What’s next for Singapore after Lee Hsien Loong steps down?

A combination of file photos shows Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (L) and incoming Prime Minister Lawrence Wong (R). /CFP

A combination of file photos shows Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (L) and incoming Prime Minister Lawrence Wong (R). /CFP

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Monday submitted his resignation to President Tharman Shanmugaratnam, saying that he and his government will resign on May 15 and hand over power to his successor Lawrence Wong.

Analysts say Wong is a technocrat with a lot of experience in politics. He has held positions in defense, communications and information, culture, community and youth, national development and education ministries, and has served as the country’s financial minister since 2021.

Continuity of domestic policies

“Wong is arguably Lee’s hand-picked successor, which to a large extent ensures the continuity of Singapore’s domestic policy,” said Zha Wen, a researcher on Singaporean and Southeast Asian politics.

In the future, Lee will also continue Singapore’s political tradition of serving as senior minister in the new cabinet after stepping down. This will ensure that the new government follows a stable approach, so things can’t go too wrong, and the important issues are collectively decided, Zha, also an associate professor of the Institute of International Relations at China Foreign Affairs University, told CGTN.

Although there will not be much change in the policy, the incoming leader’s style of governance may be different. In this regard, his grassroots background is the biggest advantage, experts noted.

Wong grew up in what he described as an “ordinary family” in a flat built by the country’s public housing authority. He went to neighborhood schools instead of the “elite” schools that many other government scholars went to.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, his reputation and popularity soared as he led the fight against the disease in Singapore. Many believe that he was more sympathetic to the people’s hardship, Zha said.

Wong’s rise to power has helped bring the People’s Action Party (PAP) closer to the ordinary Singaporeans, she noted.

The incoming prime minister launched a national exercise in June 2022 called Forward Singapore, meant to chart the country’s “social compact” between the government and the people on how to deal with issues ranging from sustainability to inequality and employment.

“Since the founding of Singapore, the leaders of the PAP have always advocated the concepts of elitism and meritocracy. Despite that under the leadership of the PAP, Singapore has achieved remarkable development, some people still think that the grassroots have not had enough attention,” Zha said.

“Compared to political elites, Wong is not only low-key and introverted, but also more down to earth. As a post-70s man, he is good at playing the guitar and singing, which made him popular among the general public, especially the younger generation,” she added.

However, Wong is still unable to match Lee in terms of international influence, she said. 

Looking at his past political career, Wong is relatively inexperienced in diplomacy. It is likely that Wong will stick with Singapore’s current “balance of powers” strategy, Zha said.

With the intensification of strategic competition among the major powers, Singapore’s leader will also be faced with more difficult choices, and exactly how to balance the relationships with the major powers is a huge challenge for the new government, she analyzed.