The twin decisions by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong to retire from the Cabinet appears to be yet another consequence of the just recently concluded general elections.
The unexpected move comes as a surprise given that both men had contested the general elections to seek a new mandate from their constituents, with MM Lee being returned unopposed in his Tanjong Pagar Group Representation Constituency (GRC) and SM Goh winning a hard fought battle in his Marine Parade GRC.
According to a statement issued by the two leaders, they made their decisions after having considered the “new political situation” and deciding that it was time to “have a completely younger team of ministers to connect to and engage with this young generation in shaping the future of Singapore.”
This is probably the biggest and most historic move that the People’s Action Party (PAP) has made after any of the elections it has contested.
In one fell swoop, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s soon-to-be reconstituted Cabinet has lost two elder statesmen, who in their own turn had led and shaped the development of Singapore.
This may be a good thing for PM Lee as now no one would be able to say that while he led the government, the elder Lee allegedly held sway on how final decisions were made.
Also, given that the PAP-led government had already made clear that there would be no other MM, the way had already been paved for SM Goh to step down upon MM Lee’s retirement.
Beyond the reasons stated by the two former PMs in their statement, as an observer of the Singapore political landscape, I am persuaded to weigh the possibility of other contributory factors that led to their decision.
In the case of MM Lee, besides the most obvious reasons of age (87) and possibly health, the recent fall-out arising from his comments about the Malay/Muslim community in the book Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going as well as his comments towards Aljunied GRC residents during the 2011 election campaign may have tipped the balance towards his stepping down from the Cabinet.
While MM Lee had said that he stood corrected in relation to his remarks about Malays, Muslims and integration with the rest of Singapore, his admission of error fell short of an apology. This had left a lingering sense of resentment towards the PAP among many within the Malay/Muslim community.
Similarly, MM Lee’s “regret and repent” remarks towards Aljunied GRC residents had also deepened the resentment on a much broader level. This saw PAP paying the ultimate price of losing a GRC to the Workers’ Party (WP) and losing two Cabinet ministers in the process.
In addition, MM Lee’s post-election remarks where he characterized the younger generation as a generation that “does note remember from whence we came” has probably also resulted in further alienating a generation that has come of age and are more vociferous in making their views heard.
For SM Goh, the decision to relinquish his Cabinet position may have been driven by events that occurred during the 2011 elections, besides his age (69) and MM Lee’s retirement.
During the course of the elections campaign, there had been times when SM Goh had appeared to be out of step with the rest of the party. In his defense of former Foreign Minister George Yeo, he had unintentionally thrown two other ministers, who were also apparently unpopular with the masses, under the bus.
SM Goh’s proposal for a buddy system for Members of Parliament (MPs) in his Marine Parade GRC in the middle of the campaign also seemed ill-placed as it suggested that the party’s choice of candidates, especially new candidates, may not have been good enough.
Such remarks have only given credence to the widely held belief that there is a rift within the PAP.
The Tin Pei Ling saga may have also contributed to SM Goh’s decision to leave the Cabinet, going by his remarks that her entry into politics had been the party’s decision and that she had been the weak link that caused the reduction in votes for his PAP team.
His almost apologetic tone when it comes to talking about or defending her seems to suggest that he may not have had a choice in terms of including her in his team. Maybe.
One other factor that may have contributed to both men's retirement from Cabinet could be the recent revelation that PAP ministers received pensions at the age of 55, even while they were still in office.
This would have proven to be very unpopular with the populace who were already disgruntled over the grossly high pay that ministers receive. MM Lee's and SM Goh's departure could thus be seen as a damage control measure to nip in the bud the perception of the PAP enriching its own at the expense of the people.
Maybe I am just clutching at straws, but the timing of their retirement seems to be too simple to explain by just their issued statement.
In the final analysis, now that both men are out of the Cabinet, it may very well usher in a new era in the development of the PAP-led government, and possibly give more room for a real reform or transformation to take place within the party.
And while the PAP is going through this period of housekeeping, it may very well want to carefully evaluate whether further Cabinet changes should be made, especially if it wants to assure the public that it is serious about listening to the people.
The 2011 election really has been an election based on ‘change’, and my hope is that this ‘change’ will be a change for the better for everyone, especially for you and for me.