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‘A much bigger step forward’: Lawrence Wong on his journey to becoming Singapore’s fourth PM

SINGAPORE – In deciding to step up as Singapore’s fourth prime minister, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong considered the much larger scale of his future responsibilities and whether he was prepared to shoulder them.

Unlike his decision to join politics in 2011 and subsequent appointment as an office-holder, it was “not just about one ministry, one GRC”, he told reporters in an interview on May 10.

“Now you are talking about national responsibility, leading the party into (the general) election. So, it was a much bigger role. And I had to ask myself whether it was something I was prepared to do.”

Responding to a question on the differences between choosing to join politics and stepping up as prime minister, he added: “It is similar and yet it is different. Similar because it is still very much a continuation in my mind of public service. Different because obviously this is a much bigger step forward.”

DPM Wong said he had no idea what role he would take on when he entered politics.

“No one tells you. So you just know that you are entering politics and only later they assign you an appointment,” said DPM Wong, who is also finance minister.

He started out as a minister of state in the education and defence ministries in 2011.

While he had to adjust to the new role, he was prepared for what the job entailed, having worked with office-holders as a civil servant.

In contrast, the role of prime minister involves shouldering a much greater burden of responsibility.

“Yes, you are first among equals,” he said. “But I had seen also the scale of responsibilities, what it entails, and how much and what was involved in this job.”

DPM Wong said that having agreed to be part of the process of picking the People’s Action Party’s fourth-generation (4G) leader, he knew that he would accept the outcome and step up.

‘The work just gets bigger and bigger’

He started out as an economist in the Ministry of Trade and Industry upon returning from his studies in the US on a government scholarship.

Initially rejected by the prestigious Administrative Service, DPM Wong was not involved in a lot of policy work at first. His job was to crunch numbers, using economic models to analyse the likely impact of changes on the Singapore economy.

But he did not find this work particularly fulfilling, especially compared with what his peers were doing elsewhere.

“I figured… I can do exactly the same kind of economics work in the private sector too, and they are paying better,” he said.

“The thought did cross my mind: ‘Maybe I should just leave and join the private sector, maybe a bank’,” he added.

His bosses at the time – Mr Khaw Boon Wan and Mr Lim Siong Guan – persuaded him to stay. Mr Khaw later joined politics and was made a Cabinet minister, while Mr Lim went on to head the civil service and subsequently became group president of Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC.

“They said: ‘You are involved in doing economics work only now, but if you stay on, you may get exposure to other kinds of work, doing policy work, and you will find the work more meaningful and more interesting.’”

After becoming more involved in policy work, DPM Wong found this to be true, and eventually came to see public service as his calling.

“Each time, as I stayed on in the public service, each responsibility I got became progressively larger and larger; the work never shrinks, the work just gets bigger and bigger.”

He added that entering politics in 2011 was, to him, a continuation of public service.

“And that is why I have been in politics since then,” he said, looking back on his career. “I do not regret that at all.”

Leading in a crisis

When asked what he found most challenging during the Covid-19 pandemic, two situations came to his mind.

The first was the outbreak in cramped migrant worker dormitories at the beginning of the crisis, when little was known about the virus and no vaccine was available.

“We were really fighting in the fog of war and we did not have a lot of information,” said DPM Wong, who co-chaired the multi-ministry task force tackling the crisis.

“You could see, as we learnt more, how horrifying it was because the fatality rate was higher than the normal flu’s, and it was spreading so quickly.”

There was a very real risk that hospitals would be overwhelmed and death rates would consequently shoot up, as they did in other countries, he said.

It was a difficult decision to introduce the circuit breaker in April 2020, and also challenging to find additional capacity to strengthen Singapore’s hospitals, he said.

The second challenge arose later in the pandemic, when people grew frustrated as restrictions on social gatherings were reinstated to help Singapore’s healthcare system cope with new waves of the virus that caused infection rates to go up.

“That bumpiness and explaining to Singaporeans why and how we managed the balance – we want to get our lives back to normal, but we also have to make sure that we do not overwhelm the hospital system – that was also very challenging,” he said.

Choosing the next prime minister

When Mr Khaw interviewed DPM Wong as part of the process of picking the PAP’s 4G leader, he may have had an inkling that he was speaking to Singapore’s next prime minister.

But at the time, Mr Khaw dropped no hints as to who this was, DPM Wong said.

“He listened, he asked me some questions, and then at the end of it, he said: ‘There is a consensus emerging’,” said DPM Wong, who was interviewed midway through the three-week process.

“And that is all. So, I did not think very much of it. He did not tell me who it was. I did not ask; I did not probe.”

Mr Khaw had begun sounding out the Cabinet ministers individually on their pick for the 4G leader after DPM Heng Swee Keat stepped aside, citing his age as a key reason.

In the end, 15 of the 19 interviewed voted for DPM Wong as their top choice.

DPM Wong said he was surprised when Mr Khaw and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told him he had been selected, as was his wife when he broke the news to her at home.

“But we had been prepared for it because she knew I was part of this process. And we knew that going into this we would accept the outcome of the process,” he said. “And if this is the result, then I would step up and I would take on the responsibility.”


Asked if he was prepared to reveal more about his personal life as he takes over as Singapore’s fourth prime minister, he replied that he had been prepared for greater public scrutiny ever since he chose to enter politics.

“You have to open yourself up to the public and you have to be prepared for that,” he said.

But he is of the view that public scrutiny of politicians’ families is a different matter.

“Families are separate. Our families did not choose to be politicians. We are the ones who took the step forward. And so, people generally respect that, and that is a good thing,” DPM Wong said.

“But as far as I am concerned, I have made the choice… As I take on this new responsibility, if people would like to ask more information of me, find out more about me, I will be very happy to share.”

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