New Singapore PM’s Key Priorities and Challenges

New Singapore PM’s Key Priorities and Challenges

On May 15, 2024 Lawrence Wong was sworn in as Singapore’s fourth PM and belongs to the People’s Action Party (PAP) which has governed the city-state — a key economic hub of Asia for over six decades (Singapore technically is not a one party state, but PAP has continued to dominate Singapore’s political landscape). Wong’s predecessor Lee Hsien Loong was PM for two decades (2004-2024). The US educated Wong who entered politics in 2011 has held important portfolios, including finance. He was the co-leader of the COVID-19 pandemic task force. In 2022, he was appointed as Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore. Before joining politics, he was in the Civil Service, and served in Singapore’s Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Health. Wong was also Principal Secretary to Lee Hsien Loong from 2005-2008.

During his inaugural address as PM — 51 year old Wong addressed several domestic issues and hailed his predecessors for laying the foundations of a strong and prosperous Singapore and underscored changes which have taken place within Singapore as well as external in the recent past. Wong emphatically stated, that he and his team would lead in their “..own way” hinting at a fresh approach. This is important, because the current political system where one political outfit – PAP – currently is dominant has been successful in delivering effective governance and economic prosperity (several democracies envy Singapore for both). At the same time, there has been a growing demand for greater accountability and more inclusive governance from the Asian city-state’s younger generation. While PAP continues to remain the dominant force, opposition parties along with civil society have become more vocal as the new generation has been pushing for greater transparency and freedom of speech bereft of restrictions. In 2020, 11 political parties contested the election and the opposition Workers Party managed to win 10 out of the 93 seats and has been raising several economic and social issues.

The Singapore PM highlighted the role of younger Singaporeans in taking the Island nation forward. He also highlighted the fact that a “Singapore dream” could not be defined only in material terms.

Immigration

In the past, Singapore has benefitted from globalization, talented immigrants and a reasonably stable US-China relationship. The first challenge which Wong will have to deal with, which has a domestic and external component, is immigration. As in several countries, there has been a growing discomfort with increase in inflow of immigrants. Of the total population in Singapore, only 40% are citizens.

While commenting on Singapore’s approach towards foreign professionals, Wong in a media-interview said: “We will keep ourselves open, but the flows will be controlled. We will ensure that foreign professionals come in, we welcome them, they add value to our economy, we ask them to adjust to our social norms.”

Wong’s predecessor had also repeatedly stated that while Singapore was open to talent, it was important that local workers and professionals do not lose out in anyway.

Like other ASEAN members, Singapore has expressed concern about US-China tensions. Wong’s predecessor has also emphatically stated that he would not like to make a choice between Washington and Beijing. During his speech, Wong highlighted how Singapore had benefitted from stability in the Asia-Pacific. The Singapore PM also spoke about the challenges which the rivalry between China and US posed to Singapore. Said Wong:

“As a small country, we cannot escape these powerful cross-currents. As an open economy, our livelihoods will be hit when multilateralism fractures. As a diverse society, we will be vulnerable to external influences that tug us in different directions. Before taking over as PM in an interview to Financial Times, Wong had highlighted that his foreign policy would focus on Singapore’s interests.

In conclusion, the new Singapore PM who has rich administrative experience faces several challenges both internal and external, which have been discussed in the article. As mentioned earlier, the city-state has benefitted significantly from globalization as well as a reasonably stable global order. The deterioration of China-US ties as well as the covid-19 pandemic have been important disruptions which have impacted Singapore’s economy. The global geopolitical situation is likely to remain challenging, apart from China-US ties and the Russia-Ukraine war the turmoil in the Middle East is likely to take its toll on the global economy. Innovative solutions will be required for ensuring that the Asian city-state is able to deal with the same. Apart from the geopolitical situation, coming up with the appropriate approach towards immigration is likely to be an uphill task.

[Photo by Prime Minister’s Office Singapore]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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