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What the tea leaves say about the Cabinet reshuffle

The tea leaves at the bottom of my cup tell me that Mr Chan Chun Sing is leading the pack. That’s what everyone is trying to discern from the Cabinet reshuffle isn’t it? Despite various exhortations to look at the leadership team as a whole rather than as a compilation of individuals, that’s what people are most interested in: Who will be Singapore’s next prime minister?

Given that there is no new Deputy Prime Minister and none of the really, really heavyweight portfolios like Defence, Foreign and Home Affairs and Transport changed hands, we’re left with deciphering why who is being given what sort of job.

I must quickly say that tea-leaf reading is an imprecise science (if it can be called that) and I might as well use a crystal-ball (if I had one). Or I could also say that I am a political observer making an analysis based on published information. Or you can dismiss me as a fraud with no academic credentials to speak of.

Most of the top level portfolio changes had been predicted before. Mr Heng stays at Finance and will see through the work of the Future Economy Council. Mr Ong Ye Kung takes over his ex-colleague Ng Chee Meng’s portion of education. Mr Chan is helming trade and industry, described as he as a full minister in solo charge even though old hand S Iswaran is minister in charge of trade relations.

More interesting is how Mr Chan retains the position as deputy chairman of the People’s Association, is still in charge of Community Development Councils and now has the public service under his belt.

I had thought that Mr Ong would take over the public service division, having been in charge of the public sector innovations. The public service is an important stakeholder in the community, just like the National Trades Union Congress which Mr Chan helmed for three years. It is usually supervised by a Deputy Prime Minister, which in this case, is Mr Teo Chee Hean. Now Mr Chan can add another medal to his chest.

DPM Teo still has a long list of “concurrent’’ jobs: Strategy Group, Smart Nation and Digital Government Group, National Security Coordination Secretariat, National Population and Talent Division and National Climate Change Secretariat. DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam retains oversight of the Monetary Authority of Singapore and the productivity fund.

Now what about the other two supposed front-runners?

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Mr Heng, the most senior of the three who has had the education ministry under his belt, is also helping out the Prime Minister with the National Research Foundation. In fact, the Finance ministry has not one or two but three full ministers, including Ms Indranee Rajah and Mr Lawrence Wong. It might show the great focus the G is putting on getting Singapore’s finances right although, rather strangely, the ministry has no junior ministers or even a parliamentary secretary.

Mr Ong, the most junior of the three, seems to have been “contained’’ in the Education ministry. It is a heavy weight ministry no doubt, but he relinquished his position as Second Defence Minister in this reshuffle. And we all know the importance of the defence job.

The media and other political analysts have variously described the trio as having being given “depth’’ in their jobs rather than having to double up at other ministries. I suppose if they had been spread into other ministries, it would be called giving them  breadth of exposure. That’s the problem with tea leaf reading, you can read them whichever way you like.

My own tea leaves say that the trio are expected to sink their teeth in these meaty portfolios and judged on their outcomes, leaving the older ministers to contend with the more strategic portfolios like defence and foreign affairs which need deft navigation in a world with Donald Trump and Xi Jing Ping. They don’t have anything to do with hot potatoes like home affairs and transport – very high-profile jobs which invite controversy.

Likewise, it is odd that Mr Iswaran, a 3G member, is taking the post of Communications and Information Minister, which means that he will be tackling the fake news troubles and the unfinished business of reviewing the Broadcasting Act. The expectation had been for Dr Janil Puthucheary to step up.

Looking at the changes as a whole, which is what the PM wished, extensive changes have been made in the lower ranks so much so that all 16 ministries but one is experiencing personnel changes.

Much is also being made about four private sector MPs being inducted into government. I agree that it makes for a more well-rounded Cabinet, balancing out the public sector-dominated Cabinet. It’s to be welcomed to be sure, but the PM really doesn’t have many choices of new recruits, given that former public sector MPs have already been given political appointments.

Now, everyone is saying that things will be clearer at the next reshuffle, when someone will be pushed to the fore. You don’t need to read tea leaves to predict that. Time is running out if the PM is to stick to his deadline of stepping down at age 70, or in 2022.

In fact, one gauge would be who emerges at the top at the People’s Action Party’s own elections due this year. Or who is given charge of the party’s next general election campaign due by January 2021.

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Unless we are going to be told, again, that anything that emanates from the G or the PAP is a leaderless, collective 4G effort.

Time for me to switch to coffee.



Further reading

© 2022 Bertha Henson

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