Enter Lawrence Wong as leading contender for prime minister of Singapore

APRIL 25 — Singapore has just announced a major Cabinet reshuffle. Seven of Singapore’s ministries will get new ministers. 

The reshuffle comes in the wake of Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat (HSK) announcing, earlier this month, that he would not be taking on the role of prime minister in the future.  

HSK’s statement effectively created an opening at the top of Singapore’s political system. 

He had been expected to succeed incumbent Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong but now with the succession unclear, this latest reshuffle will be keenly watched as the movement of ministers is likely to give some indication of who will succeed PM Lee.  

There were no major surprises in the reshuffle. All the prominent next generation leaders of the PAP retained powerful positions.   

Ong Ye Kung shifted from Ministry of Transport to Ministry of Health, Chan Chun Sing moved from Ministry of Trade and Industry to Ministry of Education.   

However, it is the move of Lawrence Wong, previously education minister, to the prominent position of finance minister that will raise some eyebrows. 

Traditionally, the position of finance minister has been seen as a stepping stone and bridge to the prime ministership. 

The youngest of the contenders for leadership, Wong has a relatively short political career; he only entered Parliament in 2011 and has risen rapidly from relative obscurity. 

Over the past year, he served as the chair of the multi-ministry task force to tackle Covid-19.  

As such, he was the public face of Singapore’s battle against the pandemic and as the nation has emerged with a very low number of deaths, he has won considerable praise for effectively winning the battle against Covid-19. 

But prior to his work on Covid-19, Wong had actually seen plenty of quite significant political/governance successes.  

He led the team that would see Singapore’s Botanic Gardens recognised as Singapore’s first Unesco World Heritage Site

He also did great work, as far as I’m concerned, pushing through the initiative that made all national museums and heritage institutions free for Singaporeans and Permanent Residents in 2013.  

As minister for culture, community and youth from 2014 he led the project to transform and upgrade Singapore’s Civic District. Today it is an attractive historic precinct with increasingly world-class museums and galleries.  

He also won plaudits for overseeing and lending government support to Singapore’s 2015 Asean Games team; those games would see our athletes make their best showing.

Without stealing any headlines, Wong has been racking up significant successes for some years.  

Covid-19, though, gave him a national stage and more than just his technical competence in terms of steering a world-leading response, his ability to handle press conferences, speak directly to the people on the developing situation on restrictions and cases was impressive. 

He exuded a gravitas and charm that have eluded most the fourth generation leadership. 

And this is key. 

The ruling People’s Action Party is not short of qualified technocrats with Ivy league or Oxbridge credentials and solid track records in terms of delivery but there has been a lack of charisma or reassurance at the top particularly where the younger leaders are concerned. 

This clearly held back HSK and this intangible factor may yet be the determining factor for who succeeds PM Lee. 

Wong appears to be the smoothest and most confident speaker of all the remaining contenders.   

He is the son of a teacher and sales representative; he has risen through the ranks via education. Winning a coveted public scholarship to the University of Madison Wisconsin and then winning places at the University of Michigan and Harvard. He is the embodiment of the Singapore dream.

Though his ascension is not certain, the responsibilities of the Finance Ministry will likely be a final test. If he can manage the economy as well as he has Covid-19, I suspect little will stop him from reaching the No. 1 spot.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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