SINGAPORE — "I have been here before," goes the opening line of a famous poem. "But when or how I cannot tell."
And so it goes, as Singapore finds itself hailing another heir apparent to Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong, just over a year after Heng Swee Keat threw a spanner in the works of Singapore's heretofore smooth leadership transitions. The ascent of Finance Minister Lawrence Wong over the past two years, from his less prominent role overseeing national development, has surprised many, perhaps even Wong himself.
Health Minister Ong Ye Kung and Education Minister Chan Chun Sing had been fancied for the role as well, but it was ultimately Wong who won the race in the year when he turns 50.
"Throughout my life, I have never hankered for post, position or power," he said at an Istana press conference on Saturday (16 April) that was open only to media outlets from Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp. "So I have never gone out looking for additional work, but somehow the work finds me."
In retrospect, the former civil servant's appointment to the crucial finance portfolio last May was the clearest sign of his political ascendancy, culminating in his delivery of Budget 2022. Public goodwill for Wong also swelled after he paid a teary tribute in Parliament to frontline workers in March 2020, showing a rare human side to ministers who are often derided as out of touch.
How is the PM selected?
The rise of Wong to primus inter pares, or first among equals, came via a selection process that has always been scant on details. It is well known that the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) does not have open leadership contests: the party chief is selected internally and later announced publicly.
For some reason, the PAP did not use Saturday's press conference, which was only open to editors from Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp, as an opportunity to showcase unity among 4G leaders. Instead, it was led by just three men – Wong, Lee and former PAP chair Khaw Boon Wan – which reinforced the opaqueness of the process. Nonetheless, the PAP cautiously lifted the veil just a little bit more, compared with past leadership successions. The official narrative, which has been uncritically repeated multiple times by pro-establishment media, bears examining.
Curiously, Khaw was roped in to oversee the process of garnering feedback from Cabinet ministers on who should lead them. Khaw was the "best person" to lead a "systematic" and "thorough" process, according to Lee. Notwithstanding the fact that current party chair Gan Kim Yong could easily have taken up the task, we are told that Khaw, the chairman of SPH Media Trust, met the ministers personally, as well as – even more curiously – Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin and NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng.
Lee and Khaw had repeatedly said that an "overwhelming majority" of his peers had plumped for Wong. This level of support is attested by the 15 of 19 stakeholders who picked Wong in response to the question, “Who will they choose as their leader based on their overall assessment, bearing in mind the need for the leader to bring others together, and to win elections?”
In the case of former PM Goh Chok Tong and Lee himself, there were only tantalising details of how they were chosen. Lee noted on Saturday that Goh was anointed via an informal meeting of "at most six ministers" after the 1984 election, while his own selection had been settled over a ministerial lunch hosted by then-Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng. Heng was reportedly chosen by his 4G peers.
By the PAP's standards, an apparent hint of disunity within the ranks over the level of support for Wong as next PM was already groundbreaking in terms of transparency. Or perhaps there was a need to reassure Singaporeans that a thorough selection process that took in many viewpoints had been undertaken, in the wake of the Heng imbroglio.
Is Lawrence Wong up to the task?
Notwithstanding gushing social media posts from his Cabinet colleagues and backbenchers and equally effusive articles from Singapore's two media giants, the inevitable question comes to mind: will Wong go the distance as he takes on "the biggest responsibility of (his) life", unlike Heng? What kind of PM will he be?
Only those closest to him can tell. While it has not been decided if Wong will lead the PAP into the next election, it is difficult to see him abdicating his position, or fumbling in Parliament at a crucial moment.
A tentative assessment of the minister can be made based on his performance as co-chair of the multi-ministry task force on COVID-19 (MTF). The role has been a game changer for Wong, who had not been widely considered a potential PM before being called to help take on the crisis of a generation.
This reporter has observed Wong – up close and virtually – at multiple MTF press conferences since 2019, and he has undoubtedly grown in confidence and maturity. From the early days when he would often answer queries with a somewhat exasperated preamble of "As I have already said", Wong now rarely falters, explaining even controversial policy issues clearly and calmly.
The MTF has often attracted flak, and justifiably so, over perplexing rules such as those that initially prevented families from dining in together, or the now defunct ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol in F&B outlets after 10.30pm. But to his credit, Wong has faced uncomfortable questions head on, such as criticism over the failure to enforce social distancing rules on election night, or admitting that the MTF's initial handling of the foreign worker dormitories outbreak was less than ideal.
Visionary or conservative?
But while Singapore's most pressing political issue has finally been settled, the country is not out of the woods yet, as Wong might say. The coronavirus, with its highly unpredictable variants, remains an intractable foe. The economic impact of the pandemic continues to rear its ugly head amid rising inflation and a manpower crunch.
Besides the greater political contestation and a growing desire for diversity in Parliament acknowledged by Wong, there are also divisive social issues such as Section 377A of the Penal Code – the law that criminalises sex between men but is not proactively enforced. Not to mention an ever-assertive China, or the unpredictable neighbours across the Causeway. How will Wong handle these issues as the country's fourth PM?
And perhaps most importantly: will he adopt a lighter touch towards political dissent or take a regressive knuckleduster approach? There is little in Wong's political career thus far to suggest that he will rock the boat, or diverge greatly from tried and true methods.
On a personal level, Wong also needs to brush up on his Mandarin – his sometimes jarring pronunciation has not gone unnoticed – and also learn Malay, in perhaps the only country where the PM is expected to address his people in three languages.
A 2011 doorstop interview with Wong, who was then a fresh faced new candidate, has resurfaced. Aside from endearing stories of him busking in the US and his love of guitars, Wong was asked what qualities he could offer as a Member of Parliament.
Claiming to be grounded and down to earth, Wong said, "I think that's something that I can offer...the ability to also bring people together, forge consensus."
Let us hope Wong is true to his word.
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