Skip to content

After a Loong time, what could possibly go Wong?

By the end of today, Singaporeans will have a new Prime Minister Lawrence Wong. Noted with thanks.

I’ll be honest, I went back and forth about whether I should do a special issue today.

A new prime minister is big news. Singaporeans haven’t seen a change like this in twenty years. The last time we had a change in prime minister, we didn't have iPhones, Marina Bay Sands wasn't built yet and the Lee siblings were still talking to each other (as far as we knew, anyway). So it feels like a newsletter like We, The Citizens, which covers Singaporean politics, should do something to mark such a momentous day.

But what is there to really say about Lawrence Wong and this transition so far? I don’t know Wong personally, but by all accounts he seems to be a clever, capable sort of person, hard-working and competent when it comes to implementing policy and generally keeping things chugging along. In an era of politicians around the world participating in a race to the bottom in mud-slinging, sensationalism or just plain stupidity, Wong speaks clearly and sensibly (no "East Coast Plan" moments yet!) At the very least, we’re not handing the reins over to someone who’s going to start rambling incoherently or tell us that a parasitic worm ate a chunk of his brain. (I know, I know, this bar is low, but I’m saying he more than clears it.)

That said, I haven’t seen him say anything about his political vision or what he’d do differently from his predecessors that couldn’t have been generated by ChatGPT. (I guess having a ChatGPT PM would be very Industry 4.0 future-ready of us…) Same goes for the things people say of him. CNA reports that political observers think that, with Wong and the rest of the 4G leadership, “there appears to be a willingness to listen to the people more and possibly shake up the social compact”. But when hasn’t that been said about an incoming PM?

This is from the National Library Board’s article, ‘Goh Chok Tong becomes prime minister of Singapore’ (emphasis mine):

The aim of the renewal process was to replace the first generation leaders or “the old guard”, who had been leading Singapore under the stewardship of Lee Kuan Yew, with a new generation of leaders. Comprising people like Lee Hsien Loong, this group of second generation leaders was younger and thus in a better position to engage the more educated and vocal younger Singaporeans. Indeed, Singapore under Goh’s leadership was different compared with that under Lee. Goh heralded in a more consultative style of government and politics.

Here’s a 2004 article from NBC News about Lee Hsien Loong taking over (again, emphasis mine):

Lee Hsien Loong, the son of Singapore’s founding father, was sworn in as the third prime minister Thursday and called for citizens of the tightly controlled city-state to feel free to express diverse views and dare to be different.

Every dude that comes in promises to be more consultative and open to different viewpoints than the last dude. The fact that each dude feels the need to emphasise this each time shows how little has really changed.

Take another example. Wong is promising that the 4G are prepared to shake things up if necessary. From this CNA article:

Mr Wong said the new leadership is prepared to relook everything in refreshing Singapore’s social compact.

“It is not so much that we are going to slay a sacred cow for the sake of doing so, but we are prepared to re-examine all our assumptions and consider under different circumstances, different societal expectations and needs; how might we do things different?”

Let’s rewind 20 years, to Lee Hsien Loong’s first National Day Rally speech:

To succeed, we have to balance between continuity and change, keeping what is still working and good and strong in our system, which is a lot, and changing the part which is obsolete, discarding the part which is no longer relevant, inventing new pieces, new ideas to deal with new problems and to take advantage of new opportunities and to develop new strengths and strategies to thrive in a different world. […] As a government, we have to rethink all our problems, big and small. Nothing should ever be set in stone. We’ve made big changes recently.

They’re not wrong—of course governments have to continually review, refresh and reform as times change. That’s not a bad thing. I’m just pointing out that sometimes, the more things change, the more things stay the same.

It’s not surprising; all these prime ministers are, after all, from the same party—an institution locked into reproducing itself. Lawrence Wong would never have risen to such heights in the party if he’d been a real maverick with the resolve to take Singapore in a markedly different direction from previous PAP generations. And while he’s going to take over the top spot starting tonight, I still can’t help but wonder if he’ll be a leader that’ll stand up to his Cabinet ministers if they were to act in ways that undermine his promise to “open up the space for different groups to be involved in shaping our future”. If someone from the PAP launches personal attacks against opponents and critics, will Wong put his foot down? If the idea for more repressive legislation is put forward, will Wong say no? Or will we see the same “PAP knows best, just give us the power and leave us to it” mindset?

Writing for East Asia Forum, Michael Barr brought up an interesting observation that I haven’t seen anywhere else so far:

With the drawbridges drawn tight against external criticism, the real challenge for the first Wong Cabinet will be internal rivalry. It would be unfair to suggest that Wong has been set up to be a mere figurehead, but it is reasonable to think of him as a ‘chairman of the board’ rather than a CEO.

Wong has no power base in Cabinet, Parliament or the party apart from Lee Hsien Loong’s patronage. He will be surrounded by men who consider themselves better qualified to shape government policy, even if he might be the best choice to front the cameras. The tension suggested by this context will inevitably infect the dynamic of Cabinet decision-making in increasingly uncomfortable ways, especially if Lee’s umbrella of protection begins to wear thin. Wong is unlikely to face direct challenges before the next general election, but afterwards it is anyone’s guess.

It’s already been commented upon that the PAP’s fourth generation doesn’t hold Singaporeans in thrall as much as previous iterations did. In recent years we’ve also seen uproars and scandals from ministers renting big-ass state bungalows to a horny Speaker of Parliament to a Minister of Transport apparently not realising gifts showered upon him by businessmen were “veiled gratification”, all of which take the shine off the “natural aristocracy” a bit. While Lee Kuan Yew has been elevated to almost god-like levels in Singapore, Goh Chok Tong is very tall and Lee Hsien Loong is supposed to be a Sudoku brainiac, one can’t help but feel like the PAP today is just kind of… mid?

(I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing, really. It would do us some good to treat and judge the PAP like a political party instead of some over-bearing national parent.)

For all our sakes, I hope we’re not experiencing a slow enshittification of Singapore—although, looking at the ERP 2.0 rollout and the frustration it’s triggered, it kind of feels like it’s already happening. I don’t want to be a complete downer from PM Lawrence Wong’s first moment on the job. But I’ve seen PAP promises about “consultation” and “openness” before, and all those “new normals” still involved harassing activists, attacking critics, setting up obstacles for the opposition, passing repressive laws and perpetuating a culture of self-censorship, so believing that things will change under Wong feels like wishful thinking.

Thank you for reading this special issue! It'll be free to read for a little while before going being a paywall for Milo Peng Funders, so feel free to share it with your networks over the next week or two.