Source Asia Sentinel

HONG KONG, SAR: In a sudden announcement that rocked Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s office announced this morning that the 72-year-old Lee would step down on May 15 – in just a month – to be replaced by Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong, only the third leadership transition in the island republic since its independence in 1965. Two of the premiers have been members of the Lee family, one of the most enduring political dynasties in Asia.
There have long been rumors that Lee has been ill, and social media was rife with speculation, but there is no indication in the official announcement. There is also no indication whether Lee intends to give up the post of secretary-general of the ruling People’s Action Party, a post he has held since 2004 along with the premiership, and one that holds substantial political power.
The government has been rocked over the past year with a couple of major scandals, including the charging of Singapore's Transport Minister S. Iswaran with 27 offenses in a graft investigation tied to the Formula 1 race which takes place annually, one of the highest-profile cases involving a minister in decades. The second is a massive US$2.8 billion money-laundering case involving 10 China-born suspects that left the clear impression that the country’s bankers were unwilling to look too closely at the sources of money that flow so freely into the city’s coffers and the numbers of foreign high-net-worth officials thronging the city, particularly from China. But neither of the cases is believed to have played a part in Lee’s decision to step down.
Lee has also been locked in a debilitating family feud since 2017 with his siblings Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, both former top figures in Singapore, over the disposition of their father's colonial-era home at 38 Oxley Road which has culminated in charges he used the power of the state to drive Hsien Yang and his wife into exile, which he has denied. Lee's siblings alleged that he was abusing his powers to preserve the house against their father's wishes, which Lee has also denied.
The political transition is also not without controversy. Lee is long believed to have preferred Chan Chun Sing, a brusque former major general and army chief of staff who left the military in 2011 to run for office and who has served as education minister since 2021. According to widespread rumors, Lee attempted to anoint Chan as his successor in 2021 to replace Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who was pushed out, setting off months of inside jockeying before Lawrence Wong, 52, was named “first among equals” in the transition. Lee announced as long ago as 2012, when he had been in office for eight years, that he didn’t want to serve past the age of 70 but his plans were derailed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the controversy over Heng.
Succession has long been a preoccupation of the PAP leadership. Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s first prime minister and one of Asia’s foremost political figures, served in office from 1959 – even before the country became independent – to 1990, and once he stepped down in favor of Goh Chok Tong, served as “minister mentor” to shepherd the transition. Goh served from 1990 to 2004 before giving way to Lee Hsien Loong, who skyrocketed through a career in the army to become the service’s youngest brigadier general in 1983 before leaving the service for politics in 1984.
“Today PM Lee announced that he was stepping down and handing the reins of power, at least in public, though like his dad he will no doubt be pulling the strings of his chosen puppet for many years from behind the scenes,” said Kenneth Jeyaratnam, secretary general of the opposition Reform Party, on his Facebook page.
As with the Goh Chok Tong interregnum between Lee pere et fils, there has long been speculation that whoever followed Lee Hsien Loong would warm the seat while Lee’s son Li Hongyi, formerly a military officer and now deputy director of the Government Technology Agency, would sharpen his political spurs to take over. But Hongyi has yet to enter politics, and many believe that hope is fading in the face of political reality. The government may finally be moving on from the Lees, whether the Lees want it to or not.
There are also questions for the formidable People’s Action Party, which has held power since 1959. In the 2020 general election, although it won 83 of the 95 seats in parliament, it won only 61.23 percent of the popular vote, testimony to the efficacy of government gerrymandering. It was the third-lowest popular vote share and the lowest share of parliamentary seats since the party came to power. 
It also came perilously close to losing several constituencies long regarded as PAP strongholds and lost a second Group Representation Constituency. There are growing indications that there is a desire for more diverse voices in parliament and for a political rein on the PAP. Although the World Bank characterizes Singapore as a high-income economy with a GDP of US$82,807 per capita as of 2022 – the highest in the world -- inequality is also high. 
In 2023, Singapore’s Gini coefficient was 0.37, where 1 is the most unequal and 0 is the most equal. Authorities worry about a persistent brain drain that is costing a large number of high-level professionals as well as young graduates. Thus it has to rely more and more on immigrants from various countries both for high-level jobs and for construction-level ones as well. The number of Singaporeans looking to study or work overseas in fact grew by 72 per cent in 2022 over 2020. At the same time, its birthrate has fallen far below replacement and is among the lowest in the world.
Despite the suddenness of the announcement, there is unlikely to be a period of uncertainty to upset either investors, neighboring ASEAN countries, or the United States, which considers Singapore one of its strongest bilateral partners in Southeast Asia and which plays an indispensable role in supporting the region’s security and economic framework. The country, with a deep cadre of technocrats, remains the best-run in Southeast Asia despite the scandals of the past year. The government ranks fifth in the world of 180 countries in the Transparency International Index, a position it has held for decades.
The succession has long been a known quantity and Lawrence Wong has long shown himself to be a loyal foot soldier whose philosophy is to make the transition as smooth as possible. The US cooperates with Singapore on the full range of security issues, to include border security, maritime security, military preparedness, counter proliferation, cybersecurity, and counterterrorism. The US Navy maintains a logistical command unit, Logistics Group Western Pacific, in Singapore and conducts ongoing rotational deployments of Littoral Combat Ships and P-8 Poseidon aircraft, according to a US Defense Department statement.
These deployments have facilitated patrols in the South China Sea, participation in multilateral naval exercises, and responses to natural disasters. More than 1,000 Singaporeans participate in training exercises and military education courses in the US annually and the Singapore Air Force flies US F-16 and F-15 fighter jets and AH64-D helicopters.
But Singapore also has strong economic links with China. In this period of Sino-US tensions, it remains to be seen how skillful Wong will be in balancing relations with both superpowers, especially as China seeks to raise its profile across the South China Sea in a bid for political primacy in the region.