and a finance sector rivalling Hong Kong. But, Low stresses, came at a cost 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.” 

Interestingly, Low notes that this is the first time Singapore won’t have a Lee running the show, or waiting in the wings. Low won’t be surprised to see Lee’s son Li Hongyi, currently the director of a state technology development team, pop up at some stage, but flags that the People’s Action Party itself isn’t too keen on the idea. 

This is a really intriguing piece and certainly worth reading in full for his view on the PAP’s future. “But even as Wong forges his own leadership style, one appropriate to a ruling party that is less heavy-handed, paternalistic and elitist, there are doubts over whether anything will really change. The way the PAP campaigned in the 2020 election, and the condescending tone of some current ministers, do not inspire much confidence that the party is on the cusp of cultural change,” Low writes. 

“Singapore certainly has a strong history of punching above its weight in global conversations,” the East Asia Forum writes, reflecting on the comparatively tiny country’s prominence in regional and global conversation in this editorial. Thank Lee Kuan Yew and his economic miracles for that, but the two successive prime ministers have ensured Singapore is never far from the centre of the conversation. 

The EAF editorial board came to a succinct conclusion in this piece, so let’s give them the last word: “Apart from how Lawrence Wong secures Singapore’s global interests on the international stage, and satisfies growing public expectations for a bigger social safety net and more equal society, there will be great interest in whether he recognises the diminishing returns to repression over the longer term — in an environment where an increasing share of voters place a priority on enjoying the first-world freedoms the PAP is inclined to deny to match the first-world economy it has also delivered so successfully.”

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