SINGAPORE, May 14 — When he was in the Ministry of Finance (MOF) back in the early 2000s, Lee Kok Fatt remembered how his boss Lawrence Wong, then still a young public servant, would reply emails even while on leave for reservist training.

“There were some instances when he came back to office in his army fatigue on his ‘off’ time. That left quite an impression on me,” said Lee, who has held various senior positions in the civil service.

For Lee, this memory reflects Wong’s industriousness — one of the upcoming prime minister’s most memorable traits since his younger days.

“He was probably one of the first to be in office, and the last to leave,” said Lee, who now chairs the Chandler Institute of Governance.

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People who have previously interacted with or worked in various capacities with Wong, including grassroot members, civil servants and a former teacher of his, painted a picture of a leader with an eye for policy details yet clear-headed in big-picture thinking, and a boss who has high standards yet is nurturing to those under his charge.

As an individual, they described Singapore’s next prime minister as someone who is naturally introverted yet approachable, and one who has grown comfortable in his public persona.

Despite the years that have passed, they said that what remains constant of Wong is how grounded he is and how he has always put the public before himself.

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Policy wonk

Many who have worked with Wong describe him as highly capable and a policy wonk — one who takes interest in intricate details of a policy.

Lee recalled how Wong took it upon himself to be certified Chartered Financial Analyst, a rigorous professional certification that was not needed for his role, despite the heavy workload he shouldered at MOF and the certification not being a necessity for his role.

“He was already well-qualified for that role. But he just wanted the technical certificate, to get his hands dirty in the very technical aspects of finance,” said Lee.

Wong was a Public Service Commission scholar who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics in the United States before he began working in the public service.

Ong Kian Ann, also one of Wong’s former staffers at MOF in the early 2000s, remembered how the division had to engage economic professors to develop econometric models.

“Throughout the discussion and conversation (with the professors), what struck me was that my boss, at his age then (of about 30), I would say, was in the same league as the professors, with their experience in the industry,” said Ong.

Tan Meng Dui, chief executive of the Housing and Development Board (HDB), said that Wong’s “very good grasp of policy considerations and details” made him “quite easy to work with”.

Tan was deputy secretary at the Ministry of National Development from 2014 to 2018. Wong headed the ministry from 2015 to 2020.

“This is especially so for public housing, where there are fiscal implications to consider and the housing needs and aspirations of the different segments of our population can be quite different,” he added.

Clear-headed strategic thinker

While he demonstrated a sharp eye for details, Wong never lost sight of the bigger picture and was described as clear headed on the strategic level, too.

Wong Siew Hoong, who was director-general for education at the Ministry of Education, recollected how there was robust debate around the introduction of blended learning in schools.

After the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, blended learning was introduced in schools, where home-based learning was incorporated as a regular part of the school calendar.

With strong arguments both for and against the proposal, the issue was further complicated by the implications it would have on students, teachers, schools and even parents.

“You can see his mind working, weighing the different issues, the ups and the downs and then of course to make the political decision,” said the senior advisor at MOE.

“It was very clear in his mind: If it’s good for students, we should do it.”

Professor Tan Thiam Soon, former President of Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) remembered a conversation he had with Wong back in 2012.

As then Minister of State for Education, Wong had chaired an MOE committee set up to review university expansion pathways. The committee recommended making the SIT a full-fledged university.

Prof Tan was the vice provost of education at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and was approached by MOE to move to SIT.

Before he made his decision, the professor asked to speak to someone about some concerns he had and was told to meet Wong.

“He doesn’t throw at you lofty ideas, lofty words that could be interpreted in any direction, like a motherhood statement,” said Prof Tan.

“He was clear about what he felt Singapore needed going forward, how (SIT) fit into the bigger picture. And even at that point, in 2012, he was clear about how the education landscape was going to change with the onset of technology disruptions.”

Prof Tan added: “That’s why I’ve been here (at SIT) for the last 12 years. If he had said anything else, I could have still stayed at NUS.”

High expectations, but nurturing

He was also described by some as a leader with high standards.

Zing Lim Tse Yin, former deputy director in the MND Housing Division from 2015 to 2020, said: “He would not take input at face value, and would seek to understand the underlying rationale and sentiment. This encouraged healthy discussions and robust outcomes.”

Agreeing, Tan said: “DPM (Wong) is disarming and quite unintimidating for a very senior leader. But you do want to be well prepared for discussions with him.

“He would often make counter proposals, and may have some ideas of his own or would suggest other areas to look at. So, it is important to be rigorous and comprehensive in making a policy recommendation or preparing for a discussion with him.”

Wong was one who, when he spotted any mistakes, would take time to explain to those under him what went wrong and how it could be done better.

“He is always willing to coach. That has been his trademark (trait) since about 20 years ago,” said Ong.

That spirit carried over even to the grassroots, said some volunteers.

Prema Suresh, chairperson of the Indian Activity Executive Committee at Limbang, where Wong is the Member of Parliament, said that while it was common for organisers to feel nervous when a high-profile guest of honour graces an event, Wong never made them feel that way.

“If there’s a mistake, he would allow us to make it and learn from it, and get it done better,” she said.

Consultative, open to criticism

Wong’s leadership style was commonly described by those who have worked with him as open and consultative, rather than top down.

“He explained his thoughts and concerns clearly, shared candidly about his struggles with difficult issues, and was always open to opinions and ideas from anyone in the room,” said Lim, who is now director for rental housing at HDB.

Agreeing, Tan said Wong would listen to views from people regardless of their seniority — “often actively asking for views or other ideas” — before making a decision or giving guidance.

Prof Tan of SIT recalled how during his conversation back in 2012, Wong spent a fair amount of time listening to the professor’s concerns instead of just laying out his own vision for the university.

“What also struck me that day was, he actually genuinely listened to me. I would say he listened more than he talked in our meeting,” said Prof Tan.

Introverted, yet approachable

Those who worked with him in the early part of his career described him as being generally shy and introverted.

Based on their impression of his public appearances, they commented that he has since grown to become more comfortable in the public eye.

What has remained constant though, is that Mr Wong is someone who “has no airs around him”, they said.

Prema cited how Wong sportingly joined residents in doing a folk dance at an event last year.

“He himself said: ‘Hey, let’s come and join the residents and dance’. It was a very memorable thing, not just for me but for those at the event,” she said.

Lawrence Wong taking part in Tamil New Year celebrations with Prema Suresh (right) in Limbang, April 15, 2023. — TODAY pic
Lawrence Wong taking part in Tamil New Year celebrations with Prema Suresh (right) in Limbang, April 15, 2023. — TODAY pic

Shi Wei Fei, a youth network volunteer at Limbang, also recalled a light-hearted moment he shared with Wong.

The university student was the emcee for two community events that fell on the same day. Wong had attended both events, on top of a few other engagements in between.

“When he saw me at the second event, he quipped: ‘Wow, you provide full-time emcee service?’. I Imagined he must have felt more tired than me; he didn’t have to joke with me, but he did,” said Shi.

Lee, formerly from MOF, said that Wong could remember the office attendants by name and chatted with them.

“The office attendants, the aunties in the office, they all liked him a lot. He has good relations at all levels,” said Lee.

Some who have worked with him before said Wong would still address them by name and asked how they are doing when they bump into each other at events, even if they have not worked closely with each other for years.

According to a former teacher, his affability was apparent from his school days.

Pang Lay Har, who taught Wong civics and mathematics at Victoria Junior College, recalled how he got along well with his classmates, who came from diverse backgrounds.

“He exuded a warm presence, coupled with humility and sincerity,” said Pang, who is now vice-principal of Tampines Meridian Junior College.

The educator also recalled Wong as a well-rounded student who excelled in his studies — “he would ask questions and contribute good ideas” from his usual seat near the back of the class, she said — and in his co-curricular activity, choir.

And while the public probably only took notice of Wong’s musical talent after he became a high-profile figure, Pang knew of his skills some 30 years ago.

“He had a flair for music, and I fondly remember being pleasantly surprised when he came to see me with the classmates to sing me a song during Teachers’ Day, and he was playing the guitar,” she recounted.

Grounded, people first

Pang also recalled a conversation she had with the young Wong when he was seeking her advice on scholarships.

“We spoke about commitment and serving the bond that comes with the scholarship. What impressed me was that he was thinking about how he could contribute and serve the community. I knew then this was a promising young man whose heart was in the right place,” she said.

Those who worked with him at the grassroots level mentioned how Wong sets aside time for his residents, despite wearing many hats.

For example, Limbang has eight residents’ network groups that would typically hold their own celebration for a festive holiday.

“Sometimes they fall on the same day. So he would be here, and an hour later he would be there (at another one). He tries his best to be with the residents at such festive events,” said Prema.

Shi of Limbang Youth Network describes Wong as an MP who takes residents’ feedback very seriously.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, resident engagement sessions were held over Zoom and organised by blocks. One resident raised an issue to Wong, who dealt with it promptly, said the volunteer.

“The resident (some time later) hopped on the Zoom call meant for residents of another block, just to personally say to Wong, ‘Thank you, my problem is resolved’,” he said.

This was one example of perhaps one of the key traits that Wong had as a leader: One who puts the community over self.

“DPM Wong has a big heart — even as prudence and parity are key concerns in policymaking, above all his top concern was to be progressive,” said Lim.

Ong, formerly from MOF, said: “As economists, of course you can make big money in the financial sector. But he chose to be in the public service.

“He chose to serve because he wants to use his skill set to see how he can shape and form policy for the greater good of Singaporeans as a whole.”

Prof Tan said Wong possesses many qualities that make him “the ideal man” for the politics of this era, which is more centred on inclusivity and a disavowal of elitism.

“The ability to be humble, the ability not to say I know everything, but to listen to the people and bring their perspectives to the policy — I think it will bring great strengths in what could be a very challenging and difficult time for him and for all of us,” he said. — TODAY