I think ‘shock’ is an extremely under-stated response to their retirement from political office.
In Singapore politics, retirement is always planned in advance, unless in the case of George Yeo, you’re voted out (once-in-50-years event). For example, S Jayakumar’s retirement was probably expected by many political observers. After GE 2006, he had gradually relinquished his appointments of Deputy PM and Minister for Law, before his promotion to Senior Minister. He had reached the pinnacle of his political career, short of becoming PM. When the time came for GE 2011, no one raised an eyebrow when he announced his retirement from politics. Similarly, Lim Boon Heng, Minister without portfolio and PAP chairman, had entered politics the same year as Jayakumar. So his retirement was more or less expected.
But not for MM Lee and SM Goh. It is odd to find two former prime ministers in the Cabinet, but co-opting alternative voices has been a hallmark of the PAP (though I think this is increasingly shaky), so instead of forcing both to become private citizens, having both in the Cabinet allowed them to air their views behind doors. I think most political observers and perhaps most S’poreans expected both of them to continue serving as long as their health permits. Furthermore, S’poreans are quite comfortable with ‘recycling’ our top-ranking leaders (OK, abit crude) – former DPM Dr Tony Tan is now chairman of SPH, former foreign affairs minister S Dhanabalan is now chairman of Temasek etc. Having two former PMs in the Cabinet is a form of respect as well as allowing them to contribute positively, especially in the international arena.
So why are they retiring from political office now?
We have studied the new political situation and thought how it can affect the future. We have made our contributions to the development of Singapore. The time has come for a younger generation to carry Singapore forward in a more difficult and complex situation. The Prime Minister and his team of younger leaders should have a fresh clean slate. A younger generation, besides having a non-corrupt and meritocratic government and a high standard of living, wants to be more engaged in the decisions which affect them. After a watershed general election, we have decided to leave the cabinet and have a completely younger team of ministers to connect to and engage with this young generation in shaping the future of our Singapore.
But the younger team must always have in mind the interests of the older generation. This generation who has contributed to Singapore must be well-looked after.
It is obvious neither of them had any intention of stepping down BEFORE the elections, but the results of GE 2011 had forced them to take a hard look at their political positions. Firstly, they are not stepping down because of accountability issues regarding the elections – PM Lee himself declared he was running the campaign. Though the PAP polled its lowest popular vote share since independence, there was no danger of it paralyzed by 6 elected opposition MPs, or worse, lose power. Furthermore, the swing could be attributed to issues such as inflation, housing and immigration – which arguably would become better in the next 5 years, and allow the PAP to recapture some of the swing votes.
Hence both of them had stepped down from positions of strength, and probably also in belated recognition that they are not immune to voter resentment. That George Yeo, ranked No. 7 in the cabinet, was voted out probably reminded them that S’poreans are willing to show any minister the door if the opposition puts up a strong and credible team against him. More importantly, SM Goh might have had an epiphany that he was not indispensable – he polled about 56 percent in his Marine Parade, lower than the national 60.1 percent, and much lower than his previous 70-odd points, and that was fighting an unknown, just-arrived NSP team with Nicole Seah being the star, outshining SM Goh’s teammate Tin Pei Ling as the representative of S’porean youth.
Finally, both of them had made several gaffes during the campaign – MM Lee’s threat of ‘repent’ to Aljunied voters, and SM Goh back-pedalling on his comments on his former principal private secretary etc. I think younger and some older S’poreans did not think these befit their statures of being elder statesmen. Being in the future Cabinet would be politically costly in the next elections, if both were still around to stand for them, and in the long-term, their legacies would be scarred by a few incidents in the twilight of their political careers.
So what this means for the next Cabinet?
Current DPM Wong Kan Seng is likely to move up to Senior Minister, and he probably will retire by the next elections. Who would be the next DPM? When voters in Aljunied kicked out George Yeo, not only did Singapore lose a foreign affairs minister, but possibly a future DPM. Traditionally the DPMs were the ministers responsible for security or foreign affairs. The next ranking minister in the Cabinet, Lim Hng Kiang, is one candidate, but he is more of a technocrat than a politician. The second DPM (first being Teo Chee Hean) might be either Tharman, the Finance Minister, or Ng Eng Hen, the Education Minister. Or there could be none at all.
Oh, it would be amazing if Mah Bow Tan is still kept in the Cabinet.
And in the longer term, without MM Lee and SM Goh making contradictory side-comments, the Cabinet would be more united…but not necessarily more receptive. That remains to be seen. In all, their retirement is symbolic of a changing of times – the PAP has lost the ability to dictate the agenda, force people to argue on it, and then move on according to their directions. The recent GE has proved that both opposition parties and ordinary S’poreans are setting the agenda instead, and forcing the PAP to respond before moving on. MM Lee and SM Goh clearly came from another era, and by retiring, they are giving PM Lee a broad space to respond to the changing needs of Singapore – as they mentioned, “A younger generation, besides having a non-corrupt and meritocratic government and a high standard of living, wants to be more engaged in the decisions which affect them“.