Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Government for the Future

The last 11 days following the elections must probably have been a stressful time for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as he thought about how to reconstitute his government following the worst election results for the People’s Action Party (PAP) since it came to power in 1959.

Singapore is now waiting with bated breath for PM Lee to announce his new Cabinet line-up. An announcement is expected this week, but what can we expect to see? Will there be significant changes to the appointment holders and their portfolios? Or will it be back to government as usual?

The PAP had already lost five political office holders – two Ministers, one Senior Minister of State and two Ministers of State – before the elections, and had to come face-to-face with losing three more office holders – two Ministers and one Senior Minister of State – as a result of the elections.

Considering only the ministerial portfolios (including the Minister of State positions), which comprise 31 individuals in the last government, the loss of eight office bearers meant that PM Lee had to find suitable replacements for about one-quarter of his government team.

This seemed to be further exacerbated by the decisions of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong to step down from the Cabinet.

The retirement of MM Lee and SM Goh to make way for “a younger generation to carry Singapore forward” could actually be a good thing for PM Lee as he has been given the room to break from the past. 

A lean and trim government

Taking the joint statement by the two former Prime Ministers as a clear signal, PM Lee could use this as an opportunity to do away with the MM and SM positions, and as such would only need to look into filling seven positions vacated as a result of retirement and electoral defeat.

He could even go a step further by establishing a very lean Cabinet, one that is without ministers without portfolios. This would mean that the biggest and most important decision for PM Lee would be who to appoint as the new Minister for Foreign Affairs.

If you ask me, the Foreign Affairs ministry position could be a toss up between Minister for Trade and Industry Lim Hng Kiang and Minister for Transport & Second Minister for Foreign Affairs Raymond Lim, with the former having the edge of having helmed the ministry before.

The other decisions of equal importance would be to identify potential junior ministers to fill the vacancies left behind with the departures of Mrs Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, Associate Professors Ho Peng Kee and Koo Tsai Kee, and Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed.

But decisions on who would form the core leadership of the government are probably not a simple matter of just filling up the numbers. After all, we can no longer just go back to government as usual.

Given the distinct shift in our political landscape, a truism acknowledged by PM Lee himself, consideration may be given to public sentiment leading to more populist appointments and further retirements from the government.

4th generation leaders to step up

Age may also be a determining factor given the PAP’s articulated aim at the start of the election campaign to bring in and groom the fourth generation (4G) leadership for Singapore.

The average age of the remaining Ministers in the last Cabinet currently stands at around 55 years old, with Mr Wong Kan Seng and Mr Mah Bow Tan as clear outliers – they are already 65 and 62 years old, respectively – and Dr Vivian Balakrishnan and Rear-Admiral (NS) Lui Tuck Yew as the youngest at 50 years old.

Out of the slate of new PAP candidates in the recent elections, former Monetary Authority of Singapore managing director Heng Swee Keat, 50, and former Singapore Armed Forces Brigadier-General Tan Chuan Jin, 42, appear most likely to be appointed as office holders in the new government.

Who else among the new PAP Members of Parliament can we expect to be part of the 4G leadership group? They could include former Chief of Army Major-General Chan Chun Sing (42), former Energy Market Authority chief executive Lawrence Wong (38), and former civil servant Sim Ann (36).

There are also a number of below-50 years old Members of Parliament in the previous line-up of office holders, who have the potential to rise further within the government. These include Mr Teo Ser Luck (41), Mr Masagos Zulkifli (48), and Ms Grace Fu (47), just to name a few.

A new and younger DPM

Looking now at the apex of government, it is possible that PM Lee may also be looking to appointing a new and younger second Deputy Prime Minister (DPM). The first DPM would probably continue to be Mr Teo Chee Hean (56).

Word has it that the potential candidates are Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam (54), Education & Second Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen (52), and Minister without portfolio Lim Swee Say (57). We will just have to wait to see who PM Lee chooses.

The appointment of a younger DPM is the only way forward for the PAP if we are to believe in the sincerity of their efforts at leadership renewal.

It would also mean that Mr Wong would have to relinquish his DPM post, but he could continue to be part of the Cabinet in his role as Coordinating Minister for National Security.

This would demonstrate to the public that the government is listening to the people – public sentiment against Mr Wong had been very high during the elections – while still ensuring that there is continuity in the work done by Mr Wong.

A new beginning

Let us hope that PM Lee will use the opportunity that has been given to him to put in place a government that will truly serve the people; to use the fresh clean slate provided by the departure of MM Lee and SM Goh to bring about change within the PAP; and to connect with and engage the people in a manner that shows that citizens are always at the top of the government’s list of concerns.

Much ground has been lost over the last two elections and if the PAP hopes to regain its primacy in the Singapore polity, it will need to change its game plan, introduce new players who are ready to tackle the unknown and possibly even slaughter a few sacred cows within the party.

If ever there was a time for change within the PAP, now is the time. The price of failing to do so would be most telling when 2016 rolls by.

No comments: