First Among Equals: Lawrence Wong as Prime Minister and What Lies Ahead

The much-awaited question has finally been answered: Finance Minister Lawrence Wong will succeed Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong as the leader of the Fourth Generation (4G) of People’s Action Party (PAP) leaders, and thus, as the next Prime Minister of Singapore.

The announcement made in April should be welcomed by all Singaporeans: for far too long, there was too much speculation about the identity of the next PM, with three candidates – Ministers Chan Chun Sing and Ong Ye Kung being the other two – talked about as potential leaders. The speculation even led to rumours about discord and jostling within the party for the coveted position. For a party renowned for its remarkable unity, such theories were most definitely not useful, and it is good for all involved – the candidates, the party, and most importantly, the country – that the issue is now resolved, and everyone can focus on moving ahead.

But what exactly does Minister Wong’s appointment mean, and what are the key issues he would have to deal with?

There is a tendency among Singaporeans to overly focus on personalities in discussing politics. Of course, this is not unique to Singapore: personality politics is more intriguing and much simpler to analyse. It is easy to attribute everything to just a person’s abilities and charisma. Easy, but not quite accurate. However, by excessively focusing on individuals, we often miss out on other equally, if not more important, factors which affect political outcomes, such as institutions. The PAP’s party structure is one such institution.

The PAP can be described as a cadre party. There are two features to this type of party. First, membership is restricted. Unlike a mass party, you cannot sign up unsolicited to be a member. Instead, you need to be invited. This way, the party is able to control the selection process and admits individuals who are ideologically aligned with its core values. Secondly, leaders are selected, not elected. Technically the Secretary-General of the party (who is the PM) can choose his successor. In PM Lee’s case, like his predecessors, he allowed the 4G team to choose their own leader.

The point remains that there is no internal election to choose the next Secretary-General.

The combination of these two features means the following: the PAP is ideologically coherent, making it less likely for splits to occur based on ideological grounds; and that the PAP reproduces itself since successive generations are always similar in thought to the earlier leaders.

Therefore, the differences between the three individuals – Ministers Wong, Chan, and Ong – are, in reality, not that acute. Yes, there would be personality differences, because ultimately, no two human beings are ever completely the same. However, ideologically, there is not much difference between the three of them: if there were, they would not have been key Ministers coming from a party with such a structure in the first place.

This closed structure and ideological homogeneity, like everything else, has its pros and cons. As mentioned above, the party is more immune to splits than others, at least along ideological lines. At the same time, the party is unlikely to have change agents who come from within.

With that, we should manage expectations about Minister Wong’s future premiership. Minister Wong rose to prominence almost out of nowhere, as his assured public fronting of the COVID-19 crisis put him at the top of the pecking order. It must be remembered that prior to the pandemic, Minister Chan was the proposed number two of then-PM-in-waiting, Heng Swee Keat. COVID-19 gave Wong more exposure to the public and evidently, he did well enough for his party to put faith in. Wong was perhaps a typical PAP choice: one who is safe and does not rock the electoral boat since he is palatable to the general public. While Wong and his team will undoubtedly move with the times, as any leader does, it is not reasonable to expect him to naturally desire to radically alter the state of political affairs.

Yet, ironically, Wong and his team’s biggest challenge may involve precisely that: a rethinking of certain fundamental underpinnings of governance. The two, which are most relevant here, are meritocracy and multiracialism.

Since the publication of Associate Professor Teo You Yenn’s This is What Inequality Looks Like in 2018, the issue of inequality has acquired a level of prominence not previously seen in local discourse. As citizens witness inequality at a quotidian level, the demand for more welfarist polices and economic justice would naturally intensify. On this front, the 4G team and Wong have already demonstrated their willingness to move leftwards economically, a trend which really started in the aftermath of the 2011 General Election. As evinced from the 2022 Budget, which Wong delivered in the capacity of Finance Minister, the government is willing to slowly, but surely, implement policies which are considered more redistributive, such as increasing the income tax rate for the highest earners. Obviously, these changes are not radical – it is not in the nature of cadre parties to be revolutionary – but they are significant, nonetheless.

But tackling inequality may require more than these subtle changes. It may also involve taking a closer look at meritocracy, a core principle upon which Singapore was founded. As Michael Sandel, the American philosopher based at Harvard, cogently argues, inequality is the logical outcome of an unflinching belief in meritocracy. Beyond expanding the idea of merit, even class-based affirmative action should be considered as plausible courses of action. Already, we see some mild forms of this being instituted: the National University of Singapore announced earlier this year that incoming students with a per capita household income of lower than $1,000 do not need to pay tuition fees. More of such creative policies can be implemented, as long as we have the audacity to rethink even what were previously thought to be the most basic building blocks of our society.

The other, perhaps bigger, challenge involves multiracialism. The government has always adopted an interventionist approach toward managing racial and religious relations. It does not leave things to chance, prodding good ties between the various racial groups while not hesitating to use draconian measures against those who are deemed to have crossed the line. However, as admitted by PM Lee and Minister of Law and Home Affairs, K. Shanmugam, younger Singaporeans think differently about race. While the government is wary of open public discussions on racial issues as it believes they could jeopardise racial harmony, it recognises that the younger generation feels differently. Indeed, we have witnessed vibrant racial discourses online in the past three to four years. The discussions on the existence of Chinese Privilege, for instance, has garnered so much traction that PM Lee himself felt a need to address the matter in the 2021 National Day Rally. What we can expect is that there will be more of a thirst for such discussions among the young: having grown up in a completely different environment as compared to older Singaporeans, the younger generation does not feel as afraid to articulate their thoughts on race. It is true that at times, debates which take place online are influenced by American discourses, but that is pretty much inevitable considering the interconnectedness of the world due to social media, the effects of American popular culture, and the fact that Singapore is English-speaking. It is important to not throw the baby out with the bathwater – just because there is American/Western influence in a particular discourse does not automatically negate its utility. Each idea must be debated on its own merits.

The 4G leadership must contend with these changing desires of the younger electorate. At Minister Wong’s landmark speech at the IPS-RSIS Conference on Identity in November 2021, he was attempting to strike a delicate balance between affirming the government’s traditional stance of treating racial harmony as delicate and acknowledging the aspirations of more Singaporeans to be part of the conversation.

Moving forward, this is an area in which the government may need to recalibrate its approach. More conversations on the state of racial affairs are not only what many younger Singaporeans want but may also be what is needed to improve and strengthen racial harmony. After all, more honest discussions would lead to more understanding and empathy, and sweeping emotions, feelings and issues under the carpet may be unhealthy for society as a whole.

While it is true that PAP’s party structure is not conducive for major departures from its existing ideologies, the government should realise that these are different times. Indeed, Minister Wong has already alluded to this, saying that no electoral victory is guaranteed for his party from now on. Since the times have changed because the electorate has differing demands, the government must similarly adapt. The impetus to change will not come from within the party, because of its ideological homogeneity, but rather, from a recognition that Singaporeans today have different aspirations – in some areas – than previously. ⬛


Dr Walid Jumblatt Abdullah is an Assistant Professor at the Public Policy and Global Affairs programme at Nanyang Technological University. He works on state-Islam relations, and political parties and elections, with particular focus on Singapore and Malaysia.

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