Singapore’s PM Lawrence Wong takes office warning of ‘more violent’ world

Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong is sworn in as Singapore's fourth Prime Minister at the Istana, in Singapore, May 15, 2024. REUTERS/Edgar Su/Pool
Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong is sworn in as Singapore's fourth Prime Minister at the Istana, in Singapore, May 15, 2024. REUTERS/Edgar Su/Pool

By Philip J. Heijmans

(Bloomberg) — Lawrence Wong was sworn in as the fourth prime minister of Singapore on Wednesday evening, leading a trade-dependent nation he warned would face turbulence from worsening geopolitical tensions.

The 51-year-old Harvard graduate takes office with rising concerns in the Southeast Asian nation over the cost of living, strained US-China ties and wars in the Mideast and Ukraine that have put Singapore’s economy in a delicate position.

“The great powers are competing to shape a new, yet undefined, global order,” Wong said after taking the oath of office on the lawn of the presidential residence. “We must brace ourselves to these new realities and adapt to a messier, riskier, and more violent world.”

The new prime minister, who won praise while managing the city-state’s response to the COIVD-19 pandemic, takes over from Lee Hsien Loong, who served in the post for two decades. Wong’s ascent marks a rare transition of power for a ruling party that has dominated Singapore since independence in 1965.

Wong said his leadership reflects not just a changing of the political guard, but a generational change as well since he, and most of his Cabinet, were born after Singapore’s independence.

“We will lead in our own way,” he said, issuing a call to younger Singaporeans to take on a bigger role in public service.

When it comes to geopolitics, Wong reiterated that Singapore would continue to engage with both Washington and Beijing. China has historically been the nation’s biggest trading partner, while the US is the largest foreign investor and a critical military partner.

To address cost of living concerns that have spiked since the pandemic, Wong has pledged to boost safety nets and re-skilling programs as part of a national strategy focusing on income and wealth inequality. He pitched a budget this year that included S$5 billion ($3.7 billion) for measures including cash payouts and tax breaks, a figure that will reach nearly S$40 billion by the end of the decade.

Singapore’s central bank stuck to a positive economic forecast of 1%-3% growth this year, but it warned that escalating tensions in the Middle East and the risk of a delayed easing in global interest rates remain a threat.

Wong will retain his role as finance minister, a post he has held since 2021. He tapped Trade Minister Gan Kim Yong to be his deputy, while keeping much of the rest of the cabinet intact as the ruling People’s Action Party heads into a general election that must be held by November 2025.

Reflecting the country’s multi-ethnic composition, Wong used excerpts of his speech to shift from English to Malay and Mandarin – all official languages along with Tamil. And he voiced confidence that Singapore could navigate the complicated international scene.

“Fortunately, our international standing is high and the Singapore brand is admired and trusted worldwide,” Wong said.

He emphasised continuity with the government of former Prime Minister Lee, who navigated the country through the global financial crisis and helped transform Singapore into one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Lee is remaining in government as a senior minister.

“He devoted every measure of his being to his country and his people,” Wong said. “We owe him a great debt of gratitude.”

Even with public support for Wong at home appearing strong for now, internal scandals over the past year, including a corruption case against a former cabinet minister, have rattled the PAP’s reputation for clean governance.

“Lawrence Wong is definitely going to have a lot cut out for him in his first year,” Nydia Ngiow, managing director at business consultancy BowerGroupAsia in Singapore, said earlier on Wednesday.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.