Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Cabinet for 2020

May 19, 2011
Major reshuffle is clear signal of 'radical change', but also raises questions
By Chua Lee Hoong

IN A WAY, the Cabinet changes started all because of Aljunied GRC.

Because of the loss of Foreign Minister George Yeo in the General Election, Mr K. Shanmugam moved from Home Affairs to fill Mr Yeo's shoes. Mr Teo Chee Hean moved from Defence to Home Affairs, and Dr Ng Eng Hen from Education to Defence.

But yesterday's Cabinet changes were anything but another routine game of musical chairs.

First off was the dramatic departure of three ministers - Mr Wong Kan Seng, Mr Mah Bow Tan and Mr Raymond Lim. Mr Wong and Mr Mah, at age 64 and 62 respectively, would have been the oldest ministers in the Cabinet after Mr Lee Kuan Yew, 87, and Mr Goh Chok Tong, 69. That they also retired surprised many, although not all.

Mr Lim, at 51, is relatively young, and while some are reportedly not surprised, many are.

With the departure of nine current ministers and the induction of two new faces, the average age of the new Cabinet is now 53 years, down from 55 in 2006. Without the departure of the older ministers, it would have been 59.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is now, at 59, the oldest face in Cabinet, followed by Mr Khaw Boon Wan at 58. Mr Lee is also the longest-serving, having entered politics in 1984. Yesterday, he said he has set himself the goal of handing over to a new leadership by 2020.

In the meantime, however, the clear signal from him is that his government is serious about relooking government policies that have made Singaporeans unhappy.

'Certainly, the outcome of the elections affected my thinking in deciding how to make this Cabinet. I wanted a fresh start and that's why I'm calling for radical change,' he said.

His demeanour was more serious than usual.

Of the 14 ministries, 11 will have new ministers, who will have 'a free hand to rethink and reshape policies'.

The fact that Mr Khaw goes to the Ministry of National Development, which is in charge of the political hot potato of housing, speaks volumes about the shake-up that is expected in areas which are electoral flash points.

Mr Khaw is ideal for housing - he has ground empathy, understands markets, and can do complex mathematics.

He also understands politics. At the Health Ministry, he was particularly adept at floating potentially controversial policy matters as trial balloons for public discussion, before embarking on actual policy formulation and implementation.

Indeed, he succeeded in taking the political sting out of health issues so much so that, unlike housing, they captured the interest of only a handful of opposition players in the recent election.

If he can de-fang housing with the same political acumen that he managed health, Mr Khaw would prove himself the master policymaker-politician that all policy wonks must learn at the feet of.

The two other politically significant appointments yesterday were those to the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) and the Ministry of Education.

Compared with economic ministries like Finance or Trade and Industry, or security ones like Home Affairs and Defence, MCYS has for too long been paid insufficient political attention.

The new Acting Minister is Major-General (NS) Chan Chun Sing, who at 41 will be the youngest person in Cabinet. He is also energetic and resourceful, and a key face to watch in the coming years.

The new Education Minister, Mr Heng Swee Keat, is a new entry to politics but an old hand at policymaking, having served in the Administrative Service for many years, including in the Ministry of Education.

PM Lee did not quite spell it out yesterday, but there is clearly an unspoken charter for these new ministers to engage young Singaporeans and, more than that, win their understanding and support.

It was a key theme in the election platform of the People's Action Party (PAP) and it will be a key theme in the PAP Government's policy-making in the coming years.

Overall, I would say that the new appointments are all excellent ones.

But two questions remain.

One: Are the changes an over-reaction to the reduced vote share suffered by the PAP on May 7?

Already, the charge of appeasement has been levelled by some. For example, they see the departures of Mr Wong, Mr Mah and Mr Lim as due to various ministry failures which affected their electoral standing. The sharks will be circling and demanding more blood in future general elections, say these critics.

Two: Will expectations be raised too high by the changes?

With the current emphasis on rethinking and reshaping policies, and re-examining the fundamental philosophies behind policies, there is a danger that the Government is setting the public up for expectations of policy change which it cannot fulfil.

On the other hand, perhaps there will indeed be major policy changes and shake-ups - but that in turn raises another question.

Prior to this, the Government said often that there are only a few policy options open to Singapore. Whether on economic growth, social welfare or political development, the conventional wisdom that prevailed for years was that the existing policy mix was the best solution and one that was arrived at after much careful consideration and understanding of what could work here.

If we now have major policy shake-ups, the question that will inevitably be asked is: Did the results of GE 2011 topple the conventional wisdom? And if they did, why did it have to be this way?

Whatever the answers, hopefully with the review that is now ongoing, Singaporeans do not have to wait for the loss of another GRC to realise that there are policies and measures which need to be fixed.

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