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All Change in Singapore in 2024

Leadership transition?: Lawrence Wong, deputy prime minister and likely future leader of Singapore, meets with Japanese PM Fumio Kishida in May 2023. (© Japan Cabinet Public Affairs Office, Cabinet Secretariat, via Wikimedia (Govt. of Japan Standard Terms 2.0, compatible with CC BY 4.0)

After 19 years in office as Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong recently announced he would resign in 2024 and hand over the leadership of the PAP and premiership to his deputy, Lawrence Wong: a man widely regarded as representing a new generation of Singaporean leaders. Although this had been widely anticipated for some time, the announcement by Lee of his impending and relatively swift departure did shock many Singaporeans. Wong would only be the fourth prime minister in Singapore’s history and only the second Singaporean leader to not come from the Lee dynasty. In effect, Wong’s accession to the premiership of Singapore and leadership of the PAP marks the end of the Lee dynasty’s long custodianship of Singapore, at least for now.

“Whiter than white”

The reason for Lee’s relatively sudden announcement of his resignation can be seen in the political scandals which have recently rocked the government of Singapore and shaken citizens’ confidence in its leaders. The Singaporean government’s anti-corruption police unit arrested the transport minister S Iswaran on accusations of corruption and graft. On top of this, speaker of parliament Tan Chuan-Jin, also a former PAP member, and a PAP female legislator were forced to resign due to an affair. Chuan-Jin had previously been touted as a future prime minister of Singapore, and the scandal and resulting abrupt end to his political career shocked many Singaporeans.

These scandals may seem relatively mild compared to scandals in Western countries, but the PAP has long prided itself on being “whiter than white” and demanding only the highest moral standards of its ministers and leadership, symbolized by the party’s white uniforms. Even the Straits Times, widely regarded as a pro government mouthpiece, ran an article with the headline “Is the PAP brand in trouble?”. Lee acknowledged that the PAP had “taken a hit” in the eyes of the public due to the scandals. Lee’s resignation and relatively speedy handing over of the reigns to Wong is an attempt to take back control of the narrative, and enshrine a new generation of Singaporean leaders who can renew and refresh support for PAP and continue to lead it to landslide victories.

Early elections?

Enter Lawrence Wong. Lee’s handpicked successor is a man who, unusually for the PAP’s senior leadership, did not attend the prestigious Raffles Institute, grew up in a public housing flat and went to non-elite schools. After joining PAP, he gradually moved up the ranks, serving in the defense, education and national development, and is currently the minister for finance. Wong has outlined a distinct political philosophy to that of Lee. He has called for “compassionate meritocracy”, has criticized free market capitalism for creating excessive economic inequality, and says that he wants to create a Singapore that is “for the many, not the few”. His “Forward Singapore” project, which reported its findings last year, suggested improvements to Singapore’s safety net. In many ways, Wong’s distinctiveness from Lee and the more conservative wing of the PAP may help him appear as a fresh, different face in elections, which are currently scheduled for late 2025 but may be held earlier. One would suspect that after Lee resigns and Wong takes the reigns of power, a snap election may be called to take advantage of Wong’s inevitable honeymoon period.

Singapore has been governed by the PAP with uninterrupted rule for six decades, and core to the PAP’s long period of political domination has been its ability to change with the times and elect leaders and adopt principles that appeal to the majority of Singaporeans. It remains to be seen if Wong can continue this long period of success, or if the long term trend of the PAP gradually losing popular support will continue.

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