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Lawrence Wong's leadership amid COVID-19 pandemic helped elevate him to top post: Observers

Lawrence Wong's leadership amid COVID-19 pandemic helped elevate him to top post: Observers

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong arrives at Parliament House for Singapore Budget 2022. (File photo: CNA/Jeremy Long)

SINGAPORE: Finance Minister Lawrence Wong's leadership amid the COVID-19 pandemic helped to cement his position as the leader of Singapore's fourth-generation (4G) team, political observers told CNA on Thursday (Apr 14).

Earlier in the evening, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that Mr Wong had been selected as the leader of the fourth-generation People's Action Party (PAP) leadership team.

"After a process of consultation, Cabinet ministers affirmed today their choice of Minister Lawrence Wong as the leader of the 4G team," said Mr Lee.

"This decision was endorsed by all Government members of parliament in a party caucus this evening." 

Speaking to CNA, Associate Professor of Law Eugene Tan from the Singapore Management University said that the COVID-19 pandemic provided the platform for Mr Wong to show his "capabilities and leadership style" which won colleagues over.

This, Assoc Prof Tan said, would not have been apparent a year ago.

"If we cast our eyes back to when DPM Heng was chosen as the 4G leader of leaders and when he stepped aside, yes, it is somewhat surprising. But if his profile and prominence in the last 3 years, then it is not surprising at all. Mr Wong finished most strongly in an extended 'race'," he added.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Wong has fronted key announcements as co-chair of the multi-ministry task force. Then the Minister for National Development when he was appointed co-chair, Mr Wong helped coordinate responses across different government agencies, working alongside fellow co-chair Gan Kim Yong, the Health Minister at the time.

"I believe the 4G team felt that he is the best person to rally and build the team and to inspire the best from each of them. They probably also factored the important consideration of who would also be most able to rally Singaporeans behind the ruling party and government," added Assoc Prof Eugene Tan.

"This factor is important in a more contested and competitive political landscape."

Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a Senior International Affairs Analyst at Solaris Strategies Singapore, noted that Mr Wong's "laudable leadership" during the pandemic catapulted him to the pole position in the race to become the next Prime Ministers.

"He proved his mettle during the pandemic to take on the mantle of the highest political leadership of Singapore," added Dr Izzuddin.

Mr Wong has been "ahead of the pack" ever since Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat decided to step aside, said Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser of the Department of Sociology at the National University of Singapore.

"I think he was confirmed because of his key role as FM (Finance Minister) in which he comes across as empathetic, yet firm and resolute," said Assoc Prof Tan Ern Ser.

RELATABILITY AND EMPATHY

One of the things that helped set Mr Wong apart was his ability to explain complex policies in an accessible way to the average Singaporean, noted Assoc Prof Eugene Tan.

"His ability to emote and his firmness in implementing tough measures during the pandemic and to say so without fear or favour," he added.

Mr Wong's relatability and empathy also helped to set him apart, noted Assoc Prof Tan Ern Ser.

Nanyang Technological University political observer Felix Tan said that Mr Wong had been in the news for “all the right reasons” since the start of the pandemic. 

“Helming one of the most crucial crises management taskforce - the COVID-19 MTF - has definitely put him in the right place to demonstrate what he is capable of. And to that, one would need to give Mr Wong the credit to be able to pull off such a feat,” said Dr Tan.

“The nature and extent of the COVID-19 crisis are unprecedented and clearly, his management of the task force over the last 2 years has placed him in a better position in the eyes of many Singaporeans. Moreover, as the Finance Minister, he has had to make several financial and economic policy choices that are painful and yet, at the same time, necessary and measured.”

Dr Tan also pointed out that Mr Wong's public persona has also been “well-received” by many Singaporeans who view that he is able to touch base with many youths and social issues, such as race and religion. 

All these things helped put Mr Wong in the lead, he noted.

“His calm demeanour, which is rather understated at times, definitely sets him apart from the rest,” said Dr Tan.

“Mr Wong has brought to the table a certain amount of rationality, persuasiveness and articulation of his ideas in the simplest of terms that sets him apart from the others.”

Dr Woo Jun Jie, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), noted that Mr Wong brings “strong policy experience” to his new leadership role. 

“This includes his public service experience in the Ministry of Finance and the Energy Market Authority (EMA). His experience as Chief Executive of EMA will be particularly significant as Singapore faces potential challenges from climate change and energy shocks,” said Dr Woo.

“Most importantly, his experience as co-chair of the MTF and Finance Minister has allowed him to build up strong experience in strategic leadership. These are important roles that require coordinating the efforts of different ministries and agencies as well as gaining the trust and support of other ministers.”

Dr Felix Tan noted that the timing of the announcement would give Mr Wong and his team more “bandwidth” to work around to galvanise support for any new initiatives that are already in the pipeline. 

“The announcement at this point in time will allow more Singaporeans to give him the chance to demonstrate how else he can provide to Singaporeans, be it in economic and financial aid due to the rising cost of living; or even to mitigating other social issues that have come to the fore, such as that of race and religion,” he added.

NEXT ELECTION

With this decision, Mr Lee will make adjustments to Cabinet appointments, which he said will be announced in due course. 

Last November, Mr Lee said that Singapore's 4G team needed a "little longer" to choose the country's next leader, but the decision will come well before the next election. 

"As the situation stabilises, settling on my successor will be an important matter which cannot be put off indefinitely," said Mr Lee, speaking at the Suntec Convention Centre during the People's Action Party (PAP) Convention 2021.

"The 4G team will need a little longer to make a decision. But I am confident that they will settle it well before the next General Election comes around."

Assoc Prof Tan Ern Ser predicted that Mr Lee will likely see through the next General Election and step down within a year thereafter.

Assoc Prof Eugene Tan shared somewhat similar sentiments.

"I expect PM Lee to lead the PAP in the next GE and for Mr Wong to be handed the baton within 12-18 months of the next GE," he said.

"Mr Wong still needs to be better known and the process of winning the trust and confidence is a continuous endeavour."

Source: CNA/mt(ac)
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