Governance of a City-State
Key Assets for Successful Shared Governance Under New PM Wong

Fourth Prime Minister (PM) Lawrence Wong issued a strong rallying cry to Singaporeans to work with him and his team to continue to “defy the odds and sustain this miracle called Singapore” in his swearing-in speech on 15 May.

PM Wong was clear-eyed about the external conditions our small city-state faces today. He pointed out that the era that allowed us to achieve remarkable development was when Asia Pacific enjoyed “unprecedented peace and stability” for 30 years after the Cold War. “Unfortunately, that era is over”, he said.

Multilateralism is faltering. Two hot wars are raging — in Ukraine and the Gaza Strip — and three zones in Asia are increasingly unsettled with rising tensions between the United States and China — Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea that includes the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Singapore can scarcely isolate herself from the effects of these negative developments.

History of Resilience

Yet, PM Wong also set out the key assets Singapore has to see us through them, the most important of which is the “high level of trust in each other, and our ability to work well together”.

This national quality helped us weather the storms of past crises, including the recent COVID-19 pandemic to emerge stronger. We have proven it to ourselves that we can make it through tough times.

Pew Research Center’s Spring 2022 Global Attitudes Survey reported how the public in 19 countries assessed the impact of the pandemic. In Singapore’s case, 81 per cent of those polled who identified as supporters of the governing party agreed that the country was more united than before the coronavirus outbreak. Meanwhile, 69 per cent of the Singaporeans polled who identified as people who did not support the governing party also said the country was more united. These results were the highest among the countries surveyed.

Energies, Imagination and Strength of the People

While PM Wong said he will lead and bear responsibility for the decisions he takes in guiding Singapore through these troubled times, as we know he did as a co-chairman of the COVID-19 multi-ministry taskforce, he emphasised he will engage and maximise the “combined energies, imaginations and strengths of all Singaporeans”. This is the second asset highlighted in his speech.

In putting people and their capabilities right up front, he strikes a distinct tone of shared leadership when compared to the second generation (2G) and third generation (3G) leaders.

Past development and progress have meant that knowledge, intelligence, strong rational institutional capacity are now spread widely across Singapore. PM Wong will not see us as mere followers; those outside government have the wherewithal to co-create Singapore’s future.

While the idea of collaborative governance was experimented with under PM Lee and especially when current Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat launched the “Singapore Together” movement in June 2019, PM Wong’s “Forward Singapore” reform agenda is defined by its big government – big society nexus to realise the vision of a resilient, vibrant, inclusive and united Singapore under new global and domestic conditions.

Before the handover, PM Wong referred to the National Youth Council’s Youth Panels which will allow young Singaporeans to translate their concerns on issues like cost-of-living, employment opportunities, environmental sustainability and cyberbullying into policy proposals. Since the pandemic, alliances for action have been platforms for multistakeholder partnerships in tackling issues from supply chain digitalisation, tourism, to caregiving. As these bear fruit and become habits of problem-solving and action, they will become his signature approach of shared leadership.

Singapore’s International Standing

A third asset that emerged in PM Wong’s speech is Singapore’s high international standing as a national brand that is admired and trusted worldwide. He said the country will continue to be friends with all, while upholding her rights and interests. He highlighted the value of ASEAN centrality and its “efforts to foster regional cooperation and integration”.

Like on the domestic front, his government will “strengthen our partnerships, near and far; and advance Singapore’s interest to better shape outcomes for ourselves as well as the world”. Singapore’s interests are served through her contributions to making this a better world, with ASEAN being very much part of that picture.

Serving the World to Serve Singapore

It will take far more time to see how PM Wong will create his special signature in foreign relations.
Given that he has been building up his personal ties in capital cities across the globe in the last two years since he was chosen to succeed PM Lee, the approach he can carry onward is for Singapore to contribute to innovations in green technologies, cybersecurity, the digital economy and the promotion of ethical AI use in industry and society.

A broader set of fourth generation leaders have been empowered to lead the charge — Minister Grace Fu at the Ministry of Sustainability and Environment, and Minister Josephine Teo at what will soon become the new Ministry of Digital Development and Information — alongside ministers in the traditional trade and industry, foreign affairs and defence portfolios, will drive Singapore’s trade cooperation agreements in these areas.

To illustrate this, citing one critical area for Singapore’s future, PM Wong will know the situation with energy security and green energy well having been Chief Executive of the Energy Market Authority before he joined politics. He led the consequential action by the government to build the liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal in 2009 when its economic viability as a SP Power initiative was in doubt. Today, 95 per cent of Singapore’s energy is supplied out of that terminal that began operations in 2013, and the reserves in it were critical for us at the onset of the Ukraine War which disrupted the global energy landscape.

As Finance Minister, PM Wong announced the establishment of a Future Energy Fund of $5 billion and the building of a second LNG Terminal to reinforce this strategy of energy resilience in Budget 2024. We also know that Singapore has been a driving force in creating the ASEAN power grid which demands a very high level of governance, cooperation and trust to make it work.

As we digitalise and promote it globally, the twin problem to this is again energy. Think for instance how data centres need vast and reliable sources of energy to run and to cool which can undermine our environmental sustainability goals. It is why the parallel effort of finding greener sources of energy can solve the policy conundrum and will be a unique achievement if done well.

Without doubt, foreign relations is a lot about the personal chemistry enjoyed among global leaders but they can continue to be substantiated by solid, pragmatic actions of partnership across the region and globe where Singapore tries to solve real-world problems with her friends.

This must also be delivered and lived out by the rising number of Singapore companies and leaders operating abroad, and our inspirational humanitarian and peace-building Singaporean workers serving in the distressed parts of the world.

PM Wong’s speech sought to instil confidence in himself and his team but unusually, confidence in everyone else also. We can respond to challenging conditions in ways that reinforces Singapore’s brand of being a good global citizen. The national value system of integrity, efficiency, excellence and social responsibility must continue to define us, so that we will be recognised not only for our exceptional leaders but for being an exceptional people too.


Dr Gillian Koh is senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore.

  • Tags:

Subscribe to our newsletter

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