‘We are prepared to relook everything’: Lawrence Wong on a changing society and his hopes for S’pore

When asked about his leadership style, DPM Lawrence Wong said he will be open and consultative, but he will not shirk from doing what is necessary for Singapore's future. - ST

SINGAPORE: Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong wants Singapore to be a place that embraces different pathways to success, with people from all walks of life assured of the basics – such as housing, education, healthcare and retirement needs – as long as they work consistently.

DPM Wong, who will be sworn in as the next prime minister on May 15, added that in considering the best way to take Singapore forward, the country is prepared to relook fundamental assumptions as society’s circumstances, needs and expectations change.

“It is not so much that we are going to slay a sacred cow for the sake of doing so,” he said in an hour-long interview on May 10, where he outlined his approach to governance and his aspirations for Singapore.

“But we are prepared to re-examine all our assumptions and consider, under different circumstances, different societal expectations and needs – what might we do differently?”

This process started with the Forward Singapore exercise, said DPM Wong, who launched the movement to refresh the social compact together with the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) fourth-generation leadership team.

For instance, Singapore has updated its definition of public housing and substantially improved the SkillsFuture scheme.

The upcoming unemployment benefit scheme, which the Government will announce details of soon, is also something that Singapore had previously said it would not have, DPM Wong added.

“Now, under different circumstances, recognising that the economic environment is going to be more volatile, that the pace of change will be faster, technological advancements are continuing and therefore jobs will be disrupted more and more, we feel it is necessary to have some support system in place.”

DPM Wong said the system must leave Singaporeans assured that they will be able to bounce back stronger from setbacks.

“And this assurance, this support, has to be provided not just by the Government alone, but it also has to be something provided by all of us in society.”

Beyond ‘Swiss standard of living’

In terms of economic growth, Singapore is currently at a high level of development and ranks quite highly in areas such as housing, healthcare, education and transport, said DPM Wong, who is also finance minister.

He noted how former prime minister Goh Chok Tong had in 1984 held up the “Swiss standard of living” as a target for Singaporeans to aspire towards.

Today, it is very hard to identify any single benchmark like this, DPM Wong said.

“In this new phase, we are in uncharted territory. We have to find our way forward,” he added.

“We have to still learn from the best, find best practices, but we have to break new ground. We have to find fresh solutions for our problems and challenges.”

The way forward will involve harnessing the collective energies of all Singaporeans, he said.

Building shared consensus

On the topic of building a shared consensus in the face of differing opinions, DPM Wong laid out two roles he sees for the Government.

At times, it may have to embark on policies it believes are necessary and important after having sounded out different segments of society, even if it knows they are unpopular.

“In such instances, then the Government will have to carry the decision,” DPM Wong said.

“We will have to explain, engage with the public, why we think this is important and hopefully be able to persuade Singaporeans to move along.”

Other instances may involve groups with contradictory views, he said. These could include debates on sensitive issues such as the wearing of tudung in workplaces and the decision to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code.

In such cases, the Government may prefer not to take the lead but allow social norms to evolve organically.

Its role here is to be “more of a facilitator, a listener, an honest broker”, DPM Wong said.

“We find ways to get the different groups to come together, engage one another, listen to each other’s views, and find accommodation and compromise. And then think about what is the best way for Singapore to move forward without fracturing our society.”

In response to a question about the evolving Singaporean identity, DPM Wong stressed the importance of finding common ground, even as every community should feel valued and be able to continue with its customs.

He added that Singapore will always be susceptible to powerful external forces that can influence different segments of people through the deep ancestral or cultural links they may share with communities overseas.

“Even as we maintain these links, we must be mindful that we are first and foremost Singaporeans,” he said. “And while we have these links, we must continually work towards strengthening our Singaporean identity and expanding the common ground that we all share as Singaporeans.”

Turning to the topic of foreign policy, DPM Wong noted that Singapore’s leadership transition takes place at a time of great shifts in the wider world.

“The world is changing, and it is going to be a new global order, which is likely to be very messy and unpredictable because the world is in flux,” he said.

He reiterated that Singapore’s approach is to stick to its national interests and act in a consistent and principled way. From time to time, Singapore will say or do things that some countries may not be so happy with, he added.

“It could be China one day, it could be the US another day. We are not here to find a balance between the two,” DPM Wong said.

“If one day I take a position against one country, the next day I have to find another thing to say for the other country so that I can somehow achieve some perceived balance – that is not our approach.”

The silver lining is that Asia will continue to be the centre of gravity of the global economy with many companies wanting to have a presence here, and not just in China or any one country.

“Therefore, Asean becomes an attractive proposition. And within Asean, Singapore also has a very high level of international reputation today. We are admired, we are trusted,” DPM Wong said.

The road ahead

Asked about his interactions with young Singaporeans during the Forward Singapore exercise, DPM Wong said he had the sense that they would like to contribute to something larger than themselves.

The Forward Singapore report, released in October 2023, had noted that Singaporeans no longer focus on the “five Cs” of condominium, car, cash, credit card and country club membership.

“There were critics who said, ‘Oh, that means that young Singaporeans cannot aspire towards the Singapore dream of the five Cs any more’,” DPM Wong said. “But that is not the case. I think that is misconstrued, and that is completely inaccurate.”

His view is that young Singaporeans want to have a good life that is measured not only by narrow metrics based on material success, but also by meaning and purpose.

“I think these are very noble aspirations,” he said, adding that the Government will help young Singaporeans realise them.

DPM Wong was also asked how he would characterise his leadership style.

“I will be open, consultative, I will listen,” he said. “But in the end, I will not shirk from doing the right thing and the important decisions that are necessary to take Singapore forward.”

He added: “I do not have to write my legacy today. Hopefully, at the end of my time and my tenure, I will leave people to write my legacy and what kind of a prime minister I am.” - The Straits Times/ANN

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