What to expect as new, guitar-playing PM takes helm in Singapore

What to expect as new, guitar-playing PM takes helm in Singapore
What to expect as new, guitar-playing PM takes helm in Singapore

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - SINGAPORE: As Singapore gets a new prime minister for the first time in 20 years, experts have told Arab News what to expect from the city-state’s fourth leader, Lawrence Wong, who came to the fore with his handling of the successful COVID-19 response.

Wong was inaugurated on Wednesday evening, taking over the reins from Lee Hsien Loong, son of the founding father of modern Singapore Lee Kuan Yew.

The 51-year-old began his career as an economist at the trade ministry with a US educational background, before moving up to occupy some of the biggest jobs in Singapore’s bureaucracy, including the Energy Market Authority and Lee’s principal private secretary.

The civil servant-turned-politician was catapulted into the spotlight in 2020, when he coordinated Singapore’s successful fight against COVID-19. He has also garnered public support by showcasing his guitar skills online, including a cover of Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” that went viral in March.

“Lawrence Wong has been in charge with the COVID-19 pandemic, and he did very well. Singapore did very well by and large; that was something that the international community noticed,” said James M. Dorsey, a senior fellow at the Nanyang Technological University.

Compared with Lee, Wong will still have to work on his global exposure, but should be able to capitalize on the enduring image of Singapore’s “serious stability,” Dorsey added.

“As we watch the process of build-up toward the transition, we will have greater confidence in Lawrence Wong. And simply the confidence in the way Singapore does things, working in Wong’s favor.”

Southeast Asia analyst Adib Zalkapli is expecting Wong to continue the policies of his predecessor, who oversaw the country’s economic growth into an international financial hub and top tourist destination, more than doubling the island’s gross domestic product per capita.

“It’s a well-planned change of leadership that will ensure continuity. We are unlikely to see major policy changes in the short to medium term,” he told Arab News, adding that the same approach will likely apply on matters related to foreign policy.

Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate at the Asia Research Institute in the University of Nottingham Malaysia, is also expecting continuity.

“Essentially status quo. Arguably, there will be more engagement, as issues remain complex in the region, and the new leadership will want to establish or deepen his own personal ties in the region,” Welsh said.

But so far, little is known about the policies Wong is likely to adopt, said Ian Chong, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.

“Lawrence Wong has said that he will bring continuity, make tough decisions, and is pro-Singapore. What these mean in practice is not yet known. Wong has not so far stated what his policy direction and vision is, why it is important, and why Singaporeans need to support it,” he said.

The new prime minister arrives at a particularly challenging time in geopolitics, a departure from a period of “stable external environment” that worked in Singapore’s favor.

“Intensifying US-PRC (People’s Republic of China) competition, internal circulation, on-shoring, friend-shoring, trade barriers, as well as data and technology in all the developed economies challenge Singapore’s business model,” Chong said.

“Wong has yet to articulate a plan on how he intends to deal with these challenges, even though he concedes their seriousness.”

In his first speech as prime minister, Wong paid tribute to his predecessors, but said that the country’s new leadership would adopt a style that “differs” from that of previous generations.

“We will lead in our own way. We will continue to think boldly and to think far. We know that there is still much more to do,” he said. “The best chapters of our Singapore story lie ahead.”

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