SINGAPORE – "You know, I don't go into a job thinking right away about what my legacy will be."
To laughs from the audience – C-level executives gathered for the Forbes Global CEO Conference gala dinner – Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong was responding to a question about what he thought his legacy may be as the next prime minister.
The two-day Forbes conference, held at the Ritz Carlton from 26-27 September, has drawn about 400 international business leaders to Singapore.
"If there's one thing I believe in, it is that every leader has a different style... and that whatever that approach is, it has to be suited to the circumstances and needs of society, or the organisation of that time," Wong, who is also Finance Minister, said on Monday (26 September). "I believe that I'm here not just to lead but also to serve, and I see myself very much as a servant leader, doing my best to serve Singapore and Singaporeans."
"We want to build a Singapore that lasts and endures, and thrives, for generations to come. And that's what I hope to do," Wong said during the chat, which was moderated by Rich Karlgaard, Futurist and Editor-at-Large, Forbes Media.
As for when he may take over as prime minister, Wong, who is also Finance Minister, said,"We haven't decided... It's quite clear that we have settled the succession issue in our team... I'm honoured by the choice."
He added, "The Prime Minister has said that he would like it to be sooner and he never fails to remind me that this is something that's on his mind. But I have also said that we will do it at a time when we are ready... We will let Singaporeans know in due course."
Wong also spoke about the growing tension between the US and China, and that how it, coupled with the Ukraine invasion and disruptions to energy and food supplies, there is a sense that "we are entering a new era in the global order". Despite these challenging times, "we (Singapore) can continue to be a bastion for stability, opportunities and innovation".
Still, Singapore is worried, Wong said.
"The US-China relationship is the most consequential relationship to the world, and it shapes the tone of global affairs," he said. "Unfortunately, relations are worsening and we can see that happening day by day, and the countries are divided on many issues... so, we do worry."
Singapore, he said, has been "encouraging both sides to keep open lines of communication, especially and including at the highest levels".
Not choosing sides
He stressed later, when asked again about US-China tensions, this time in the South China Sea, that for Singapore it is not "an exercise to choose sides".
"This is an exercise for us to be very clear what Singapore's interests are and continue to uphold Singapore's interests and the interests of Singaporeans," Wong said. "So, for example, as a small open country, it is in our interest to maintain a rules-based multilateral system. It is in our interest for freedom of navigation and to uphold the law of the seas."
He added that when there are issues that pertain to the country's national interests, "we will speak up and... we will do our best to secure our interests in different areas".
"Doing so from time to time may mean that our position coincides more with the US position. On other occasions, it may mean our decision coincides with a Chinese position, but it is not about taking sides," Wong said. "It is simply about securing what is good and right for Singapore."