Inside Story

Dynasty’s end?

Singapore faces a future without a Lee

Michael Barr 7 May 2024 1500 words

“I am ready for my next assignment”: Singapore’s PM-elect, Lawrence Wong. Dan Istitene/Formula 1 via Getty Images

The mythmaking around the choice of Singapore’s new prime minister depicts the transition as a delicate balance of continuity and change: the island’s safe, technocratic leadership style will now manifest itself in Lawrence Wong, a smiling, guitar-strumming “everyman” who was born into an ordinary working family and attended an average neighbourhood school.

It’s a nice story, and superficially true, but it disguises a fundamental rupture in the established pattern of leadership in Singapore. The changing of the guard on 15 May starts an unprecedented process of moving Singapore’s centre of power away from the family of founding father Lee Kuan Yew.

It is far too early to be sure that the shift will be allowed to run its full course — there remains the outside possibility of another Lee coming to the fore — but even with this caveat, the Lee-centred dynamic within Singapore’s ruling elite can’t continue unchallenged or unchanged for more than a few years.

Since its foundation as a successful capitalist nation-state nearly sixty years ago, Singapore has been dominated politically, socially and economically by the Lee family. Indeed, it was moulded by the family’s patriarch and the country’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, a brilliant and ruthless politician who dominated the system long beyond his notional retirement, after a quarter of a century as PM, in 1990.

So intimately is Lee identified with Singapore’s achievements — and its very existence — that he named his memoirs The Singapore Story without raising too many eyebrows. To this day, nine years after his death in 2015, Singapore’s international brand remains intertwined with Lee Kuan Yew’s.

Goh Chok Tong followed Lee as prime minister in November 1990. Goh was not part of the Lee family, but in office he was surrounded by Lees. Lee Kuan Yew remained in cabinet (and the prime minister’s office) as senior minister. He was joined by his son, Lee Hsien Loong, who, as deputy prime minister, was immediately and universally identified as PM-in-waiting.

Goh was expected to be a seat warmer while Lee Hsien Loong built his CV, but everything changed in November 1992 when Lee Hsien Loong was diagnosed with cancer. Despite his illness, Lee stayed deputy PM with responsibility for the civil service, but the development nevertheless gave Goh the respite that enabled him to stay in office for fourteen years rather than the expected five or so.

Goh had some success in managing and tweaking the system Lee Kuan Yew had created, and he made a serious attempt to break free of the family’s power, but by the late 1990s he had surrendered domestic policy to his fully recovered deputy.

The prime ministership returned to the Lee family in 2004. Lee Hsien Loong might have been but a shadow of his father in terms of political ability, but his energy and his surname allowed him to dominate cabinet and politics for the next twenty years.

As of 15 May, the prime ministership will once again be sitting outside the Lee family, though only just outside. Like his father before him, Lee Hsien Loong will remain in cabinet as senior minister and is guaranteed an oversized influence on his successor, if for no other reason than that PM Wong owes his political career in its entirety to Lee’s patronage.

Without Lee, Wong would never have been an MP let alone PM. He has never been out of Lee’s shadow; and nor has he demonstrated any skills that would suggest he is capable of independent thought, action or risk taking. He has proven himself a capable administrator and communicator, but he doesn’t appear to share any ownership of the policies he is executing or communicating.

His fourteen years in the civil service and thirteen years in politics can be searched in vain for a single instance of initiative, or of breaking ranks with the group think of the Singapore civil service or the cabinet bubble. Nor does he claim any such highlights. His autobiographical accounts of his life are laced with words of humility and service but nary a word about risk — so much so that the highlight of his career before entering politics was three years working as PM Lee Hsien Loong’s principal private secretary. Little wonder that he accepted the top job by declaring, “I am ready for my next assignment.”

The Lee–Wong patron–client relationship makes Wong’s position fundamentally different from that of Goh Chok Tong in the early years of his premiership. Goh was not beholden to his predecessor to anywhere near this degree; he had family ties to the Lee family through his wife’s business activities but he looked to former deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee for patronage. The older Goh plucked the younger Goh from his career in Neptune Orient Lines and brought him into politics, eventually bequeathing him a power base in the defence ministry. Later, Lee Kuan Yew made a great show of claiming that Goh Chok Tong was not his preferred choice as his successor.

Wong’s extraordinary dependence on his predecessor makes his premiership unique, but the most fundamental change in this succession is that Lee Hsien Loong has been left without the likelihood that a family member will succeed him in politics.

Family relationships are a basic unit of power in the tiny, insular universe of Singapore’s elite politics. Whether by blood or marriage, they are the closest and most trusted of patron–client relationships.

Indeed, looking at the power and wealth that seems to congeal without effort around members of Singapore’s cabinet, their siblings and their children, an intergenerational family fortune seems a routine consequence of spending several decades of public service in politics. Without family members in politics, both reputational and financial legacies are at serious risk.

Note that a key reason Goh Chok Tong was unable to build an enduring power base during his premiership was the complete absence of relatives in politics by the time he was PM. In the 1990s Lee Kuan Yew had this buffer in place, but in recent years Lee Hsien Loong has not.

The only plausible candidate to take up the family mantle is his eldest son, Li Hongyi. If Li had entered politics at the 2020 election he would have been an experienced cabinet minister by now and on track for the premiership after perhaps a decade of rotating through a variety of portfolios. This looked to be the plan but the early efforts to build Li’s public profile prompted such a severe and widespread backlash that the idea was still-born. Lee Hsien Loong has been left with most of cabinet as his clients, but with no heir his personal power must be regarded as a diminishing asset.

The absence of a longer-term succession plan means that Lawrence Wong must meet a much higher standard of leadership. Wong is fifty-one years of age, which means he could be PM for up to twenty years. Heng Swee Keat, the man originally chosen to succeed Lee Hsien Loong, is twelve years older than Wong, a perfect age to act as a stopgap between Lee Hsien Loong and Li Hongyi, but that vacancy is no longer open. Short of an emergency draft of Li Hongyi sometime in the future, Singapore needs a new model for a PM.

Wong is indeed presenting his tenure as a new collegial style of governance: government by committee, which is certainly a necessary response to his own limitations as a leader. He enters his tenure with critical elements in place, notably a strongman (home affairs minister Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam) slapping down critical voices and a policy wonk (education minister Chan Chun Sing) looking to the future.

If Wong can keep the party’s popular vote healthy, if the government avoids any major administrative or policy failures, and if Lee Hsien Loong retains his authority in full, this is likely to be a satisfactory partnership. But none of these three elements can be assumed as medium-term, or even short-term fixtures.

The next general election, which must be held by November 2025 next year, is likely to be Wong’s first test. If that goes well for the government then he is probably safe, but only until either the following election or the next massive government failure, whichever comes first. This is the new normal in Singapore politics.

In a world in which there is no likely prospect of a succession to another Lee, the prime minister will be increasingly judged by performance and vulnerable to challenge if he is found wanting. Shanmugam will offer a considerable level of protection from external criticism, but unless members of the ruling elite are willing to expend their personal political capital protecting and supporting Wong (and why should they?) he will have to look out for himself.

Heng Swee Keat enjoyed the unwavering support of Lee Hsien Loong and all his cabinet colleagues — until he didn’t. Now it is Lawrence Wong’s turn. •