Lawrence Wong: What’s coming?

by : Derwin Pereira

The orderly transition of power from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to his successor Lawrence Wong attests to the stability associated with Singapore politics since the People Action Party’s (PAP) accession to power in 1959. Mr Lee Kuan Yew had handed over the prime ministerial baton in the same unremarkable fashion to Mr Goh Chok Tong, who had given it to Mr Lee Hsien Loong. Now, Prime Minister Wong’s task is to ensure a stable political system till it is time for him to step aside for his successor, whenever and whoever that might be.

At the moment, Singaporean thoughts are not on the next transition, but on what the new leader promises. He promises continuity, yes, because that is what has stabilised the political, social and economic system for decades. But he, and the rest of the country, has to contend with change within and outside Singapore’s borders.

Domestically, PM Wong would have to consolidate the gains of a consultative political process that gained momentum in the late LKY years, was formulated into policy during the GCT era, and was refined during the LHL years. The Forward Singapore project, LW’s own blueprint for the future, serves as a template of change within continuity. The challenge would lie in translating promise into policy so as to attract and retain the faith of younger Singaporeans. They want Singapore to preserve its cutting international edge but also to blunt, somewhat, draconian laws which some of them believe stymie the growth of the opposition and alternative voices rising from a rejuvenated civil society.

Externally, globalisation is under severe threat from the strategic parting of ways between the United States and China (with Russia moving steadily into the Chinese camp). The spectre of increasing economic decoupling between the US and China, the world’s two preponderant powers, cannot but affect the economic manoeuvrability that Singapore has enjoyed since the Sino-US rapprochement of the 1970s, which culminated in the possibility of the creation of a single global market when the fall of the Soviet Union cleared the way for the global expansion of capital. Protectionism abroad hurts Singapore, which depends on the rest of the world to make a living not constrained by dependence on its immediate geographical hinterland.

Let us face it. Both the US and China want the rest of the world to choose sides between them. Most of the world says “no” to that choice — except for nations committed to one camp, like the members of the the West’s chief sentinel, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation; or Asian, African and Latin American nations that are drawn to China because of its economic prowess, which will lead to a strategic fait accompli soon. Singapore does not wish to choose sides, but it would have to strive very hard to maintain its diplomatic autonomy given how powerful the contending sides are. Mr Wong would have to oversee Singapore’s prospects in very uneasy international times.

Singaporeans who ponder life in the coming years would have to place their expectations and demands of the political system within the boundaries of the international system in which Singapore must operate. As for the new leader, he would be expected to make the most of the world as it is — and yet make Singapore even better.

That is not easy. But leading Singapore was not easy during the LKY, GCT and LHL years. What would distinguish LW’s 4G government would be its ability to display tangible autonomy given the weight of the preceding three generations.

The writer is Founder and CEO of Pereira International, a Singapore-based political and strategic advisory consulting firm. An award-winning journalist and graduate alumnus of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, he is also a member of the Board of International Councillors at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. This article reflects the writer’s personal views.

Posted in Singapore