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Lawrence Wong: Will the next Finance Minister become the next PM – this time?

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

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Finance Ministers do not necessarily become Prime Ministers. But being a Finance Minister at a time like now is significant. So I would say Lawrence Wong is very much the man of the hour. Watch this space. Do not take your eyes off this tea leaf swirling in the midst of a leadership-testing pandemic.

Of course, former Finance Ministers Goh Keng Swee, Lim Kim San, Hon Sui Sen, Tony Tan, Richard Hu and Tharman Shanmugaratnam did not become PM (one, Tony Tan, went on to be the President by the skin of his teeth and contributed to the birth of the Progress Singapore Party because of a disgruntled Tan Cheng Bock). But Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong did. Heng Swee Keat would have been the third FM to be PM. He was meant to be the DPM and Finance Minister leading the party and nation through Covid-19 and GE2020 on his way to the Istana. But we know what happened to him, with all due respect to his undoubted performance as FM.

In the original PAP 4G Leadership Transition Plan, there were really two contenders to be future PM – the ultimate government insider and economic tsar (Heng) versus the helicoptered let’s have a show of hands SAF general (Chan Chun Sing). Both turned out to be poor public communicators, for different reasons, which might not have been such a hurdle in the pre-Internet days but can lose the ruling party chunks of votes and dampen public trust and confidence nowadays especially when Opposition rivals are getting better than you in relating to the ground or in live parliamentary debates or any kind of open debate captured on Skype, Zoom or YouTube.

Heng has opted out, Chan is still plugging on but this time he is no longer so pre-eminent. He is merely one of a trio – he, Ong Ye Kung and Wong – in the race to be PM.

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The odds favour Lawrence Wong. He has a number of factors in his favour.

His co-chairmanship of the Multi-ministry Task Force to handle Covid-19 shot him into contention for top level Cabinet posts even before he was being touted as a possible PM. Every other night, even as the virus raged through the foreign workers’ dormitories, he showed he was on top of the facts as he explained, with Kenneth Mak, MOH director of medical services, and Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, what was happening and the steps being taken to deal with each development. He has been doing this quite impressively since the outbreak of Covid-19 in early 2020 and the last press conference just took place on April 22, 2021. New Health Minister Ong will join him as co-chair of the MTF and will also be at the press conferences. He has some catching up to do, although as Transport Minister, he has had enough front-line experience in dealing with the public.

If the People’s Action Party is genuinely keen to have a post-Heng/Chan reset, the race will obviously be down from a trio to just a pair – Wong and Ong.

Of the two, Wong does not have historical baggage. He has not lost any election (as Ong had in the Aljunied GRC in GE2011), so does not have a loser’s tag should he go on to be the next PM. It is unfair to Ong but it may a factor in a everything being equal situation.

I have every confidence that Ong will buckle down in his new appointment as Health Minister and probably be a good one, like Gan Kim Yong. But, for the time being, he may be slightly in the shadow of Lawrence Wong.

Wong has a huge job and big boots to fill. Finance has always been a key ministry from the start of Singapore’s independence. All the names mentioned in the second paragraph of this column are mostly men of calibre, with unquestioned integrity and financial expertise. One or two were even legendary.

In normal times, the search for a competent Finance Minister would have been demanding in itself. Today, getting the right person for the post of Finance Minister of Singapore – a financial centre and a country with a growing economy – is even more exacting.

On top of everything, Wong has now to step into Heng Swee Keat’s role to deal with the economic disruption caused Covid-19.

Being appointed Finance Minister at a time like this when billions of dollars have to be justified and spent says something about Wong’s leadership trajectory. If he can continue to co-lead the MTF in the same unruffled and focused way that has won him no small measure of public confidence, Singapore’s next Finance Minister may well be the next PM – this time.

 

Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.

 

 

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