The new Cabinet line-up announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong some 11 days after the 2011 general elections can probably count as one of the biggest moves by the People’s Action Party (PAP) in recent times.
As if to answer and underscore the call for change that had been shouted by the electorate through the ballot box and through various social media channels, a total of 11 out of the 14 ministries have seen a change in leadership, with a further three ministers stepping down to make way for seven new faces in the Cabinet.
The extent of the change is both sweeping and unprecedented but not unexpected given the ground sentiments that continue to swirl even after the elections, and the free hand that PM Lee now has following the retirement of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.
In total, the experience of nine ministers from the previous Cabinet has been lost through retirements and electoral defeats. Nonetheless, five of them will continue to be Members of Parliament (MPs) – hopefully now with more humility, responsibility and a greater desire to connect with the people they have been elected to serve.
The departures of Wong Kan Seng and Mah Bow Tan must surely have been the most hoped for and awaited change to many people as these two men had come under the most intense scrutiny and criticism during the elections for their role in the escape of a terrorist leader and the skyrocketing of housing prices, respectively.
The departure of Raymond Lim was a little more unexpected but given that transport issues also continue to be a core bread-and-butter concern for Singaporeans, the backlash from unpopular transport policies as well as the unhappiness over congestion in the public transport system took their toll during the elections.
What does come as a surprise, though, are the through-train promotions of two newly-elected MPs to full ministers, with former Monetary Authority of Singapore chief Heng Swee Keat appointed as Education Minister and former Chief of Army Chan Chun Sing as Acting Community Development, Youth and Sports Minister.
Besides the two newly-minted ministers, the Cabinet also sees five new faces in the form of labour MPs Halimah Yacob and Josephine Teo, a newly promoted Teo Ser Luck, and two new MPs who have been touted for higher office – Tan Chuan Jin and Lawrence Wong. Except for Madam Halimah, the other four range in age from 39 to 43, suggesting a period of grooming and exposure before they are considered for possible further promotion to full ministers.
Another notable facet of the new Cabinet is the number of promotions given to returning PAP MPs: Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam received the highest accolade with his promotion to Deputy PM while fourth term MP, S Iswaran, has been promoted from Senior Minister of State (Education) to Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office.
The four other promotions went to Heng Chee How, promoted from Minister of State to Senior Minister of State; Teo Ser Luck, promoted from Senior Parliamentary Secretary to Minister of State; and Miss Josephine Teo and Madam Halimah, promoted from backbenchers to Ministers of State.
The new Cabinet assembled by PM Lee also echoes the retirement statement of MM Lee and SM Goh that they were leaving the Cabinet to a “completely younger team of ministers to connect and engage with this young generation in shaping the future of our Singapore.”
The entire new Cabinet led by PM Lee is currently under 60 years old, with the oldest being PM Lee himself at 59, followed by new National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan at 58. The youngest full minister is Major-General (NS) Chan at 42 while the youngest member of the Cabinet is Minister of State Lawrence Wong at 39. It is also interesting to note that of the 25 members of the Cabinet, more than half are aged 50 and below.
By the time of the next election in 2016, only seven members of the Cabinet would have passed the age of 60, including PM Lee and DPM Teo Chee Hean. This still leaves more than two-thirds of the Cabinet within the age range of this Cabinet, including DPM Shanmugaratnam and seven full ministers.
It could be said that in one sweep, PM Lee has put in place a mechanism to ensure that the core of the government is demographically as close as possible to the sizeable majority of an increasingly aware and vocal electorate. Hopefully, this will help the government be more in tune with the voters come election time.
Also worth noting is the change in the leadership in 11 of the 14 ministries. Only three ministries – Finance, Law and Trade & Industry – sees continuity in leadership.
While it might be thought that the government is indulging in some sort of musical chairs, the reshuffling of the Cabinet deck is actually a useful way of ensuring that no minister becomes entrenched in one ministry and providing a fresh set of eyes when ministers are rotated across ministries.
With each minister now being assigned a new portfolio, we could very well see the dismantling, recasting or improvement of policies and approaches to better meet the needs of Singaporeans. If this really comes to pass, it may begin to convince the electorate that the PAP-led government is actually beginning to listen to the people.
On the plus side, this may help the party regain some of the ground it has lost over the last five years, especially among the swing voters, which culminated in its worst electoral showing since 1963.
PM Lee had set the bar for himself when he announced in his post-election press conference that the party would need to change, to transform, to adapt to the new electorate to “put right what is wrong, to improve what can be made better, and also improve ourselves to serve Singaporeans better”.
Maybe, this is the sign we need to enable us to close ranks and work together, “regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society based on justice and equality, so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation”.
Maybe, this will ensure the future we want for ourselves, our family and our children.Maybe.