Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 15 May 2024

SINGAPORE RATS FEEL THE SQUEEZE IN THEIR SEWER

 Wong sworn in as Singapore prime minister


MERCEDES RUEHL — SINGAPORE · 16 May 2024


Lawrence Wong has been sworn in as Singapore’s leader, as the city-state charts a new path after decades of rule by the founding Lee family.

Wong is only the fourth prime minister of the Asian financial hub. He succeeds Lee Hsien Loong, who had led the tightly governed island nation since 2004 but announced he was stepping down last month.

A US-trained economist who has been deputy prime minister since 2022 and who also serves as finance minister, Wong was sworn in yesterday at the presidential palace, completing the rare political transition.

Speaking afterwards, Wong warned that Singapore was grappling with a “dangerous and troubled world”. The city-state had enjoyed 30 years of peace in Asia-Pacific since the end of the cold war but that “era is over”, he said.

As a small country with an open economy, Singapore would be affected by international conflict and rivalry, “marked by geopolitical tensions, protectionism and rampant nationalism”, Wong said in an often downbeat speech.

His succession was carefully choreographed by the People’s Action party, which has governed Singapore continuously since 1959. Lee, who oversaw 20 years of economic success for the citystate, will stay on as a senior minister.

Wong called the moment a “significant milestone”. “I am the first prime minister of Singapore to be born after independence [in 1965],” he said, adding that he and other so-called fourthgeneration politicians would differ from their predecessors. “We will lead in our own way. We will continue to think boldly and think far. We know that there is still much more to do,” he said.

On the domestic front, Wong and his team face increasing pressures over deepening inequality, higher living costs and local unhappiness over foreign workers, including expatriates.

Record capital inflows from greater China as well as countries such as India and the US since the pandemic have raised living costs and house prices.

A busy financial hub and trading centre of just 6mn people, Singapore is deeply reliant on overseas workers, from labourers to top-tier bankers. But the government has increasingly placed restrictions on businesses seeking to employ foreign talent in order to prioritise the local labour force.

Singapore, which has friendly relations with both the US and China, is also navigating a more febrile geopolitical backdrop in the Asia-Pacific region as a result of the superpowers’ rivalry. Wong said Singapore was “not here to find a balance” between Washington and Beijing. “We have to be guided by what is in Singapore’s national interest,” he said.

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