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Lawrence Wong was on April 15, 2022, named by Cabinet ministers as the leader of the fourth generation of Singapore's political leadership. — TODAY file pic
Lawrence Wong was on April 15, 2022, named by Cabinet ministers as the leader of the fourth generation of Singapore’s political leadership. — TODAY file pic

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SINGAPORE, April 15 — The fourth-generation (4G) leaders’ pick of Finance Minister Lawrence Wong as their team leader to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was not a surprise given that he has performed well in key appointments, said political observers. 

But they were struck by the way PM Lee revealed the process of how Wong, 49, was named as the first among equals in the ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP) 4G team.

Lee made the announcement in a statement that detailed how he had tasked former Cabinet Minister and former party chairman Khaw Boon Wan with meeting the current ministers individually to help form a new consensus on a 4G leader. 

Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan Jin and National Trades Union Congress Secretary-General Ng Chee Meng — both former Cabinet Ministers but members of the 4G team — were consulted. 

But the views of Lee himself as well as the two Senior Ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam were not sought, Lee stressed.

Political analyst Mustafa Izzuddin said that the PAP’s decision to convey this to the public was striking. 

“The political communication here was rather distinctive, because the process and the outcome were made in great detail to the public,” said Mustafa, a senior international affairs analyst at consultancy firm Solaris Strategies Singapore.

He noted that having Khaw, who does not belong to the 4G team, lead the individual meetings with 4G members to get their personal views in confidence allowed Lee to show the public that the selection process was conducted transparently and neutrally.

Echoing a similar view, former Nominated Member of Parliament (MP) Eugene Tan found it “intriguing” that Lee sought to emphasise that the consultation process did not involve himself and the two Senior Ministers.

“It is an effort to show that the process was transparent, fair and accountable and that the 4G leaders decided for themselves, without fear or favour, on who their first among equals should be,” said the associate professor of Law at the Singapore Management University.

“The process this time is markedly different from the past, even the one that yielded Mr Heng (Swee Keat) as the PM Lee’s putative successor.”

Mustafa believed the reason for Lee’s emphasis on the selection process was a response to the long wait the public has endured — almost exactly a year since Deputy Prime Minister Heng took himself out of the running — for his successor to be named.

“Having these details out there would provide assurance to the public that this is the trajectory that the ruling party is taking and that Lawrence Wong would be the prime minister-in-waiting leading the next 4G team.” 

No surprise

Yet, the choice of Wong as 4G leader did not come as a surprise to the analysts.

After all, Wong was given the high-profile finance portfolio after a Cabinet reshuffle in April last year.

That role has traditionally been helmed by PAP heavyweights. Wong’s predecessor was Heng, who succeeded Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

PM Lee was concurrently Finance Minister before that.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Wong has also been co-chairing the multi-ministry task force handling Singapore’s response, propelling him very much into the public eye over the past two years.

On Thursday, PM Lee said that after Khaw met with the 4G members individually, an “overwhelming majority” of them supported Wong as their leader.

Former PAP MP Inderjit Singh said that Wong’s recent appointments allowed him to have the most results to show in the selection process, thereby giving him an edge over other potential candidates.  

“I think many in the party were getting impatient and wanted the decision of the 4G leader to be made sooner than later,” said Singh.

“Given that a decision had to be made now, Lawrence Wong had a clear advantage because of his two key positions,” he added.

“Since he handled both well, I think he gained greater support from the PAP MPs and leadership.”

Mustafa said that public sentiment has been in favour of Wong through seeing the way he has displayed leadership during the pandemic and also as Finance Minister delivering the Budget.

“His performance in Parliament, his ministerial experience, his administrative leadership, and also the public opinion being favourable I think all of these are plus points in his favour,” he said.

He added that the timing of the announcement was to be expected with Singapore now at the crossroads of fully emerging from the pandemic, and there being a need for a sufficient runway for the next leader to prepare for the next General Election due by 2025.

And while the wait for the 4G succession might have divided some supporters of the potential contenders within PAP, Mustafa said that he expects party members to close ranks behind Wong now that a decision has been made.

“While there have been other contenders, these contenders will certainly be a key part in the 4G team that Lawrence Wong would lead,” he said.

In any case, said Singh, the 4G leaders have often reiterated that the next prime minister will be leading with a team approach, rather than as a dominant solo leader.

“Lawrence Wong should have no problems getting party support,” he said.

“Now that most of the 4G leaders have backed him, I think things should proceed more smoothly with all falling in line.” — TODAY

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