New Singapore PM Lawrence Wong set to take over from Lee Hsien Loong

But Singapore has its problems.

“A complete picture of the economy that Wong inherits is less giddy,” the Bloomberg news agency wrote this month. “The pace of growth is not what it once was; the island has become the most expensive location on earth to live, and a rapidly greying society will test fiscal policy for generations.”

Singapore’s geostrategic importance as a major South-East Asian trade and export hub places it precariously between the competing regional interests of the United States and China, a concern voiced in Wong’s inaugural address as prime minister.

“The great powers are competing to shape a new yet undefined global order,” he said from the podium on the lawns of the Istana, a Malay word for palace. “This transition will be marked by geopolitical tensions as well as protectionism and rampant nationalism everywhere. It will likely stretch for years, if not decades.

“We must brace ourselves for these new realities and adapt to a messier, riskier and more violent world.”

At home, Wong faces challenges of social integration, migration, rising sea levels and housing. Unusually, Singapore has recently been a hotbed of scandal and gossip.


The island’s mainstream media avoids forensic examination of controversial issues, preferring positive coverage of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and its leaders. Freedom of expression is limited under the PAP auspices of preserving community harmony.

In September, the Ministry of Communications and Information issued a warning to The Economist’s Singapore bureau chief Dominic Ziegler for endorsing an independent news magazine.

The statement was instructive, if not contradictory: “He compared Singapore to an illiberal state and encouraged Singaporeans to embrace an alternative vision, instead of what was being offered by the state and an allegedly captive media,” it read in part.

Singapore is nevertheless more free than it used to be. In 2022, Lee was lauded for announcing that consensual sex between men would become legal. And while public displays of dissent are restricted, it is not impossible with the right approvals.

One of Lee’s many Australian contemporaries, Malcolm Turnbull, described him as “one of the wisest and most civilised of people, as is his brilliant wife, Ho Ching”.


But activist and independent journalist Kirsten Han says many younger Singaporeans want more freedom to protest and speak freely, a more liberal society than that cultivated under the Lees and the sole other non-Lee prime minister, Goh Chok Tong.

“Lawrence Wong is entering into a Singapore where the younger population is less and less easily deterred, and is not wanting to talk about issues the way the government talks about issues,” she says.

“They don’t want to talk about racial harmony. They want to talk about racial injustice … because why are ethnic minorities disproportionately represented in prison? Why is it okay to list a property rental and have the listing say, ‘no Indians’?

Addressing vague questions from journalists this week about differences of opinions and fresh approaches, Wong said his government was “prepared to re-examine all our assumptions and consider … different societal expectations”.

Lee Kuan Yew and Australia’s Andrew Peacock, then minister for industrial relations in Melbourne in 1981. Credit: David James Bartho

He also acknowledged that the parliamentary opposition, which gained marginal ground on the PAP in the 2020 elections, was “here to stay”.

“There is an appetite for greater political contestation,” he said. “But the government also emphasises that Singapore’s success is built on the success of the PAP and that once this is lost, it is not something that can go back. So how do you balance between these two things?”

Like Lee, Wong is a creature of the party, which has maintained an iron grip on politics since the British departed. But he is not from the elite class. Before entering politics as a representative in 2011, he built a reputation as a public servant and spent three years as Lee’s principal private secretary, where he evidently made a good impression on his master.

Drawing on this history, Flinders University academic Michael Barr wrote cheekily in the publication East Asia Forum that it was “no wonder Wong greeted the news of his promotion with the words, ‘I am ready for my next assignment’.”

But Barr told this masthead suggestions of Wong being a Lee by another name “didn’t quite fit”.

“We’re waiting to see,” he said. “All we can do is judge by his record. He is a technocrat. And there’s nothing in his record that suggests that he’s a great radical thinker or risk-taker, just a really just a good bureaucrat, who is a good communicator.”

Lee, like his prime ministerial predecessor Goh and his father before that, remains in cabinet, an untenable proposition in Australia’s bloodthirsty political scene.

Barr expected continuity while Lee remained a key member of the government.


“But the very fact there is no third round of Lees on the horizon, or so it appears, the Lee dynasty is not going to continue as normal,” he said. “His authority is going to have to diminish as time goes on.”

With only 6 million people, Singapore was still Australia’s fifth-largest two-way trading partner last financial year, just ahead of India with its population of 1.4 billion. Though it is officially nonaligned, the government regularly works with and accommodates Australian and US militaries.

Barr said the rise of China was increasingly testing these relationships, and also those within Singapore, whose majority of citizens trace their ancestry to the mainland and share its language.

Domestically, Wong’s greatest challenge was infrastructure and care for the ageing population, he said.

“There’s almost no stock of aged-care homes,” he said. “For a long time, they’ve been running a pseudo welfare system, which does not involve the transfer of social goods or wealth from the wealthy to the poor.

“These are hard issues to face up to, but they need to.”

Wong on Wednesday night promised Singapore’s best was yet to come.

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  • Source of information and images “brisbanetimes

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