The public face of Singapore’s largely successful Covid-19 response is now in charge of the finance ministry.
Singaporean politics was rocked when Heng Swee Keat, the anointed successor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, stepped down from his two posts of deputy prime minister and finance minister following Lee’s poor showing in the 2020 general election. But the People’s Action Party, which has led the city-state since it gained independence from Malaysia in 1965, crafts succession plans long in advance. The former second minister of finance—and the public face of Singapore’s largely successful Covid-19 response—48-year-old Lawrence Wong was quickly tapped as the new finance minister.
Still, it’s not clear if he is also in line for the top slot. The party is determined to avoid another embarrassment. “At this point, it would be premature to read too much into Lawrence Wong’s appointment as finance minister,” says Meredith Weiss, professor and chair of political science at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy of the State University of New York at Albany. “While he is succeeding the previous heir apparent to the prime ministry in that role, this reshuffle could prove only just that: a reshuffle.”
Neither Wong’s profile nor his experience distinguishes him sharply from the other so-called 4G (fourth generation) ministers most often touted as a potential prime minister, Weiss argues. Most notably among them, Chan Chun Sing and Ong Ye Kung retain important portfolios and remain in contention for the top job.
In the meantime, Wong’s skills as prime minister-in-waiting will face an unavoidable test in his finance ministry role. “He confronts the daunting task of keeping Singapore on track toward positive growth this year, notwithstanding a disappointing resurgence in Covid-19 cases,” Weiss says. Getting past the pandemic and its economic effects will be Wong’s—and indeed, the full government’s—overwhelming priority. “Should the containment measures recently reactivated do the trick and vaccine rollout continue apace,” she adds, “the government stands not only to achieve economic-recovery targets, but also to burnish the now rather tarnished trust in Singapore’s political leadership.