Pointers from Singapore’s new leader

LAWRENCE Wong Shyun Tsai took over Singapore’s top job last week. The 51-year-old became only the fourth prime minister (PM) of the island republic at a time when neighbouring Malaysia is run by its 10th PM. 

The first PM born after the island-state’s independence made some interesting remarks in his maiden speech to the nation, running just under 1,800 words. Here are some salient points from his speech, with comments from yours truly from across the causeway. 

Today marks a significant milestone — a passing of the baton — not just between leadership teams, but also across generations. I am the first prime minister of Singapore to be born after independence. Almost all my colleagues in the 4G team were also born after 1965. 

The three PMs before him were Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong. This is also the first time the Lee family is no longer running the country, though outgoing PM Hsien Loong sits in the Cabinet as a senior minister. He served as PM for 20 years since 2004. 

Hsien Loong’s wife Ho Ching had served in the influential Singaporean state-owned conglomerate Temasek Holdings Pte Ltd. She was made an ED in May 2002, and then appointed as the CEO by Goh in 2004. She now serves as Temasek Trust chairman. 

Like Singapore, Malaysia, too, had a father-son combo occupying the top job. But the parting of the son had been a little different on this side of the causeway. 

Our lives are testimony to the values that forged our nation — Incorruptibility, meritocracy, multiracialism, justice and equality. These principles are deeply ingrained in all of us. 

These are principles that should stand at the core of nations. Malaysia can do well to put them into practice. 

Incorruptibility? Malaysia was plunged into the depths of corruption with former PM Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Razak going to prison for the 1Malaysia Development Bhd saga. Malaysia was globally shamed! Our reputation tattered to shreds. That saga alone was enough to bury us in shame. After getting a “discount” on his prison term, attempts are now underway to get him to serve the rest of his sentence under house arrest. This is a clear sign that Malaysia has yet to get a handle on corruption. 

Meritocracy is another bad word for some in this nation. While neighbouring Singapore has been able to put it to work, Malaysia is still mired in race and religion in so many of our decisions. Social engineering is crucial to ensure that all segments of the society get a chance to come out of their corners. But when we take it to the extremes, it backfires. Likewise, when we start promoting people based on race, religion or political affiliations, we walk down the path of ruin. 

One of my key priorities is to identify and persuade younger 

Singaporeans — men and women in their 30s and 40s to join our team. As Wong mentioned earlier, his team is made up of the so-called 4G team. This is the fourth generation of politicians in Singapore, those born after 1965. In Malaysia, old guards hold sway, many refusing 

to fade away. 

Singapore’s position is strong. But the world around us is in flux. 

At this juncture, it is difficult to say the same for Malaysia. Despite being a nation blessed with abundance, Malaysia has failed its citizens on so many fronts. 

Look at the state of our hospitals. Just the other day, one local newspaper ran a story on the Serdang Heart Centre. Opened in December 2022, its operating theatres are lying idle as it faces maintenance issues. Apparently, the surgeons are carrying out two to three heart surgeries a day at its old building, where only one of its four operating theatres is operational. 

We can talk about the state of our schools and universities, or the lack of public transportation in most cities across the nation. And we can discuss the state of the nation’s finances. A lot needs to be desired! 

We are far from being in a strong position. Corruption has robbed the soul of the nation, and left us limping. 

We value the centrality of ASEAN and its efforts to foster regional cooperation and integration…We will strengthen our partnerships, near and far; and advance Singa- pore’s interests, so as to better shape outcomes for ourselves as well as the world. 

Singapore depends on global trade and being a launchpad to the region. They want to be the hub for the world to reach out to South-East Asia. They have done a fine job, always protecting their interest in multilateral discussions. That is the way any nation would behave — to ensure their interests are taken care of first. 

One of the next components of that hub is the Johor-Singapore Special Economic Zone (JS-SEZ), now being actively planned. Malaysia and Singapore have signed a MoU to foster stronger business connections and improved connectivity between the two countries. 

Singapore will most certainly push for such a plan as it works wonderfully for their larger design. Hence, the republic would want to see the JS-SEZ work. But it works for us as well. It will benefit both sides of the causeway. Hence, there is no reason why we must snub it. Here, we must overcome some of the lingering anti-Singapore sentiments. However, at the same time, our technocrats must be sharp and alert to ensure that Malaysia equally benefits from the venture. 

Singapore has always been a diverse country — many races, many religions, many languages — and more so now than before. Yet we’ve strengthened our bonds as one people. We have achieved this not by denying our differences, but by embracing them…When issues arise between communities, and from time to time, they will — we do not accentuate our differences. Instead, we accept them. We seek pragmatic compromises and find as much common ground as possible. 

While Singapore may not be the exact harmony model for the world, they have been able to keep the peace on the ground. On the other hand, Malaysia has seen how even the smallest issue — take the not-to-long-ago socks matter — can blow up. We must keep our politicians, especially, in check. 

Covid was a baptism of fire for me and my team. It reinforced my conviction that our exceptional performance as a nation lies not in any one person or any single institution, but in how well we can work together as one Team Singapore. 

We, too, need to stop looking for political saviours. While the individual matters, more important is getting institutions to play their rightful roles. 

Younger Singaporeans in particular have spoken clearly. They will strive and work hard for their goals. But they do not wish to be trapped in an endless rat race of hyper-competition. They want a refreshed Singapore Dream — one that is not defined by material success alone, but also offers meaning and purpose in their careers and their lives. 

Well said. Hopefully this would allow Singaporeans to drop the image of being constantly strung up. It will be great to cross the causeway and meet people living their dreams. Likewise, may our leaders also ensure that the Malaysians, too, will find meaning and purpose in their careers and their lives. 

  • Habhajan Singh is the corporate editor of The Malaysian Reserve. 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition