When will Lawrence Wong take over from PM Lee: 5 key questions

Remote video URL

SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Saturday (April 16) held a press conference to elaborate on how Finance Minister Lawrence Wong was chosen as leader of the ruling People's Action Party's fourth-generation (4G) team.

He was joined by Mr Wong, 49, and former minister Khaw Boon Wan, who had been tasked with overseeing the selection process to pick PM Lee's successor.

The announcement brought some closure to months of guesswork and reading of tea leaves over who would lead Singapore next, after Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, 61, took himself out of the running in April last year.

Here are five key questions that PM Lee, Mr Wong and Mr Khaw addressed at the press conference.

1. How was Mr Wong chosen as 4G leader?

Remote video URL

Towards the end of 2021, PM Lee and some of the ministers decided that the selection process would need to be done in a more systematic, thorough way that "encourages candour, introspection and objectivity, yet without impairing mutual relations and trust amongst the team".

PM Lee said he wanted the choice of Singapore's next prime minister to be made in a "collected, dispassionate, almost Zen state of mind" - one that puts aside personal preferences, ambitions and biases.

He approached Mr Khaw, a former PAP chairman with a "Mr Fix-It" reputation for taking on challenging portfolios over the years, to kick-start the process in March after the Budget debate.

Over three weeks, Mr Khaw did hour-long interviews with 17 Cabinet ministers, Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin and labour chief Ng Chee Meng. PM Lee and Senior Ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam were not involved in the selection process.

He asked those he interviewed about their preferred choice - other than themselves - and to rank the potential candidates in order of preference.

Said Mr Khaw: "PM told me that my task was not only to ascertain who has the strongest support from the ministers, but to do so in such a way as to foster a consensus and bring the team together."

In the end, 15 of the 19 chose Mr Wong as their preferred 4G leader based on their overall assessment, including the need for this person to bring others together and to win elections.

The findings were reported to the ministers and the PAP MPs on Thursday and Mr Wong was endorsed as 4G leader.

2. Who didn't back Mr Wong?

Remote video URL

Besides Mr Wong, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing and Health Minister Ong Ye Kung had been identified as front runners in the race to succeed PM Lee, after DPM Heng stepped aside last April.

Given that candidates were not allowed to vote for themselves during the selection process led by Mr Khaw, this means that three individuals out of the 19 did not name Mr Wong as their next PM of choice.

Mr Khaw further revealed on Saturday that none of the other candidates who were named during the selection process garnered more than two votes.

Stakeholders were assured of "full confidentiality" in casting their picks so they could be candid and, in the end, only overall results and anonymised findings were shared, Mr Khaw added.

"Now that we have a clear outcome, there is really no need for me to discuss who was the second or the third choice," he said. "Suffice to say that Lawrence was the first choice of an overwhelming majority."

Separately, PM Lee said: "The reaction from the public over the last two days shows that, I think, many people are happy we've taken this decision and are happy with the decision."

3. When will Mr Wong take over from PM Lee?

Remote video URL

PM Lee, who turned 70 in February, had previously said he wanted to hand over to his successor and step down by that age. But with the onset of the pandemic, he said he would delay his retirement to see Singapore through the crisis.

After DPM Heng stepped aside, PM Lee said he would stay on until the 4G team selected a new leader.

"I'm looking forward to handing over to Lawrence once he is ready," said PM Lee on Saturday, adding that the transition would be done "carefully and deliberately".

One factor to consider would be the next general election, which is due by 2025, he noted.

PM Lee said he would discuss with Mr Wong the best strategy to approach this - whether it will be to conduct the handover ahead of the polls, or for PM Lee to fight and win the election first before doing so.

"It will depend on how things evolve, it's something which we'll decide later on," said the Prime Minister.

"But either way, our plan is for Lawrence to be the next PM if the PAP wins the next GE. That has been settled."

Noting that PM Lee had raised the handover of power to him more than once, Mr Wong said: "I will bear that in mind as I embark on my new responsibilities… I will certainly let the Prime Minister know when I'm ready. And I am also very sure that before too long, he will be reminding me and chasing me for a response, and I will do so in due course."

4. Who will be Mr Wong's deputy?

Remote video URL

No decision has been made, said PM Lee, noting that the exercise that concluded on Thursday had been to choose the 4G leader and not his deputy nor the next 5G leader.

"In due course, Lawrence will decide who will be his deputy and who will be in his core team," said PM Lee. "And I hope he and his colleagues will work hard to identify and induct more promising leaders into the team to build up the 5G team for Singapore."

He said the ethos of teamwork among the ministers has already been emphasised by Mr Wong, and that Singapore has for years now avoided "destructive dynamics" of rivalries and internal politics.

"That has been a very important factor in the PAP's success and in Singapore's success," said PM Lee. "And for Singapore's sake, we must ensure that the PAP government always continues to work like this."

5. When will the next general election take place?

Remote video URL

At the press conference, Mr Wong was asked if he felt the need to secure a mandate from the electorate sooner rather than later; and whether a GE could be held as early as in a year's time.

The question elicited a chuckle from PM Lee, who quipped "you surely don't expect an answer, right?", before Mr Wong stressed that he would not take for granted that the mandate "ultimately comes from the people".

Echoing PM Lee's earlier points, Mr Wong said the strategy to fight the next GE would, in due course, be discussed and worked out.

"For now, I will need time to consolidate, to discuss with the team to see what next steps we might take," said the Finance Minister.

Earlier in the press conference, Mr Wong had acknowledged that the demands of the top job would get more challenging with greater political contestation and growing desire for diversity in Parliament.

"We do not assume that the PAP will win the next general election. Every GE from now on will be about which party will form the government, not just how many seats the opposition wins or what percentage of the votes the ruling party gets," he noted.

"Knowing full well that we will have to earn the right of leadership, I will continue with the same principles that have guided me all these years, which is to give of my best, to engage and listen, and to learn and improve continually.

"And as I have repeatedly emphasised, leadership, and political leadership, is never about one person, it's always about the entire team," said Mr Wong.

Read the full transcript here.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.