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Singapore’s Top Job Is Lawrence Wong’s to Lose

Lawrence Wong, Singapore’s finance minister, speaks during the Ecosperity Conference in Singapore, on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. The 3 day event concludes today.
Lawrence Wong, Singapore’s finance minister, speaks during the Ecosperity Conference in Singapore, on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. The 3 day event concludes today. (Bloomberg)
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Singapore’s finance minister, Lawrence Wong, has solidified his place as the front runner to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. As the now-undisputed leader of a rising political class, the top job is his to lose. Just don’t expect the Lee era to end next month, or even next year. 

Wong’s ascent puts to rest a rare period of uncertainty about the future of the People’s Action Party, which has ruled the city-state since independence in 1965. His climb also represents a referendum of sorts on Wong’s handling of the pandemic: He was co-chair of the Covid-19 taskforce. Singapore wants to declare victory and move on. 

Lee told the nation late Thursday that Wong is now the formal leader of the so-called fourth generation of lawmakers, known as 4G. The announcement, as Singaporeans began the Easter long weekend, was followed by days of glowing stories about Wong in the domestic media. Rivals for leadership of the 4G cohort, along with PAP elders and rank-and-file legislators, lined up to pledge their support. “This decision on succession is a crucial one for Singapore,” said Lee. “It will ensure the continuity and stability of leadership that are the hallmarks of our system.”

Wong’s ascent wasn’t always inevitable and isn’t necessarily a sure thing. Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who was thought to be in pole position for the premiership,  pulled out abruptly last year. Since then, prominent ministers have been jockeying for the job. Wong’s main competitors were considered to be Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, who co-chairs the Covid taskforce with him, and Education Minister Chan Chun Sing. Past PAP leadership successions — there have only been two to date — were better choreographed. The 70-year-old Lee hasn’t set a specific timetable for departure, but said last year he wanted to ensure that Covid was under control and the republic was in “good working order” before handing over the keys. Lee, son of Singapore’s first prime minister, has been at the helm for almost two decades. At a press conference Saturday, Lee demurred on whether the transition would occur before the next general election, due by late 2025. 

Wong, 49, hasn’t had easy jobs, and has made his share of errors. Like other nations, Singapore hit several stumbling blocks during the pandemic. But the government never denied the problem, as neighboring Indonesia did, nor did it keep strict border controls to the point of  irretrievably tarnishing its reputation, as appears to have been in case with Hong Kong.

Singapore’s next battle is against inflation. Hours before the announcement of Wong’s promotion, the central bank undertook its most aggressive monetary tightening since 2010. This tussle represents some of the same risks Wong encountered trying to control Covid: Crack down too hard for too long and the economy is likely to enter a pronounced slowdown. As a small, trade-dependent country, the war against rapid price increases will be won or lost far from Singapore’s shores. It’s Wong who would wear the cost of defeat — but he just as plausibly could be buoyed by any success.The quirks of succession, Singapore style, mean Lee’s successor isn’t likely to have unfettered control. When Lee does eventually leave the premiership, he will probably stick around the cabinet. The last two leaders, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, remained in the upper echelons of government as senior ministers. Those arrangements weren’t entirely free of tension. The elder Lee, who passed away in 2015, pledged before he handed power to Goh that if he ever sensed things going wrong, he would rise from the grave to right the ship.    

Wong, should he go the distance, also faces a more contested electoral landscape. The PAP isn’t considered likely to lose office, but it’s no longer big news when an opposition MP wins a place in the legislature. Lee has said voters want greater diversity in Parliament. While the PAP comfortably won the 2020 election, results showed a significant swing against the government. Wong said Saturday the political climate is becoming more challenging. As heir apparent, everything Wong now does — from profound to mundane — will be closely scrutinized. He would be the first Singaporean premier to have been born since the island became a sovereign nation. Wong entered adulthood in a thriving economy, not one struggling for existence. His primary task will be to maintain that prosperity. The rest, his team will write for itself. More From This Writer and Others at Bloomberg Opinion:

• Singapore Can Live With Covid. Inflation? Less So: Daniel Moss

• In Singapore, Travel Is On and Masks Are Off: Bloomberg Opinion

• Singapore’s Travelers Face Omicron Chaos: Rachel Rosenthal

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. Previously he was executive editor of Bloomberg News for global economics, and has led teams in Asia, Europe and North America.

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