SINGAPORE, May 15 — Singapore’s next leader Lawrence Wong is a US-trained economist who oversaw the country’s fight against the Covid-19 pandemic — and a pretty good blues guitarist.

The 51-year-old is set to succeed Lee Hsien Loong as prime minister today, which will make him just the second non-member of Singapore’s founding family in nearly six decades to lead the affluent city-state.

Wong, who is married without children, comes from a young generation of politicians groomed for leadership in Singapore’s carefully orchestrated succession process.

He becomes the first leader to have been born after the country’s independence in 1965, and he’s won public support by taking to social media to showcase his guitar skills.

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“Certainly, Lawrence Wong has a very disarming way of engaging with people, the ability to put people at ease,” said Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University.

After Singapore made waves by booking Taylor Swift’s only South-east Asian date on her recent tour, a video Wong posted on social media of him playing her country ballad “Love Story” on guitar went viral.

“Imagine the next Prime Minister in line welcoming Taylor Swift with his guitar at the opening scene of the concert tonight,” one Instagram user wrote, adding a pair of smiling emojis with heart-shaped eyes.

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‘Decisive’

While Wong has lengthy experience in government, he was not always tipped among the country’s generation of young leaders to reach Singapore’s top office.

But he distinguished himself as co-chair of a government task force to fight Covid-19, which Lee described as the “crisis of a generation”.

“The pandemic response suggested that he is decisive and prepared to take tough measures if need be,” Tan told AFP.

Singapore was among the first countries to procure the Covid-19 vaccine and the government spent a whopping US$74 billion, or 20 per cent of GDP, on economic and social support.

That enabled Singapore to crank up its trade-reliant economy faster than other countries when pandemic-related curbs were lifted and international air travel resumed.

“I believe when push comes to shove and the time comes to take hard decisions, I would do so, so long as the decision is in the interest of Singapore and Singaporeans,” Wong said in a recent interview with The Economist magazine.

Giving a glimpse into his leadership style, he told the publication he listens to other viewpoints.

“When I go into a meeting, I do not start off assuming that I know all the answers. I want to get people’s insights, I want to get people’s perspectives, eventually thinking about what makes for the best decisions and outcomes for Singapore,” he said.

Wong has more than 200,000 followers on Instagram, where he describes himself as a “bookworm, guitar player and dog lover”.

“My dad gave me a guitar as a birthday present, a surprise gift,” he said in another interview. “I’ve been playing a long time.”

Growing up in the 1980s, his greatest influences were Eric Clapton and rock bands such as the Eagles, he said, adding that he also loves the blues.

‘Never about one person’

He went on to graduate with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in the United States, respectively.

He also holds a graduate degree in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School.

After university, he began his career in the civil service, where he caught the eye of the long-ruling People’s Action Party.

Wong was first elected to parliament in 2011 and quickly climbed through the ranks to hold various positions, including in the defence and education ministries.

He went on to serve as chief executive of the Energy Market Authority, chairman of the central bank and as Lee’s principal private secretary.

Wong was appointed finance minister in 2021, a position deemed a crucial preparation for running an international financial hub like Singapore.

Lee appointed Wong deputy prime minister in 2022, putting him firmly in line as heir-apparent.

“As I have repeatedly emphasised, leadership and political leadership is never about one person,” Wong told reporters last year.

Tan, the political analyst, said it was a good sign that someone outside the Lee family would become prime minister.

“Can you imagine if a country has to depend on one or two families to produce its national leaders? I think that is not good.” — AFP