New Singapore PM sworn in to replace Lee

Singapore's long-serving Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has stepped down, and deputy leader Lawrence Wong is taking the helm.

Wong was sworn in on Wednesday. In his inauguration speech, he stressed that a generational shift has taken place, saying that his leadership role will differ from that of previous generations.

Wong highlighted the diplomatic and domestic issues faced by the government, including US-China relations and a rapidly aging population. He called for national unity as he asked Singaporeans to join him and his team in their journey forward.

Lawrence Wong sworn in as Singapore's fourth prime minister on Wednesday.

The new prime minister, a former bureaucrat, grew up in a middle-class family.

He captured the spotlight as the co-chair of the COVID-19 taskforce. Wong was named deputy prime minister in 2022.

He succeeded Lee Hsien Loong, the eldest son of the first prime minister and the country's founding father, Lee Kwang-yu. Lee's high profile and leadership helped him remain in power for two decades.

Lee will serve in Wong's Cabinet as a senior minister.

Wong's inauguration comes as Singapore faces growing domestic and international challenges. The focus is on how Wong will lead the country amid the declining birthrate and US-China tensions.

Who is Lawrence Wong?

New prime minister Lawrence Wong is 51 years old. His father was a building materials salesman and his mother was a teacher. Wong describes himself as having been "raised in an ordinary family."

After graduating from a local high school, he went to a university in the United States on a government scholarship and obtained a master's degree.

Returning to Singapore, he played an active role as a bureaucrat at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, and was appointed as chief secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2005.

He entered politics in the 2011 general election.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, he garnered recognition as co-chair of a multi-ministry task force, and served as deputy prime minister and finance minister.

Singapore has effectively been under the one-party rule of the People's Action Party, and Wong became the leading candidate for the post of prime minister after being elected as party leader in 2022.

Achievements of former Prime Minister Lee

Lee Hsien Loong is the eldest son of Singapore's first prime minister and founding father, Lee Kuan Yew. He became Singapore's third prime minister in 2004.

In addition to his unifying force in the ruling People's Action Party, which effectively continues its one-party rule, he has focused on developing Singapore as an Asian hub with a strong leadership that takes advantage of his high name recognition.

In 2005, the government legalized casinos to attract tourists and business travelers.

It has also supported the development of large-scale facilities like hotels and international conference halls, such as Marina Bay Sands, a distinctive building with a pool on the rooftop. Lee has turned the country into one of Asia's leading economic powers.

On the diplomatic front, as the conflict between the US and China deepens, he has maintained close relations with both nations and has engaged in balanced diplomacy.

He also supported the first-ever US-North Korea summit meeting at a venue in Singapore in 2018.

Former Prime Minister Lee and his successor Wong shake hands at the swearing-in ceremony on Wednesday.

Challenges for new administration

Prime Minister Wong faces a number of difficult issues.

On the diplomatic front, he will be tested on how he can boost Singapore's presence in the international community while maintaining balance amid deepening global rifts, such as the tense US-China relations and the conflict in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, competition with other Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Thailand is heating up. Attention is on whether Singapore, which has achieved high economic development by actively drawing in foreign capital, can maintain its attractiveness as a regional hub.

There is also an urgent need to deal with soaring prices and the declining birthrate and aging population.

According to a survey on living costs around the world released by UK business magazine The Economist, Singapore became the world's most expensive city last year.

The total fertility rate, an indicator of the number of children a woman will have in her lifetime, was 0.97 last year, falling below 1 for the first time.

The country's population is also rapidly aging, and it will be difficult to come up with effective measures to deal with labor shortages and higher social security costs in the future.

Expert: Governing without charisma is a challenge

Ryoichi Hisasue, deputy chief researcher at JETRO's Institute of Developing Economies, is familiar with Singapore's politics. He says "Prime Minister Wong has a task that has never been done since the country was founded -- building a governance style of a new era without the charismatic 'Lee' and leading the transition."

Hisasue added that Singapore is at a turning point after 60 years as a nation.

Ryoichi Hisasue, deputy chief researcher at JETRO's Institute of Developing Economies, speaks with NHK.

"As the economy and society are maturing, the country is under pressure to break away from the so-called development model, governance model, and values that have been regarded as a success story since the country's founding."   
  
Regarding diplomacy, he said, "Singapore has a sense of crisis about the worsening relationship between the US and China. It will continue to strengthen its special role as a sincere mediator, and its importance will only increase."

He said the focus is on whether Singapore can further develop the balanced diplomacy of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Watch: What new leadership means for Singapore