Singapore to get guitar-playing new PM in first transfer of power for 20 years

<span>Lawrence Wong will become the fourth prime minister to lead Singapore after the departure of Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday.</span><span>Photograph: Sonny Tumbelaka/AP</span>
Lawrence Wong will become the fourth prime minister to lead Singapore after the departure of Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday.Photograph: Sonny Tumbelaka/AP

Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, will stand down on Wednesday and hand power to his deputy Lawrence Wong, the first change of power in the city state in two decades.

Wong, 51, a US-trained economist credited with managing the country’s response to the pandemic, will be the fourth prime minister to lead Singapore, and is the first leader to have been born after the country’s independence in 1965. He is also only the second leader who is not a member of the founding Lee family. He will be inaugurated in a ceremony on Wednesday night.

Wong, who will receive a S$2.2m (US$1.6m) salary, takes office at a challenging time for the city state, where there are growing domestic concerns about the cost of living, inequality and immigration. Singapore, which is highly dependent on foreign trade, also finds itself vulnerable to wider global instability, including rivalry between the US and China.

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Outgoing prime minister Lee has ruled Singapore since 2004, overseeing economic growth in one of the world’s wealthiest countries. “He helped Singapore grasp the liberalisation of the global economy through trade, and especially through finance and financial services,” said Ja Ian Chong, associate professor at the National University of Singapore.

But the world in which Lee has operated in is eroding, added Chong. “What we’re heading into now, is a period where globally there is less interest in as much economic integration. And you see that with the increasing disconnect between the US and the PRC [People’s Republic of China].”

Singapore maintains a delicate balancing act between China and the US. The former is Singapore’s largest trading partner, though Singapore also has military ties with the US, which accounts for more than 20% of all foreign direct investment in Singapore.

Wong has stressed continuity, said Chong, who added that it’s unclear how the incoming prime minister will adapt to the new challenges facing Singapore. “In the Singapore system, the prime minister selection process is very opaque. It’s not like a more competitive system where people who compete for party leadership have to run a campaign, and by doing so they’re forced to lay out your vision.”

Wong, a former civil servant who first entered politics in 2011, comes from a more humble background than his predecessors. While outgoing prime minister Lee, 72, is the son of Lee Kuan Yew, who is widely regarded as the founder of modern Singapore, Wong grew up, like most Singaporeans, in public housing and did not attend an elite school.

Wong has sought to present himself as a more relatable politician over recent years, even posting a video of himself on social media playing guitar to Taylor Swift’s Love Story.

There is also a desire among younger voters for a change in the style of leadership in Singapore, in favour of something less paternalistic, and with more diversity of voices, said Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University. “The ruling [People’s Action] party has thrived because the third-to-first-world narrative resonates well with my parents and grandparents’ generation. But it doesn’t resonate so well with the millennials, and the Gen Z, because all they know is a first-world Singapore,” he said.

Wong would probably seek to make “ incremental changes to the political system”, he added.

The PAP, which has been in power since 1959, was also recently been rocked by a rare corruption scandal, which has had a “humbling effect” on the party – though it has not proved fatal, said Tan.

Lee’s handover had been planned for years. He previously said he planned to stand down before turning 70, but the carefully managed transition was delayed due to the pandemic.

Elections are due to be held before November 2025.