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Singapore’s next leader faces challenge to be friend of both east and west

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister who built the foundations for the city-state, was different things to different people. Former British foreign secretary George Brown called him the “best bloody Englishman east of Suez”. The Chinese government described Lee upon his death as a “strategist embodying Oriental values”.

Singapore’s next leader will find it harder to be a friend to everyone.

Finance minister Lawrence Wong, 49, was confirmed last month as the successor to Lee Hsien Loong, son of Lee Kuan Yew and the current prime minister. But Wong, who would be only the fourth prime minister in the quasi-authoritarian state’s 56-year history, faces a more difficult task than any of his predecessors in maintaining friendly relations with China and the west.

Lee Kuan Yew’s pragmatic vision was to create an international financial powerhouse by building an open economy with close ties to both east and west. Today, Singapore trades more with China than any other country and the US is its biggest foreign investor.

But recent foreign policy moves have highlighted the increasing challenge of maintaining that balance. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the government condemned and imposed sanctions on Moscow, in a rare break from its cautious approach to diplomacy.

During a business conference in March, Wong expressed concern that mounting global tensions would overshadow the city-state.

“Will we, with this event happening, be entering a more divided, a more bifurcated world? Will we start to see . . . an erosion of the international, rules-based order that has enabled small countries like Singapore to thrive and prosper?” he asked.

Wong, who as with every prime minister to precede him is ethnically Chinese and western educated, became a member of parliament in 2011 after more than a decade in the civil service.

Lawrence Wong will be Singapore’s fourth prime minister since independence in 1965 © Lauryn Ishak/Bloomberg

During the coronavirus pandemic, he co-chaired the committee that led Singapore’s virus response before becoming finance minister last year.

Wong, whose party has yet to reveal when he will take control, has recited Singapore’s economic mantra during his time as finance minister, emphasising that the city-state remained open to businesses and workers from around the world.

While acknowledging the increasingly fraught global environment, he has welcomed US plans to build an “economic framework” in the Indo-Pacific, even suggesting China could one day join the pact.

“We have entered a new era of greater contestation for influence between countries and blocks, which may erode the rules-based multilateral system that has been so crucial to Singapore’s success. In particular, rivalry between the two great powers — US and China — has intensified, and will impact the world for the rest of the decade and more,” he said in February.

Linda Lim, a business professor at the University of Michigan who knew Wong when he studied there, described him as a “technocrat” who would maintain the status quo. The problem, she added, is that the “status quo [is] evolving”.

“If we were still in the 1990s or early 2000s, someone like Lawrence Wong would fit right in. How someone like that would fit in now is an unknown,” said Ian Chong, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore who performed his national service with Wong.

Wong’s team declined to comment directly on what to expect from his administration. But they pointed to a press conference held following the announcement of his succession, when the finance minister stressed his desire to lead as a team, adding “it is never about one person”.

Co-operating with both sides could also cause Wong trouble at home. About 64 per cent of Singaporeans view China favourably, according to a Pew Research Center study released last year, compared with a median of just 27 per cent in the 17 advanced economies surveyed. Only in Singapore did more people prefer close economic ties with China to with the US.

“We feel a certain sympathy, even empathy, for the Chinese,” said one former independent MP.

“We no longer trust western politicians. We no longer trust the western media,” the person added.

Rising inequality has also stoked frustration with the open market economy championed by Wong and western leaders.

“There is a big overlap between those who are more sceptical of that western world order and those who may have not benefited much from globalisation,” said Donald Low, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and a former civil servant in Singapore.

“Voters have a voice. Whether that means Singapore cannot find this delicate balance, that remains to be seen.”

Wong is unlikely to be seriously challenged in an election: the ruling People’s Action party has won every vote since independence.

Many Singaporeans cling to the hope that the country can remain a friend to all and enemy to none.

“Morally, I support [Singapore’s stance on Ukraine],” said Yeoh Lam Keong, former chief economist at GIC, Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund. But “I’m not sure it’s the smart thing to do”, he added.

He pointed to Switzerland during the second world war, claiming it “may have been invaded and taken over” if it had condemned Nazi Germany. “You have got to think in the best interests of your country . . . For small countries it is not a matter of choice, it is a matter of survival.”

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