Governance of a City-State
Commentary: Forward Singapore shows the emerging contours of 4G leadership style

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s leadership transition plan has a clearer timeline. The handover to Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong will happen before the next General Election, announced Mr Lee at the People’s Action Party (PAP) biennial convention on Sunday (Nov 5).

This came shortly after the release of the government’s Forward Singapore report on Oct 27 by Mr Wong. While both the nationwide engagement exercise and PAP leadership plans have been in the works for some time, their culmination gives Singaporeans a glimpse of how the party’s fourth-generation, or 4G, team will lead.

To start, we should consider how our society has evolved in its aspirations and expectations.

Led by Mr Wong and the 4G leaders, the Forward Singapore exercise was initiated in June 2022 with the aim of refreshing Singapore’s social compact. Encompassing the views of more than 200,000 Singaporeans, the report indicated a shift in the Singapore Dream – no longer solely about material success but now includes fulfilment, meaning and purpose. 

In particular, there is a growing desire for meaning and purpose among the youth as well as increasing interest in fairness, diversity and inclusiveness in various aspects of social and economic life in Singapore.

This shift to post-material concerns should not come as too much of a surprise, given Singapore’s transformation from developing to advanced high-income economy.

Perhaps more importantly, the Forward Singapore report reflects not just societal changes the 4G leadership will have to grapple with, but also its approach to governance in this new social compact.

Shifting 4G Leadership Style

That the 4G leadership had initiated the Forward Singapore process in the first place is an indication of its desire to adopt a more open and consultative style. While the government has previously engaged in public consultation exercises such as Our Singapore Conversation, these had placed a stronger focus on collecting public feedback to inform policies.

In contrast, Forward SG has been pitched as the 4G leadership’s effort to refresh Singapore’s social compact. The 4G leadership’s approach to public consultation is therefore more deeply connected to its overall governing approach.  

Indeed, party members who were interviewed at Sunday’s PAP convention expect the 4G leadership to be “different from how it used to be”, involving more engagements with both the public and grassroots organisations.

A more consultative approach to policy formulation and decision-making that aims to incorporate the views and inputs of broad segments of society makes sense, given other themes that emerged in both the Forward Singapore report and the PAP convention: Inclusiveness – from embracing learning beyond grades to empowering those in need – and consensus on how to achieve it.

Mr Wong stated his preference to “start by listening, hearing a diverse range of perspectives and views and staying open to different ideas”. He also highlighted his approach to leadership as one that emphasises common ground rather than accentuate differences.

New Social Impact

These three elements – consultation, inclusiveness and consensus – will be important as the policy environment that Singapore faces becomes increasingly complex and the policy problems that we will need to address become increasingly wicked.

A consultative approach will allow the 4G team to not only secure citizens’ trust but, on a more pragmatic level, draw on the collective insights of Singaporean society to formulate effective and responsive policy solutions.

Inclusiveness and consensus too will become increasingly necessary as our population become increasingly diverse and their needs equally, if not more, so.

The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer report released earlier this year revealed that perceptions of civility and mutual respect has weakened significantly among Singapore residents.

The government’s emphasis on inclusiveness will be particularly crucial for identifying and plugging policy gaps that may result in portions of society feeling left out of the Singapore story.

A good example of this is the Ministry of Manpower’s public consultations on the needs and status of delivery riders and other platform workers, which will culminate in policies that will ensure stronger protection for these workers by 2024.

Getting Singapore Through Tumultuous Times

Even as Singapore continues to recover from the past few years’ double whammy of a US-China trade war and the COVID-19 global pandemic, we continue to face a raft of external headwinds. These include persistently high global inflation, a looming economic slowdown as well as geopolitical strife across multiple hotspots across the world.

On the domestic front, such external events can serve to widen societal rifts and give rise to ideological conflicts. Mr Wong revealed in parliament that the police had received eight reports of offensive remarks or actions targeted at members of Singapore’s Jewish or Muslim communities in October.

Taking on the mantle of leadership during this particularly challenging period means that the 4G team will have its work cut out for it.

In order to steer Singapore through these multiple looming crises, the 4G team will need to maintain strong social cohesiveness and prevent any potential fragmentation of our social fabric.

The Forward Singapore exercise is an important first step in building up this social cohesiveness.

A shift in political leadership and governing style will be crucial in seeing it through. At the same time, it will be necessary for the government to continue reaching out to more citizens to ensure that more views are represented and the engagement process remains relevant to all segments of society.


Dr Woo Jun Jie is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore.

This piece was first published in CNA on 9 November 2023.

  • Tags:

Subscribe to our newsletter

Sign up to our mailing list to get updated with our latest articles!