Exit of two former PMs is powerful symbol of commitment to change
By Chua Mui Hoong
SENIOR Minister Goh Chok Tong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew shocked the nation on Saturday with a short statement saying they had decided to retire from the Cabinet, after 52 and 35 years in office respectively.
This was to let Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his younger team have a 'fresh, clean slate' to forge a new consensus with Singaporeans.
What is one to make of this latest political development in an eventful week?
The first thing to note is the statement's timing, coming as it did just one week after the May 7 polls which saw the People's Action Party (PAP) vote share fall 6.5 percentage points to 60.1 per cent.
It is unfortunate that some in and outside Singapore will see the move as a political purge, and speculate that the two are being scapegoated for the PAP's loss of six seats to the Workers' Party.
Given the consensual style of Singapore politics, nothing could be further from the truth. The departures would probably have been discussed and tacitly agreed upon with PM Lee and Cabinet insiders. It is academic whether PM Lee requested, or they offered, to step down. Whoever initiated it, the departures should be read as a joint decision by PM Lee and his inner circle, with the concurrence of SM Goh and MM Lee.
The second thing to note is that the change is more significant in terms of symbolism than substance.
In substance, decision-making in Cabinet will go on much as before. As every Cabinet minister who has spoken on the matter has stressed - particularly MM Lee - PM Lee and his team of younger ministers have long called the shots. The two former prime ministers have offered advice.
Back in 2003, the younger Mr Lee said he valued Mr Goh for his feel of the ground and rapport with the people, as well as his regional experience.
Since then, SM Goh himself has said he no longer has that intuitive feel of younger Singaporeans' concerns in this election. As for foreign experience, rapid changes elsewhere make it less essential to have a past PM's views on tap in Cabinet.
But in symbolic terms, the change speaks volumes of the PAP's commitment to change, and of PM Lee emerging as a leader with a distinct style.
PM Lee has proven adept at making small but highly symbolic iconoclastic changes since becoming Prime Minister on Aug 12, 2004, beginning with his first National Day Rally speech 10 days later. The changes included opening up Speakers' Corner for public speeches and demonstrations, and overturning a long-defended rule denying medical benefits to dependants of female civil servants.
The capacity to overturn the status quo on policy was always inherent in the man, from 1985 when he led the Economic Committee to come up with the blueprint to get Singapore out of a recession, to the sure way he supervised the reform of the financial sector in the late 1990s. He is also a keen social policy reformer - both as a key member of Mr Goh's team that came up with the policies to redistribute surpluses, as well as the PM who presided over the social safety net being enhanced with Workfare. Further enhancements to social policy may well follow in the coming years.
Not so clear is PM Lee's commitment to reforming the political system, although he has made some significant moves in this direction as well.
The first general election campaign he fought as PM in 2006 moved away from hardball partisan politics. The recent General Election continued that trend and was fought more on issues and the quality of candidates, rather than on appeals to partisan advantage. Last year's changes to the electoral system to increase the number of single seats, and to raise the number of Non-Constituency MPs appointed to Parliament as top opposition losers, also burnished Mr Lee's reformer credentials.
But on politics, unlike on policies, Mr Lee's changes have been incremental rather than transformational. He may have no choice now but to speed up the pace of political reform, in order to win over voters who have shown their displeasure with the PAP over both its policies and its politics.
PM Lee has built up a reservoir of goodwill with the May 3 apology for his government's mistakes. That and the May 14 announcement of the retirement of the two former prime ministers add up to a powerful symbol of a commitment to change.
All eyes will now be on the new Cabinet line-up, expected this week. Will ministers responsible for the policy mistakes PM Lee apologised for be shifted, or will he prefer to retain experienced heavyweights even as he bloods new talent?
The PAP has gone through reforms many times before. Those who remember news articles after the 1984 election, the period leading to the change in premiers in 1990 and 2004, and the latest promises, will be struck by how similar the sentiment and rhetoric about the need to listen better and to forge new bonds are. This has led sceptics to wonder if the PAP will embark on yet another round of mass consultations where it will work very hard to seem to change.
The difference this time is that so much is at stake. Business as usual could mean a slide of another 6.5 percentage points next election, which could see the PAP losing a quarter of the seats, edging uncomfortably close to losing the critical two-thirds parliamentary majority.
There is manifest self-interest involved in the PAP's talk of reform as it fights for longevity. A growing number of Singaporeans have become encrusted with dissatisfaction tinged with cynicism about the political process.
But many fair-minded Singaporeans would also acknowledge that the PAP historically has been a party that seeks the national good. Beyond partisan self-interest, PAP leaders are also gripped by the urgent need to build a new consensus with voters so they can continue to govern Singapore effectively. This is not just good for the PAP, but for Singapore.
PM Lee faces a challenge in trying to convince the sceptical of the PAP's ability to change. The first move is the retirement of two of the PAP's eldest statesmen from Cabinet. There will be more to come.