News Reports

Will the new PM-to-be please stand up? Part 2

Now, who was it who said that not many changes were expected in this Cabinet reshuffle? Eyes were focused on the finance portfolio which Heng Swee Keat was giving up (besides the prime minister-in-waiting role), but Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong flummoxed everyone by shuffling the Cabinet so thoroughly that it looked brand new. 

A few ministers, like Lawrence Wong and Ong Ye Kung, hadn’t even warmed their seats before being plucked out. So Wong leaves education for finance full-time while Ong moves from transport to health. They were given their portfolios only last July. Wong has yet to make a mark on education while Ong hasn’t even got the Hong Kong and Singapore travel bubble in place.

I couldn’t wrap my head around the two reasons PM Lee gave for this extensive re-shuffle. 

He said that there were “many repercussions’’ with DPM Heng relinquishing the finance portfolio. If so, “experts’’ and analysts never saw these repercussions, going by the few changes they expected. I didn’t see them too. After all, Wong has been second minister for finance since 2015 and it would be natural for him to step into Heng’s shoes. 

I would expect more repercussions because there is a vacancy at the top, rather than an empty finance portfolio. The 4G leadership probably thought the succession problem was already fixed with Heng’s elevation to DPM. He had even publicly declared that Chan Chun Sing was his Number 2. Now that the chessboard has been overturned, the pieces have to be laid out again. I can hear their brains working overtime. 

Looking back, I suppose that’s why the 4G leaders had asked for time to make their decision on who should be first among equals. It was not a race with prizes given out in order of talent or ability. Ong said at that time: “That process of developing a strong team and rallying around the first-among-equals leader takes some time. What we have just learnt is a big change, a big reconfiguration.’’

So perhaps this Cabinet reshuffle is a reflection of that re-configuration, to give “contenders’’ more time to test their mettle or gain the confidence of their peers. 

The second reason that PM Lee gave, going by a Straits Times report, is even odder. He said he was moving the ministers heading the front-line ministries dealing with Covid-19 – Health, Manpower, and Trade and Industry. It seemed more like a statement than a reason. 

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Gan Kim Yong has helmed the health ministry since 2011. In 2018, Josephine Teo became Manpower minister while Chan Chun Sing became Trade and Industry Minister. 

I would have thought that it wouldn’t be wise to change horses midstream. But PM Lee said he was making changes because the Covid-19 situation was “more stable’’. I hope he is correct about the pandemic because the most recent news of virus variants and mutations, and infections in the foreign worker dormitories here haven’t been comforting. 

Let us hope the new players, including the newest of the new, Tan See Leng, who will be Manpower Minister, will be able to come to grips with the pressures of the pandemic quickly to make the transition seamless. 

Of course, now the speculation is about is the front-runner in a race that they said wasn’t taking place. Frankly, I thought Chan would be the next Finance Minister while Wong continues to helm education full-time. Or that he would take over Ng Eng Hen as Defence minister. I also didn’t think that Ong would be pulled out of transport – that poison chalice – so early. Instead, he swapped places with Gan and will be sitting in the Covid-19 ministerial taskforce in his place. 

It would be interesting to watch the dynamics between Ong and Wong, the two co-chairs. By the way, both were PM Lee’s Principal Private Secretary at different periods.

Gan is on record as saying that he found Wong a very decisive person. And it wouldn’t be too outlandish for me to say that of the two, Wong proved a better communicator. Both Gan and Wong found themselves elected into the People’s Action Party central executive committee for the first time last year, instead of being co-opted into the top ranks. 

And what of Chan Chun Sing? He was the man who had his finger in many pies, including the People’s Association, Public Service Division and the National Trades Union Congress. He came from the military. He is the PAP’s second assistant-general. Perhaps, the education portfolio is meant to expose him to the huge community of parents, teachers and youth. Was he never considered for the defence portfolio, which is a tremendous responsibility? 

Nevertheless, seven ministries will have new heads and people can be forgiven for thinking this sounds a lot like the regular rotation of permanent secretaries in the civil service. 

So, what does this mean for bystanders like citizens? When it suits the powers-that-be, the concept of collective responsibility is pushed to the fore. The “system’’ and the PAP in charge for the long-term is touted as essential for Singapore’s future. At other times, we’re told that the choice of PM is critical to lead a team. 

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Frankly, how each minister performs in his respective portfolio (the tests) would only be known to Cabinet ministers and top civil servants. How would we know if they are decisive men who can make tough decisions in their portfolios? The system is just too opaque to penetrate.

So let’s say all the contenders are equal in ability, tried and tested in economic management and on top of their game. Then the next critical factor is public opinion. Even though the PAP has always said it would not bow to the mob, the fact remains that the so-called mob calls the shots at every election. Even a prime minister-in-waiting has to contend with his constituents. 

I bet my bottom dollar that ordinary people (and not just experts) will be keeping an eagle eye on how each minister performs in the public arena. Who is gaffe-prone? Who has enough stature to sit at the top table with the leaders of other countries? Does he speak with conviction and sincerity and put the people first? Do we believe what he says? 

Public profile is important. Even Gan and Wong didn’t get elected into the PAP CEC until they got onto the Covid-19 taskforce. That’s when both were in our faces almost every day. 

Truth to tell, I miss Lee Kuan Yew. He spoke directly to the people. He could refer to history, the big ideas of the past and present, and ranged over lessons he had observed to  come up with conclusions and solutions that he thought should be shared. 

He immersed the citizen in the dynamics of change, part of a bigger whole. He didn’t need to talk about the choppy seas or the winds of change. I don’t think he ever used the word resilient. Not ad nauseam anyway. 

His successor Goh Chok Tong provided the leavening to the LKY years, adding a personal touch and showing a preoccupation with the values that society should hold. When I think of Lee Hsien Loong, I think of policy – a state managed efficiently by technocrats. 

I want my next Prime Minister to be someone who can excite Singaporeans with new ideas and offer a fresh spin to the old ones. We need it because our society is in such a state of flux, with fissures showing up between the conservatives and the liberals, among the socio-economic classes, the races and even towards foreigners. We seem to be wrapped in a cocoon, even as we’re constantly exhorted to stay open and global. We need more than pragmatism, jobs and skills to take us to the next stage of development. We need a vision.

Don’t ask me what that is. If I knew the answer, I could be prime minister. 

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Further reading

© 2022 Bertha Henson

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