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Connecting Dots Across Asia's Tech and Urban Landscape
DPM Lawrence Wong will be Singapore's fourth prime minister on May 15. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

7 things to know about Singapore’s next prime minister Lawrence Wong

SINGAPORE – As Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong prepares to helm the Government from May 15, The Straits Times compiles seven things about the 51-year-old leader.

1. Leading the Forward Singapore exercise

Launched by DPM Wong in June 2022, the Forward Singapore exercise saw fourth-generation (4G) People’s Action Party leaders hold frequent dialogues with Singaporeans to hear their concerns and needs as the team worked on a road map for the future of Singapore.

More than 200,000 Singaporeans were involved in the nationwide engagement exercise.

A 180-page report released in October 2023 charted a pathway for making Singapore more vibrant and inclusive, fair and thriving, as well as resilient and united. The plan includes more help for groups such as the less well-off, mid-career workers and seniors, through means such as additional financial support and improved infrastructure.

The report also assured Singaporeans that more would be done to ensure that their basic needs at every life stage will be met, such as in education, housing, healthcare and retirement.

The first instalment of the Forward Singapore agenda was rolled out in Budget 2024, with moves to improve the SkillsFuture scheme for mid-career workers and offer more support for Institute of Technical Education (ITE) graduates.

This set of measures will cost around $5 billion in the 2024 financial year. All the programmes from the Forward Singapore exercise will cost close to $40 billion by the end of the decade.

2. Becoming PM-in-waiting

In April 2022, DPM Wong, then solely Finance Minister, was selected as leader of the PAP’s 4G team by his peers, paving the way for him to be Singapore’s next prime minister.

This came after Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, previously selected as leader of the 4G team, announced in 2021 that he would step aside for a younger person.

The 4G ministers then asked for more time to reach a consensus on their next leader, as the country was still battling the Covid-19 pandemic.

Eventually, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong tasked former minister Khaw Boon Wan to lead a consultation process where he met each 4G minister individually after the Budget debate in March 2022.

In the end, 15 of the 19 individuals chose Mr Wong as their preferred 4G leader, and he took on the additional role of DPM on June 13, 2022.

Since the vote of confidence, DPM Wong has put in effort to cover all bases.

Besides leading the Forward Singapore engagement exercise, he has also announced plans to renew, refresh and strengthen the PAP. He began visits to meet activists from all of PAP’s branches.

He has made clear strides in improving his command of Mandarin, and has represented Singapore internationally.

In 2023, he took over from DPM Heng as co-chair of the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation, the platform for high-level inter-governmental engagement between Singapore and China.

More recently, DPM Wong visited Germany and France in his first trip to Europe in his current capacity, and met senior government and industry leaders of both countries. He also spent 10 days in the US in October 2023.

At the PAP convention in November 2023, PM Lee had said that he would hand over leadership to DPM Wong by November 2024, ahead of the party’s 70th birthday.

3. Co-chair of multi-ministry task force on Covid-19

In 2020, then Health Minister Gan Kim Yong had an idea to assemble a group to lead Singapore’s fight against an emerging pandemic. DPM Wong was his pick to co-chair what would eventually be the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19.

The two men fronted media conferences almost daily, as they debated policy moves behind closed doors and explained the various decisions in front of the cameras.

DPM Wong was unflappable throughout the crisis, as he explained policies clearly and calmly, and laid out the various needs and trade-offs to Singaporeans.

On one occasion in March 2020, the usually dispassionate DPM Wong choked back tears as he paid tribute to front-liners as he spoke in Parliament.

The two co-chairs were later joined by Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, who came on board in April 2021.

The task force eventually stood down in February 2023, turning a page on the country’s three-year fight against Covid-19.

DPM Wong, however, remained cautious in the final media conference. He told Singaporeans that the Government would continue to maintain a high level of alertness and preparedness.

This was because the virus would continue to evolve, and new infection waves would come from time to time – a take that time proved right.

4. Delivering the Budget

Since taking on the role of finance minister in May 2021, DPM Wong has delivered three Budgets, each memorable in its own way.

Budget 2022 included a slew of progressive tax measures aimed not only at generating revenues to fund major programmes needed in the coming years, but also at addressing social inequalities.

He announced that the goods and services tax (GST) hike would be staggered over two steps, with a one percentage point increase each year in 2023 and 2024, to reach 9 per cent.

At the same time, he assured Singaporeans that the impact of the GST increase would be cushioned, especially for low-income households, with the roll-out of the Assurance Package that includes cash handouts, rebates and CDC vouchers.

Budget 2023 continued to make the tax system more progressive, such as the buyer’s stamp duty regime for properties and additional registration fee tiers for cars.

It also tackled the longstanding issue of low fertility, with boosts to the Baby Bonus scheme and doubling of paternity leave – in what was referred to tongue-in-cheek as a Valentine’s Day Budget delivered on Feb 14.

Budget 2024 consisted of measures based on the Forward Singapore agenda. The measures included further SkillsFuture support for mid-career workers, a new award to encourage more young ITE graduates to upskill, and enhancements to retirement support schemes for seniors who need more help.

5. Well known for strong policy work in public service

Before entering politics in 2011, DPM Wong had a career in public service that spanned 14 years, with stints at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Health after he returned from overseas studies.

He obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, respectively, and a master’s degree in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School.

As a public servant, he was well known for his strong policy work and grasp of economics.

Some even saw him as a policy wonk, or someone with a particularly keen interest in the finer details of policy.

Early in his career, he rebuffed offers from the private sector, as he felt that public service allowed him to do different projects and shape schemes that could help Singaporeans.

In 2005, he became principal private secretary to PM Lee – a role that no doubt helped lay a solid foundation for him to take over the eventual running of the country.

He was later also appointed chief executive of the Energy Market Authority.

Colleagues in the public service have described him as someone who was always open to discussions and different viewpoints, while being willing and firm enough to make a decision.

6. From playing guitar to riding motorbikes

It is an open secret that DPM Wong is a music buff, and that his favourite instrument is the guitar.

Yet, people are still surprised when they come across clips of him jamming away to timeless tunes from the rock, blues and soul genres – such as a December 2022 clip showcasing his rendition of Chuck Berry’s guitar solo in the song Johnny B. Goode. The videos of him performing show a rarer, relaxed side of him, absorbed in the moment.

His father gave him a guitar when he was eight, and music has remained an integral part of his life.

As a student in the US, he went busking with his American roommate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

It was also during his years at university that he learnt to ride a motorcycle. In August 2022, he rode a Royal Enfield Classic 500 motorcycle as part of a convoy to raise funds for the Children’s Cancer Foundation.

DPM Wong said then that he previously owned a Suzuki street bike that he used to get around the city of Madison in Wisconsin as a student.

While he had a scooter for a period of time after returning to Singapore, it had been more than 20 years since he last rode a bike, he said then.

DPM Wong is also known to be a dog lover. His 16-year-old golden retriever Summer died in July 2020.

Mr Lawrence Wong with his golden retriever, Summer, in 2017. PHOTO: LAWRENCE WONG/INSTAGRAM

Outside these hobbies, those familiar with DPM Wong say that he is a fairly private man, particularly when it comes to his family.

7. Marine Parade boy

DPM Wong grew up in the Marine Parade Housing Board estate, where he attended a PAP Community Foundation kindergarten before going to Haig Boys’ Primary, where his mother was a teacher.

Being more bookish than sporty, he would hang out at the old Marine Parade library to borrow books on science fiction and guitars.

He has reminisced fondly about growing up in Marine Parade and his experiences at East Coast Park, and has shared old photos of his childhood years.

He attended Tanjong Katong Secondary Technical School and Victoria Junior College before pursuing tertiary education in the United States.

His father, who died in August 2021 at age 86, was born in China’s Hainan Island and left for Ipoh in Malaysia as a young boy.

After completing his secondary education, the elder Mr Wong moved to Singapore, where he worked in sales for Sime Darby.

DPM Wong’s mother was a teacher for 40 years.

DPM Wong, who has a brother who is older than him by two years, is married to Ms Loo Tze Lui. The couple do not have children.

Source: Straits Times

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