Lee Hsien Loong legacy: ‘The little red dot’ that punches way above its weight

Singapore PM-designate Lawrence Wong with PM Lee Hsien Loong
Singapore PM-designate Lawrence Wong with PM Lee Hsien Loong on May 9, 2024. Photo courtesy: X/@LawrenceWongST

Lee Hsien Loong attended his last Cabinet meeting as the Prime Minister of Singapore on May 9, marking the end of an era. He shook hands with his successor, “4G” leader Lawrence Wong; enjoyed a farewell party; and posed for selfies — all the usual things one does on one’s last day at work. Of course, Lee Hsien Loong, who famously signs his social media posts as “LHL”, is not retiring; from May 15, when Wong takes oath, Lee Hsien Loong will settle into his new role as Senior Minister.

Looking back at the origin of Singapore, his own 20-year reign as prime minister, and the road ahead for the new premier, PM Lee said in an interview with CNA this week, “We started off with the founding ideal to be one people, regardless of race, language or religion. And actually, we have gone very far in that direction by policies, by government indoctrination even, by the way we have built our society to be one people.”

However, as a realist, he acknowledged that “to make prejudice disappear completely between different human groups” would be very hard. That is why, he added, the state would continue “[to] do more things to nudge this in the right direction”, through policies and laws, such as the work-in-progress legislation to curb workplace discrimination.

In his capacity as Senior Minister from May 15, Lee Hsien Loong will continue to support the incoming premier in taking the idea of Singapore forward — an idea that is simple and complex at the same time.

Farewell party for Lee Hsien Loong
Farewell party for Lee Hsien Loong. Photo courtesy: X/@leehsienloong
Selfie with Lee Hsien Loong
Selfie with Lee Hsien Loong. Photo courtesy: X/@leehsienloong

Wong outlined in a May 10 post on X what he hoped to accomplish as the head of state. Referring to an interview that he gave to The Economist magazine, he wrote: “Asked about my legacy in future, I highlighted how Singapore will always be an improbable nation. My mission is to keep this miracle going for as long as I can, and make our little red dot shine brightly for as long as possible.”

Being the Prime Minister of Singapore — a nation described humbly and affectionately as “the little red dot” by its leaders — means facing some unique challenges both at home and overseas.

Geographically a tiny country in huge and turbulent Asia; a role model to the world despite its size; a centre of business and finance quickly impacted by events in another continent; a job market that must strike a very fine balance between having too many foreign workers and too few of them, because of the small population size — Singapore has to continue making all of this work, alongside protecting its cultural diversity and social cohesion.

This power transition, therefore, is being watched closely by the international community. PM Lee said in his interview, “People will want to see how the new leaders are, what their policy is and what their personality is. His standing, his strength and support at home, and his ability to engage and to hold his own, and to be somebody to take seriously.”

In his Economist interview, Wong signalled that he could hold his own very well, indeed. The PM-designate made it clear that on the question of taking sides in geopolitical tensions, the only viable answer could be: “We are pro-Singapore.”

Wong also has Singapore’s future economic journey mapped out clearly. “…The economy today is very different from the economy even 20 years ago,” he said. “It is really about continuing to get cutting edge investments into Singapore, pushing the frontier, doing new activities, at the same time being prepared to let non-viable businesses fade away so that resources can be freed up. It is very much the process of churn, which can be very disruptive to workers, but that is why we have also put in place a lot of efforts to help workers retrain, reskill and upskill.”

Indian diaspora perspective on power handover in Singapore

Speaking to Connected to India about his perspective on the power transition, KV Rao, President of the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society (SIFAS) and recently retired Resident Director – ASEAN, Tata Sons Limited, said, “What inspires or impresses me about Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is there are many heads of state, but [he] is a global statesman, [that is] how the world recognises him. Singapore — this little red dot — usually, more often than not, punches way above its weight. That is the legacy that our prime minister is leaving behind.”

KV Rao, President of SIFAS
KV Rao, President of the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society (SIFAS) and recently retired Resident Director – ASEAN, Tata Sons Limited. Photo courtesy: Connected to India

Some of the particularly noteworthy aspects of the LHL years — from 2004 to 2024 — were, in Rao’s opinion, the “great policy pragmatism” that kept Singapore “ahead of the curve” and helped the country weather some of the toughest years that the world had seen, including the global financial meltdown of the late Noughties; the “compassionate” element in governance that benefited older Singaporeans; and the ability of PM Lee to act as a “social integrator”.

“I think that a lot of credit goes to PM Lee for the whole philosophy of ‘no one is left behind in Singapore’, which is so strongly entrenched in the system,” said Rao. “He has proved to be an outstanding leader and a great statesman… a very, very bright gentleman.”

About PM-designate Wong and his strengths, Rao said, “He is typically a very ideal Singapore model — came up as a scholar, has been in the government. He has got to work with some great leaders. There are several things about him that are very similar to the current prime minister, [but] maybe he connects much better with the youth.”

A “strong mind”, a “strong heart”, “real acceptance among the people” are the factors that Rao associates with Wong. In addition, what a leader must have are “strong shoulders”, and Wong proved to have very strong shoulders during the COVID crisis.

“The way he led that [crisis management] group was actually fire-walking. He could explain difficult things like, ‘You can’t have more than two guests coming to your home’. I mean look at this — almost anywhere else in the world, you’d have said, ‘It’s my personal freedom. Who are you to say this?’ But [Wong] managed to explain; he went out of his way,” said Rao.

“This showed a person who is very clear on what needs to be done. [He has] strength and purpose, and a very kind hand to deliver it and ensure it gets done.”

Globally, as geopolitical strife increases, the incoming Prime Minister of Singapore has his work cut out. “There are fewer friends left [in the world] and more are becoming aggressive to each other. In such a world, you look at the role that Singapore plays — it’s a friend of China; it’s a friend of India; it’s a friend of America. So it’s something which is multi-polar and also acceptable,” said Rao.

He felt that Wong’s work as Minister of Finance positioned him very favourably to handle the fallout of overseas economic disruptions that could also adversely affect Singapore.

A high opinion of PM-designate Wong, as the leader Singapore needs, is shared by Rohit Dadwal, Chief Executive Officer of MMA Global APAC. Speaking to CtoI, he said, “In a world where political strife often dominates the headlines, Singapore shines as a beacon of thoughtful planning and progress. Minister Lawrence Wong embodies this ethos with his forward-looking vision, strong leadership, and unwavering focus on engaging and empowering the youth.”

Rohit Dadwal, CEO, MMA
Rohit Dadwal, Chief Executive Officer of MMA Global APAC. Photo courtesy: MMA

As Minister of Finance, Wong was instrumental in putting together a COVID support package worth SGD 1.2 billion for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Singapore. In appreciation of this and other business-friendly measures, Dadwal said, “His strategic planning extends to supporting businesses, especially small and medium enterprises, showcasing a commitment to fostering a thriving economic environment alongside social progress.”

One aspect of PM Lee’s work, which is also on PM-designate Wong’s agenda, is the growth of Singapore as a fintech hub. Investment in fintech, or financial technology, is now essential for any country that hopes to remain globally competitive.

Singapore has done very well in this regard — in 2023, it retained its position as the “world’s leading business environment” for the 15th consecutive year, as ranked by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Also, Singapore was ranked the No. 1 fintech hub in Asia and No. 4 in the world in the 2023 Tech Cities Index published by Savills World Research.

One of the beneficiaries of the Lee Hsien Loong government’s focus on fintech is the Singapore-headquartered cross-border digital payment platform Instarem. Yogesh Sangle, Head of Instarem, told CtoI, “Over the past two decades, Singapore’s fintech ecosystem has undergone significant development, laying down a robust foundation for growth and innovation in the sector. One of the key factors driving this growth has been the ease of setup and operations afforded to fintech businesses.”

Yogesh Sangle, Head of Instarem
Yogesh Sangle, Head of Instarem. Photo courtey: Instarem

“Integrated support from multiple agencies such as EDB, ESG, and SPRING,” said Sangle, “has helped fintech startups thrive and facilitated their international expansion, positioning Singapore as the leading fintech hub not only in Southeast Asia but also across the broader Asia-Pacific region.”

It is this legacy, policy-driven economic progress bolstered by social cohesion, that Lee Hsien Loong leaves in the able hands of Lawrence Wong on May 15.