End of an era in Singapore as prime minister set to step down

Lee Hsien Loong will relinquish the post in May. (Bloomberg)
Lee Hsien Loong will relinquish the post in May. (Bloomberg)

Summary

Lee Hsien Loong’s deputy, Lawrence Wong, will lead the city-state, which has an outsize role economically, diplomatically and militarily.

Singapore’s leader is stepping down after nearly two decades in office, in a transition carefully engineered to preserve the city-state’s reputation as a stable spot through times of economic and geopolitical turbulence.

The office of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Monday that he will formally relinquish the post on May 15, clearing the way for his deputy Lawrence Wong to succeed him. Lee, 72, has been prime minister since 2004, and is the oldest son of Singapore’s first leader, Lee Kuan Yew. 

The elder Lee is widely credited with transforming the former British colony from a tropical backwater into the most developed nation in Southeast Asia.

Singapore has since taken on an outsize role in the region, punching above its weight economically, diplomatically and militarily. The tiny city state of 5.9 million people has become an increasingly crucial hub for regional trade and finance as China’s focus on national security has led some foreign businesses to pull out of Hong Kong. Its reputation as reliable, tax-friendly and relatively uncorrupt continues to attract multinational businesses and ultrarich foreigners.

Singapore has strong ties with the U.S. and China. As tensions between the two powers have risen, Lee has been at the forefront of articulating the view that many nations don’t want to pick sides. “There will be no good outcome if Asian countries are split between two camps, each siding with one or the other," he said in a 2022 speech.

“A more stable and less tense configuration is for the two powers to have overlapping circles of friends, and countries find it possible to have friends on both sides," he said.

Wong has said that intense, if not extreme, competition will be the defining feature of the U.S.-China relationship. In a speech last year, he said he hoped there will be “guardrails" to manage the competition, but cautioned that “we have to be prepared for unpredictable or even dangerous outcomes emerging."

The People’s Action Party, founded by the elder Lee, has ruled uninterrupted since Singapore’s independence in 1965. Wong will become only the fourth prime minister the nation has ever known and the second outside the Lee family. Goh Chok Tong governed for 14 years between the tenures of the elder Lee and his son.

Wong is viewed by political analysts as a party stalwart who, at 51 years old, can appeal to younger voters while upholding the status quo.

He currently serves as one of two deputy prime ministers and is also chief of finance in Lee’s cabinet. A career civil servant, he has held senior positions in half a dozen ministries and has been a lawmaker since 2011. But it was his role as a leader of Singapore’s Covid-19 response that made him a household name domestically and raised his profile abroad. Governments across the globe envied Singapore’s handling of the pandemic and looked to his task force for guidance.

The transition to his leadership has been carefully managed over the past two years, during which the ruling party made a concerted push to present Wong, who didn’t come from the same elite class and prep schools as many of his contemporaries, as down-to-earth and personable. He posts videos of himself on TikTok and Instagram playing guitar, cuddling with golden retrievers and patronizing hawker centers—Singapore’s low-cost food courts that are cherished as a national treasure.

Wong rose through the ranks of Singapore’s bureaucracy after earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics at U.S. universities. He also earned a master’s degree in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School. He was Lee’s right-hand man as his principal private secretary from 2005 to 2008, and since 2022 has been second-in-command of the ruling party’s leadership.

“He’s a safe choice, someone they trust," said Chong Ja Ian, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore, referring to the ruling party. “Wong hasn’t articulated a clear vision for where he wants Singapore to go, so at the current pace he seems happy to follow Lee Hsien Loong’s lead."

The ruling party has never come close to losing its grip on power, having won every election since independence with more than 60% of the popular vote. That success has translated into the party almost always holding more than 90% of Singapore’s parliamentary seats.

The U.S. State Department described Singapore’s most recent election as free and open, but said the ruling party has for decades used “a variety of measures that effectively limited the ability of the opposition to mount a serious challenge to its hold on power."

These measures have included what some political rights groups call structural flaws in the electoral system and strict curbs on freedom of speech and assembly. 

The ruling party has often used criminal defamation laws against opponents, and under Lee’s leadership has passed two sweeping new laws that rights groups say have had a chilling effect on free speech. One criminalizes “online falsehoods" and the other bans “foreign interference."

The government has defended the laws as necessary and has said it doesn’t curb legitimate speech.

Recent elections have seen support slowly erode among a diverse and educated electorate with changing priorities. Singapore’s young voters are more concerned than ever about soaring costs of living, while some also advocate for more personal freedoms and policies driven by social justice. These issues have seen the main opposition party make gains over the past three election cycles—from winning just two seats in 2006 to 10 seats in 2020.

“Wong has this image of being more in tune with younger voters," said Alan Chong, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, a Singapore-based policy institute. “But if you look at voting over the past 20 years or so, the trend has been toward a gradual decline in support for the PAP. I don’t think that will go away."

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