Lee told the nation late Thursday that Wong is now the official leader of the so-called fourth generation of lawmakers, known as 4G. The announcement, as Singaporeans kicked off the long Easter weekend, was followed by days of glaring stories about Wong in the local media. Rivals for the 4G group leadership, along with PAP elders and subsequent lawmakers, lined up to pledge their support. “This inheritance decision is crucial for Singapore,” Lee said. “It will ensure the continuity and stability of leadership that are the hallmarks of our system.”
Climbing Wong was not always inevitable and is not necessarily a safe thing. Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who was thought to be in the first position for the post of prime minister, abruptly resigned last year. Since then, prominent ministers have been striving for the task. Wong’s main competitors were considered to be Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, who co-chairs the Covid working group with him, and Education Minister Chan Chun Sing. Past successions of the PAP leadership – to date there have been only two – are better choreography. The 70-year-old Lee did not set a specific schedule for the launch, but said last year he wanted to make sure Covid was under control and the republic was in “good working order” before handing over the keys. Lee, the son of Singapore’s first prime minister, has been in charge for nearly two decades. At a news conference Saturday, Lee questioned whether the transition would take place before the next general election, which is expected by the end of 2025.
Wong, 49, has had no easy jobs and has made his share of mistakes. Like other nations, Singapore hit some obstacles during the pandemic. But the government never denied the problem, as neighboring Indonesia did, nor did it maintain strict border controls to the point of irreversibly damaging its reputation, as seems to have been the case in Hong Kong.
Singapore’s next battle is against inflation. Hours before the announcement of Wong’s promotion, the central bank undertook its most aggressive monetary tightening since 2010. This brawl represents some of the same risks Wong encountered trying to control Covid: Hit too hard for a while. long and the economy is likely to enter a marked slowdown. As a small, trade-dependent country, the fight against rapid price increases will be won or lost off the coast of Singapore. It is Wong who would bear the cost of losing – but he can just as convincingly be backed by any success. The offspring peculiarities, Singapore style, imply that Lee’s offspring are unlikely to have unhindered control. When Lee finally leaves the prime minister, he will surely stay around the cabinet. The last two leaders, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, remained at the top levels of government as senior ministers. Those deals were not entirely without tension. Elder Lee, who passed away in 2015, vowed before giving power to Goh that if he ever felt things were going wrong, he would rise from the grave to fix the ship.
Wong, if he goes the distance, also faces a more contested electoral landscape. The PAP is not considered to be losing office, but it is no longer big news when an opposition MP wins a seat in the legislature. Lee has said voters want more diversity in parliament. While the PAP easily won the 2020 election, the results showed a significant fluctuation against the government. Wong said Saturday that the political climate is becoming more challenging. As a visible heir, everything Wong does now – from the deep to the ordinary – will be scrutinized. He would be the first Singaporean prime minister to be born since the island became a sovereign nation. Wong entered adulthood in a thriving economy, not one struggling for existence. His main task will be to maintain that prosperity. Others, his team will write it themselves. More from this writer and others at Bloomberg Opinion:
• Singapore can live with Covid. Inflation? Less so: Daniel Moss
• In Singapore, travel is active and masks are off: Bloomberg Opinion
• Singapore travelers face Omicron chaos: Rachel Rosenthal
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Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. He previously served as executive editor of Bloomberg News on the global economy, and has led teams in Asia, Europe, and North America.
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