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Wong will be sworn in as Prime Minister of Singapore, while Lee Hsien Loong is stepping down after 20 years

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Singapore’s deputy leader Lawrence Wong will be sworn in Wednesday as the country’s fourth prime minister in a carefully planned political succession designed to ensure continuity and stability in the Asian financial center.

A US-trained economist, Wong, 51, succeeds Lee Hsien Loong, 72, who stepped down after 20 years at the helm. Lee’s resignation marked the end of a family dynasty led by his father Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s charismatic first leader who built the colonial trading post into a business-friendly, prosperous country during 31 years in office.

Wong, a civil servant turned politician, rose to prominence when he coordinated Singapore’s successful fight against COVID-19. But he wasn’t the first choice for the top job.

Heng Swee Keat, former central bank chief and education minister, was the anointed successor, but he withdrew his appointment in 2021. Wong was then picked by the ruling People’s Action Party to fill the vacuum in 2022 and was quickly promoted to deputy prime minister.

“I will certainly strive to be a leader who is strong, kind and decisive. And I will do my best to build a Singapore where everyone can realize their full potential,” Wong said on social media earlier this month.

Wong’s rise to the top has been carefully crafted by the PAP – one of the world’s longest-serving political parties and known for its clean and effective governance – and will not change the dynamics in the small country of about six million people.

Wong has retained the cabinet and his finance portfolio as he prepares for his first big test in the general election due in 2025 but widely expected to take place this year. Before taking office, he promoted Trade Minister Gan Kim Yong to one of the two deputy prime ministers. The other alternate is Heng.

Lee will continue as senior minister, a path followed by all former prime ministers.

Although victory in the election is assured, Wong needs to secure a stronger victory after the PAP suffered a setback in the 2020 polls due to growing voter dissatisfaction with the government.

Under Lee’s rule, Singapore grew into one of the richest countries in the world, but it also became one of the most expensive cities to live in. The PAP has also been criticized for strict government control and a government-knows-best attitude, media censorship and the use of oppressive laws against dissidents.

Issues such as rising income inequality, increasingly unaffordable housing, overcrowding caused by immigration and restrictions on freedom of expression are often used as fodder by the opposition and have loosened the PAP’s grip on power.

“One party’s dominance in Singapore is weakening, but the challenge for the PAP leadership is to slow down the process,” said Eugene Tan, a law professor at Singapore Management University.

Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asian political expert, said Lee “will be remembered for calmly and successfully steering Singapore through the turbulent waters of the 2008-2009 financial crisis and COVID-19. He helped build resilience in Singapore. … (But) Singapore has become a more complex society, with more open demands, making the task of governing (for Wong) more challenging.”

Wong was born seven years after Singapore separated from Malaysia and became independent in 1965. His father was a migrant from China and his mother was a teacher. Unlike many senior PAP leaders, he did not come from a privileged background. Observers have said this could help him better connect with ordinary citizens.

Wong earned a scholarship to study in the US and later earned a master’s degree in economics from the University of Michigan and another master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University. He spent years in public service, including as Lee’s private secretary, before entering politics in 2011. He was responsible for the defence, education, communications, culture, community and youth portfolios.

Like Lee, Wong is active on social media. He is married and has no children. He doesn’t reveal much about his private life, but does provide a glimpse into his interests in music and dogs, and he is a fan of tennis star Roger Federer. He often posts videos of himself playing the guitar.

Wong has launched a Forward Singapore plan to give Singaporeans a say in developing a more balanced, vibrant and inclusive agenda for the next generation. Wong often speaks in flat tones and may not appear charismatic, but he is widely seen as a reliable and approachable leader.

“We can expect his leadership to be more consultative… one that will emphasize the team concept in which his key lieutenants will be prominent,” said law professor Tan.

Tan said Wong’s immediate priorities will be to address issues including the rising cost of living, housing affordability and job security. “Bread-and-butter issues remain critical even for a prosperous country, partly because of Singapore’s innate vulnerabilities,” he said.

In foreign policy, Tan says Wong must deal with the “Sino-American power rivalry in which Southeast Asia has become a proxy theater of struggle.” Singapore, like some of its neighbors, has remained neutral but may later be forced to choose on various issues, he said.

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