During his time, founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew won praise from leaders both in the East and West, but the man who has been announced to be the next leader of Singapore may well yet face a tougher time ahead.
Maintaining good relations between China and the West will be somewhat trickier for Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, who was proclaimed last month as the head of the ruling People’s Action Party’s fourth generation of leaders (4G), and thus, successor to Lee Kuan Yew’s son, Lee Hsien Loong.
A May 2 article in The Financial Times (FT) outlines the challenges Mr Wong faces, as Singapore counts the United States as the country’s largest foreign investor while China is its biggest trade partner.
Indeed, Mr Wong has already touched on the topic, wondering aloud during a business conference last month if the world is becoming more “divided, bifurcated,” in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Finance Minister asked, “Will we start to see… an erosion of the international, rules-based order that has enabled small countries like Singapore to thrive and prosper?”
FT added that while Mr Wong has openly recognized that the global environment has become tenser, he also welcomed plans from the US to “economic framework” in the Indo-Pacific, as well as suggested that China could one day join it.
“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, the rivalry between the two great powers — US and China — has intensified, and will impact the world for the rest of the decade and more.”
The piece pointed out that playing ball on both teams could be problematic back home for Mr Wong.
A 2021 Pew Research Center study said that around 64 per cent of Singaporeans have a favourable view of China, in contrast to a median of 27 per cent among the 17 advanced economies that were surveyed.
The study also showed that Singapore was the only country where more people preferred close economic ties with China than with the US.
“We feel a certain sympathy, even empathy, for the Chinese. We no longer trust western politicians. We no longer trust the western media,” a former independent MP was quoted in FT as saying.
A growing rate of inequality is also listed in the piece as having contributed to the dissatisfaction Singaporeans have felt toward the open market economy that Mr Wong has embraced.
Hong Kong-based academic Donald Low is quoted as saying, “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. Voters have a voice. Whether that means Singapore cannot find this delicate balance, that remains to be seen.”
FT also wrote that there are many in Singapore who continue to hope that the country can be friendly with all, and no one’s enemy.
Former chief economist at sovereign wealth fund GIC, Yeoh Lam Keong, said that while he supports Singapore’s stance on Ukraine, he is uncertain whether it was “the smart thing to do.”
Singapore, he said, could have been “invaded and taken over” had it taken a stand against Nazi Germany, adding, “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.”