Surprises in new Cabinet

PM Lee has announced his new Cabinet – without MM Lee and SM Goh – and it was a surprise to me on two counts. Firstly, instead of grooming some of their newfound talent the usual way e.g. appoint them minister of state, rotate around the ministries, before finally heading one ministry etc, two newly-elected MPs are going to be ministers right away. Secondly, three ministers associated with unpopular policies were ‘retired’ despite being re-elected, albeit with much lower margins. I’d thought the PM would allow these ministers to continue, except for Wong Kan Seng, who was more or less slated for retirement.

‘Retired’ ministers

1. Wong Kan Seng, DPM and Co-Ordinating Minister for National Security, suffered much of the opposition’s assault over the Mas Selemat issue. He was challenged by opposition veteran Chiam See Tong, and polled 56.93 percent in Bishan Toa-Payoh GRC, lower than the national vote of 60.1 percent. I’d thought he’d become Senior Minister (pending retirement) despite all these, but PM Lee chose to leave him out of the Cabinet, unceremoniously ending his lengthy political career which saw him heading key ministries like home affairs and foreign affairs. Without his Cabinet appointments, I think Wong would be eased out of the PAP’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) as well (he’s currently first assistant secretary-general).

Hence his retirement now, rather than later, shows how serious PM Lee is on leadership renewal and ‘transforming’ the PAP.

2. Mah Bow Tan, Minister for National Development since 2001, polled 57.22 percent in Tampines – his lowest winning margin (he first began his political career by losing to Chiam See Tong in Potong Pasir). He was furiously whipped at opposition rallies for the rise in HDB flat prices. Yes, he’d set in cooling measures…but apparently insufficient to cool political tempers. S’porean voters want their accountability, and with such election results, PM Lee had to listen to them – sacking Mah.

I’m not sure if his replacement, Khaw Boon Wan, is able to solve the tricky problem of rising HDB prices, especially if the asset enhancement policy continues. That is the root cause of the price increases. In my view, the policy has to be thrown out before most people are satisfied that HDB flats are within their reach. But throwing out the asset enhancement policy will make tens of thousands of S’poreans angry. It’s a tough job, but I think Khaw has done tremendously well at the Ministry of Health. It’d be interesting to see what tweaks or even reforms he would introduce to housing.

3. Raymond Lim, Minister for Transport. What did he do wrong? All right, many S’poreans hate the peak hour congestion, swear at the occasional breakdown of trains, and wants fare prices to go down or remain the same for eternity. But I think there is nothing fundamentally wrong with transport in S’pore. Train stations will be popping up here and there soon, some not in a decade. With some luck peak hour congestion can be alleviated (mind you, not totally solved ‘cos that’s impossible). It’s a matter of enduring…and well, our patience has its limits. So out go Raymond Lim.

His replacement is Lui Tuck Yew. My impression of him at MICA isn’t good, so cross my fingers.

Rotated ministers

1. Vivian Balakrishnan will swop MCYS for MEWR. This is interesting, because MEWR is ranked a little lower than MCYS in terms of budget allocation. Furthermore, MEWR is a quiet ministry doing the background work – water, canals, reservoirs, trees etc – and Vivian Balakrishnan doesn’t seem to be a quiet man.

2. Dr Ng Eng Hen will take over MINDEF. I think this is expected, because he has been 2nd Minister for MINDEF. He didn’t come from a military background, but so did Goh Keng Swee and Goh Chok Tong, who were formerly ministers for defence. But he should relook his MOE public relations fiasco regarding the calculation of mother tongue grades in PSLE, to avoid a similar one in MINDEF e.g. like lengthening National Service etc.

3. Gan Kim Yong to take over MOH. Khaw has done a good job, so Gan would probably continue tweaking the system, like allowing Medishield for persons with congenital diseases.

4. Lui Tuck Yew to be Transport Minister. Hmm. Not too sure about this, from impressions alone…

5. Yaacob Ibrahim shifted to MICA. Or rather, he’s going back to where his political career in government began. MICA is considered a lightweight ministry, where you throw the newbies to test them out. So putting a veteran in a lightweight ministry suggests two things: this veteran is out of favour, or MICA requires a major shake-up. I’d prefer the latter, because in my opinion, MICA is doing more negatives than positives. It’s there because it’s just there – it’s not doing anything plus plus for S’poreans, especially in areas of censorship, cultivation of alternative spaces for artists and government communications.

6. Tharman to become DPM, as I predicted in a previous post. If George Yeo were not voted out, he would have been DPM. But I think Tharman is as good too, given his standing in the international economic arena. And by holding two portfolios of finance and manpower (which makes sense since neither can do without the other), he should be able to tweak or introduce beneficial policies for S’poreans. The issue of foreign talent will be sensitive, and this is where he might trip up or be successful in.

7. K Shanmugam to succeed George Yeo. He sure has large shoes to fill. But he was one of the top lawyers in S’pore before leaping from the backbench to the Cabinet, and he should be able to handle foreign affairs delicately as well. In any case, foreign affairs for S’pore has few options, and I don’t expect major policy shifts even if the minister changes.

Backbenchers to the fore

Two labour MPs, Josephine Teo and Halimah Yaccob, will be promoted to ministers of state. Both were quite critical of some government policies, and with them in government, I suppose they would initiate changes. Surprisingly, they were promoted to ministers of state right away – not parliamentary secretaries, perhaps given their senior roles in NTUC.

With Halimah Yaccob in MCYS, I think she would definitely initiate policies for low-skilled, low-educated and low-income workers and their families. Good move.

Newbie ministers

Again, I was surprised that PM Lee chose to put Heng Swee Keat as Minister for Education right away. Note that minster-wannabes, according to the PAP system, are usually groomed in lightweight ministries before moving on to take larger portfolios. That he is a full minister (compared to Acting Minister for MG Chan) means that he already holds the trust and confidence of PM Lee, and to take on an important portfolio means any mistakes he makes will be amplified many times, and I believe the resurgent opposition in Parliament will not hesitate to demand his head to roll. But then again he had performed well in MAS during the 2009 financial crisis, so he should breeze through…

MG Chan is the new Acting Minister for MCYS – a sensitive ministry where I expect the opposition, with an unprecedented 6 elected MPs with legitimate access to the people through Meet-the-People sessions, to hammer the government for not doing enough. How he holds up will be important in both PM Lee’s and the public’s assessments of him. Hopefully he doesn’t use his ‘Ah Beng’ English in Parliament.

Conclusion

Surprises – yes. A break from the past – yes. Will it transform Singapore? Not really sure. But with Khaw Boon Wan in housing, K Shanmugan in foreign affairs, Tharman as finance and manpower ministers and DPM, I think most of us can trust this Cabinet. Anyway, we’ve 6 elected opposition MPs + 3 NCMPs to help us ensure these ministers will do their jobs well.

Cabinet Line-up, based on seniority (according to previous Cabinet)

1. PM – Lee Hsien Loong

2. DPM and Co-ordinating Minister for National Security – Teo Chee Hean

3. DPM and Minister for Finance and Manpower – Tharman Shanmugaratnam

4. Minister for Trade & Industry – Lim Hng Kiang

5. Minister in PMO – Lim Swee Say

6. Minister for Info, Communications & Arts – Yaacob Ibrahim

7. Minister for National Development – Khaw Boon Wan

8. Minister for Defence – Ng Eng Hen

9. Minister for Environment & Water Resources – Vivian Balakrishnan

10. Minister for Foreign Affairs & Law – K Shanmugam

11. Minister for Health – Gan Kim Yong

12. Minister for Transport – Lui Tuck Yew

13. Minister for Education – Heng Swee Keat

14. Minister for Community Development, Youth & Sports (Acting) – Chan Chun Sing

But of course expect the official seniority line-up to be different. Foreign Affairs and Defence probably rank higher than MICA or Minister without portfolio, lol.

And to be fair,

Leader of the Opposition – Low Thia Kiang

In other parliamentary democracies, especially the Westminster-style, the Leader of the Opposition is the alternative PM (OK, small the opposition is now and nowhere near a Shadow Cabinet). But shouldn’t PM Lee recognise this position openly, like then-PM Goh did to Chiam See Tong in 1991?

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1 Comment

Filed under Analysis, Predictions

One response to “Surprises in new Cabinet

  1. ME ME ME

    Halimah will now have to give up all the directorships she held while stuill being a union leader. I guess the Minister pay makes up for it.

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