PM Lee’s handover to Wong: Is a snap general election on the cards?


The announcement that Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong will take over as prime minister on May 15 may indicate that a general election could be called “sooner rather than later”, say some political observers and pundits.

With international geopolitical conflicts and domestic issues such as the cost of living and housing at the forefront of Singaporeans’ concerns, they added that it is likely the general election will be held by the end of 2024.

This is even though Wong has until November 2025 to hold the next election.

Former prime minister Goh Chok Tong took office in November 1990 and the next general election was held in August 1991, while Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took office in August 2004 with the next general election held only in May 2006.

SMU associate professor of law Eugene Tan said the handover announcement struck him as “being on an accelerated timeline”.

There appears to be some urgency on the part of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) to go to the polls, he added.

The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement on April 15 that Wong will take over from Lee in a month’s time, making him Singapore’s fourth prime minister.

Pointing to the deteriorating global geopolitical situation – with the latest major incident occurring at the weekend with Iran’s attack on Israel – Prof Tan speculated that PAP leaders believe the time is ripe to seek a fresh mandate.

“In other words, to put in place the government for the next five years before things spiral downwards,” he said.

“This will enable Singaporeans to be clear-eyed about the issues and challenges, and determine who should represent them in Parliament and which party should form the government.”

However, Prof Tan did not think an election right after the handover was on the cards.

Instead, he suggested two possible windows in 2024: in September after the National Day Rally (NDR), and at the end of the year after the PAP’s Central Executive Committee election.

Leong Chan-Hoong, a senior fellow for social cohesion research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at NTU, said the April 15 handover announcement was not surprising, given that Lee had already laid out the road map in 2023 for the impending transition.

Lee highlighted the challenges Singapore will continue to grapple with, such as the cost of living and unemployment, and the global implications of ongoing wars in the Middle East and Ukraine – issues that could have also factored into his decision to move forward now.

As such, Leong believes that the election will be called by the end of 2024 to have younger leaders take the lead sooner, given the complexity of these ongoing challenges.

“The 4G (fourth-generation) leaders will be the ones who will have to deal with these issues, and they are not going to be resolved any time soon,” he said.

Mustafa Izzuddin, a senior international affairs analyst at Solaris Strategies Singapore, said it was “rather implausible” that Wong would call an election soon after the handover.

A cool-down period between both major announcements would be necessary, instead of springing news of a general election soon after, he said. “It has to be handled tactfully.”

December would be a likely possibility for a general election, said Mustafa, after the 70th anniversary of the PAP in November.

He said Wong, in his capacity as the new prime minister, would likely want to rally his comrades to prepare for an election.

However, some analysts suggested an election period in 2025, after the Budget next February.

Senior research fellow Gillian Koh of the NUS Institute of Policy Studies pointed to part of Wong’s speech at the PAP’s Party Awards and Convention in November 2023.

Then, he told party members that by the PAP’s 70th anniversary in 2024, “we can look forward to a refreshed PAP ready to fight the next election, and to win the confidence and trust of all Singaporeans”.

Koh said this suggests that DPM Wong will want to take the time to rejuvenate his party.

She outlined how he will hold his first NDR, when he can announce the details of new policies that had not been covered in Budget 2024.

By the time Budget 2025 comes around, she said, it will be clearer as to how Singapore’s economy and social conditions look like.

“By May next year, Mr Wong will have been at the helm for a year, and voters will have a feel of what it is like to have him as (Singapore’s prime minister) when he goes to the polls,” said Dr Koh.

“Mr Wong will be better served by giving himself enough time for them to warm up to him in that role, and for his own party to be firmly under his leadership by then.”

NUS associate professor of political science Chong Ja Ian believes the handover on May 15 indicates a desire on the part of the PAP to let DPM Wong win “on his own mandate”.

But when the general election will take place is anyone’s guess, he said.

“Up until then, the PAP has the prerogative to call an election whenever they believe circumstances are beneficial to their electoral performance.”

Political analysts expect that DPM Wong will likely reshuffle the Cabinet, announcing the changes at his handover or just after.

Koh said DPM Wong would want to “(stamp) his mark” on his first Cabinet as PM.

“It is likely that PM Lee will become senior minister, but it remains to be seen how many leaders in the Class of 2001, as well as whether Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean, will still be in Cabinet,” she noted.

Some PAP MPs who first stood for election in 2001 include Ms Indranee Rajah, who is Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and Second Minister for Finance and National Development, and Amy Khor, who is Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment and Transport.

Former PAP MP Inderjit Singh, who retired as an MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC before the 2015 General Election, said one thing DPM Wong needs to do before the election is “show that he is clearly in charge and with all Cabinet members showing clear support”.

“For now, his leadership style seems to be diffused, which allows others in the team to show leadership strengths in different areas. It is, however, very important that Singaporeans see him as the leader who is calling most of the shots,” added Singh.

He added that a realistic period for the next general election would be post-NDR, around September 2024.

Echoing the view that DPM Wong will want to carve out his own path now that the date has been set, Mustafa said: “The salient point here is that Lawrence Wong will decide on when the election is called, instead of Lee Hsien Loong.

“He would want to begin his term as the fourth prime minister with a strong and healthy mandate from the people of Singapore.”

Natasha Ann Zachariah 

Goh Yan Han

The Straits Times

Asia News Network