Lunch With Sumiko: 2020 feels like a lifetime for Lawrence Wong

Thrust into the spotlight as co-chair of the government task force on Covid-19, Lawrence Wong has come into his own. Executive Editor Sumiko Tan sits down with the Education Minister, whom some pundits think could well be a contender for prime minister one day.

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Sumiko Tan meets Lawrence Wong, Education Minister and co-chair of the multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19. They discuss the events of the past year and Mr Wong's hopes for Singapore's future.

Midway through my lunch with Lawrence Wong, I feel a sneeze coming. The air-con has been blowing on my back and my nose is, suddenly and ominously, tingling.

We've both taken off our face masks and are dissecting our main course of poached sea bass.

Sneezing during a meal is not the done thing in these Covid-19 times. Sneezing over the food of the co-chairman of Singapore's multi-ministry task force fighting the pandemic? I don't want to go there.

I swallow. Sip water. Push a finger against the side of my nose and, luckily, the moment passes. He is spared my aerosol spray.

This is my first in-person lunch interview since Singapore declared war on the pandemic in January. With fewer new cases, it seemed the right time to resume the series and the Education Minister has agreed to be my guest.

He's chosen Chez West, an elegant training restaurant at ITE College West in Choa Chu Kang. Our French dishes will be prepared and served by culinary students.

We wave hello when we meet and as we settle down at our table - we're the only guests - I wonder if I should take my mask off. But he keeps his on and so I do the same. We chat but sound muffled.

A student, John, fills our glasses with water. The minister removes his mask to drink and I gratefully follow suit.

Mr Wong listens encouragingly as John recites our set menu. We'll start off with vichyssoise but instead of soup, it'll be done as a foamy ball with caviar. Next will be tortellini, then sea bass rounded off with banana mousseline.

Wine? John asks, hopefully.

"Unfortunately, we won't be having it today. Too early," Mr Wong says. John looks disappointed and we let him practise describing the options to us anyway.

We're meeting in mid-October and Mr Wong is looking more rested than during the early days of the pandemic when cases were shooting through the roof.

"You know, the saying, right?" he says when I ask him to describe 2020 for him.

"There are decades when nothing happens and then there are weeks when decades happen. So this year feels like one of those times when everything happens. Like a lifetime has passed."

It's certainly been an exhausting year for him.

Together with Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, the other task force co-chair, he has been in the thick of managing Covid-19.

Then, as Second Minister for Finance, he was involved in the unprecedented four Budget packages of economic relief.

There was also the July 10 General Election where his Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC ward got a creditable 63.2 per cent of the vote. A Cabinet reshuffle saw him move from the National Development to Education Ministry.

And amid all this, his beloved 16-year-old golden retriever died in July.

The 47-year-old former civil servant has been in politics since 2011, steadily climbing up the ministerial ranks without attracting - or courting - much media attention.

Given his low profile, some were surprised when he was named co-chair of the task force. But, thrust into the spotlight, he has come into his own.

He and Mr Gan, 61, have been a calm and steady presence at the many media conferences they have held. While Mr Gan deals with the medical aspects, Mr Wong focuses on the nuts and bolts of managing the pandemic, including the circuit breaker.

His answers have been clear and persuasive and his manner unruffled. He doesn't grate or get in the way of the message.

He has a reputation among civil servants for being a smart, serious guy who gets the job done. A teary moment in Parliament in March, while he was paying tribute to front-liners, humanised him.

Some political pundits now say he could well be a contender for prime minister one day.

In our two-hour-plus conversation, he's straightforward and has a bit of a no-nonsense air. But when he talks about more relaxed topics, the minister, whose Instagram bio reads "bookworm, guitar player and dog lover", shows a warmer side.

Marine parade boy

By his own account, his was "just an ordinary family in Marine Parade".

His father, who's 85 and has dementia, was born in Hainan, went to Malaysia as a boy then came here to work and had a sales job in Sime Darby. His Singapore-born mother, 80, was a primary school teacher.

He has a brother, older by two years, who's an aerospace engineer at DSO Laboratories. Both attended Haig Boys' Primary where their mother taught. She was a disciplinarian in school and at home.

Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who is co-chair of the task force tackling Covid-19, says the pandemic has brought out the best of Singaporeans. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN


"I suppose that shaped me in a certain way," he says. "To have a strong sense of responsibility, of making sure that if I commit to something, I do it well."

He enjoyed school where he was more bookish than sporty. Weekends were a happy routine of "Saturday library, Sunday church".

He loved the old Marine Parade library where he would borrow science fiction and guitar books. His Sundays were spent at Bedok Methodist Church where he was a youth leader.

After Haig Boys', he went to Tanjong Katong Secondary Technical School, or TK Tech.

"Sometimes, some people will ask me, strangely, 'You know, why didn't you go to other schools?'

I suppose the presupposition is that you did well enough, why didn't you go to...," he trails off.

"RI?" I offer, referring to the elite Raffles Institution.

"Yah," he laughs. "I get that. But why? It was very natural to continue my education in a school that was near to home and where all my friends were, and I enjoyed myself tremendously."

After Victoria Junior College, he got a government scholarship to university. He chose the United States as it was home to his favourite musicians.

His father had given him a guitar when he was eight and he speaks about music with real enthusiasm. While schoolmates had pictures of their favourite celebrities in their school files, he had a picture of Eric Clapton's guitar. He loves rock, blues and soul, and jazz singers like Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he did economics, he and his American roommate went busking.

"I've never had, you know, huge ambitions as a child. I just went through the education system, enjoying the time with friends."

He sailed through his first two years in the US. Around his third year, he got a wake-up call.

Someone asked him to explain Singapore's economic model and he realised that while he knew textbook stuff, he didn't know much about Singapore.

"I thought, wow, this cannot be, right? I'm going to graduate in a subject without a mastery of the subject." He began reading anything he could get his hands on.

When he returned, he was posted to the Ministry of Trade and Industry and did economic modelling. Working with graduates of British universities, he realised other gaps in his education.

"I could run models and spreadsheets that they couldn't, but they had exposure to that wealth of literature, philosophy, political economy, which I had not been exposed to as a student." Again, he caught up by reading.

Mr Wong, who was divorced with no children, spent 14 years in the public service, including as CEO of the Energy Market Authority. He has since remarried and his wife is in the private sector.

Mr Wong has a reputation among civil servants for being a smart, serious guy who gets the job done. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Policy wonk

Early in his career, he had offers from the private sector which he turned down.

He liked how the civil service allowed him to do different projects and shape schemes that could help Singaporeans. He found it meaningful going down to the ground to explain these policies.

I tell him he has a reputation for being a policy wonk. "Apparently," he says with a shrug. "I don't know how that happened."

Why do you think people say that?

"I don't know," he says, not willing to be drawn into this.

I say I've heard he's very on top of his subjects and can't be smoked.

He smiles but doesn't reply.

Changing tack, I ask how he took on the Covid-19 challenge. Did he, say, read a lot?

"Well, like I said, right, it's partly what I was brought up with," he relents. "That when you do anything, you have to put everything into it, you have to really want to excel."

He elaborates: "I suppose in the Methodist tradition, you would say your work is your worship, right? You don't delink faith from day to day. Whatever you do on a day-to-day basis, if you do it well, if you take responsibility, that in itself is a testimony of how you as a person are an example, you know, a light for the world."

He was also shaped by mentors like former top civil servant Lim Siong Guan, who would relate what it was like to work for Old Guard leader Goh Keng Swee.

"Siong Guan would say Dr Goh's philosophy was if Mr Lee (Kuan Yew) were to call him with any question, and if he doesn't know the answer to that question, it's an indication that he has not done his work well because he's not on top of the issues.

"And even if he doesn't know immediately, he has to know within a few hours, right, and he will make a point to try and master the issue and stay on top of it. I think that's a very inspiring example."

As Education Minister, a priority will be to broaden the concept of merit beyond academics. Covid-19 has been a good reminder of "the way we value contributions from all sectors to our society".

I ask if Singapore's leadership transition to the fourth generation (4G) will be affected if the pandemic drags on. His answer is not unexpected. The priority is to overcome the crisis. "At some stage, there'll be a time to talk about leadership transition. But let's get over this hump first."

Has the thought occurred that we might be overreacting to Covid-19?

"Nobody said that at the start," he counters. "Everybody was telling us to do more aggressive measures and we were telling everyone, yes, but let's look at the science, let's look at the evidence, and let's understand that we are in it for the long haul. Now, the question is the opposite, that, oh, maybe you're overreacting."

He acknowledges that Covid-19 fatigue is real and the economic impact very serious, which is why the task force looks carefully at data to see what restrictions can be lifted, even as safe distancing, testing and tracing continue.

As we wrap up, I ask what he thinks the world will be like this time next year.

There is a good chance there will be a safe and effective vaccine by then, he says. "But how much of it is available, and whether or not we can distribute it to many people in the world, I doubt very much that would be possible by next year, which means that the world will still not be safe from Covid."

He adds this depressing news: "That means Singapore will still be vulnerable. And it also means that I doubt international travel will resume back to pre-Covid-19 levels by this time next year."

Before he goes off to thank the culinary students (service has been earnest and the vichyssoise especially delicious), I ask how Covid-19 has changed him, as a person and politician.

"I'm not sure that it has changed me personally. But I would say it has given me renewed confidence and hope about Singapore," he says.

Amid the noise and complaints, one sees the best of Singaporeans shining through during this period, he says. "It gives me a lot of hope and faith that we as a nation can rally together and can do well for the future."

This might sound like what a politician would say, but coming from someone who has spent the last nine months down in the trenches fighting the horror that is the pandemic, you believe he really means it.

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