By Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim
The recent cabinet reshuffle was an eagerly anticipated one because it marks the ascension of the fourth generation (4G) leaders and the retirement of several long-serving ministers.
The Malay/Muslim community bade farewell to Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, who served as the Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs from 25 March 2002 to 30 April 2018 and who also held various other ministerial portfolios including Communications and Information, and Environment and Water Resources. Incumbent Minister for Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli takes over as the new Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs. It marks the end of an era when there were two Malay/Muslim ministers in the cabinet.
Are there prospects of seeing more than one Malay/Muslim minister in the cabinet in the longer term? 52-year-old Mr Maliki Osman holds the next most senior position based on the Singapore order of precedence after Mr Masagos. By virtue of his current appointment as the Senior Minister of State, he appears to be a candidate for a ministerial position but, if the Prime Minister is seeking to groom younger political office holders as future ministers, the more likely contenders from the Malay/Muslim community are 1978-born Mr Amrin Amin, who was promoted to Senior Parliamentary Secretary in May, and Mr Zaqy Mohamad, 43, who was given new appointments as the Minister of State in the Ministry of National Development and the Ministry of Manpower.
A historic significance of the recent cabinet changes is the promotion of Ms Indranee Rajah to full Minister. Appointed Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Second Minister for Finance and Second Minister for Education, she brings the tally of women full Ministers to three. Two women now helm ministries: Ms Grace Fu remains the Minister of Culture, Community and Youth while Ms Josephine Teo is the newly-appointed Minister for Manpower.
The presence of more females in the cabinet and political offices is long overdue. It is not only a testament to the ability of women to take on the highest offices in the government but also adds to the much-needed diversity in the cabinet.
Vying for the Prime Spot
Singaporeans who are hoping for a clearer sign of who will be the next Prime Minister will have to wait longer. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said earlier in January this year, no new Deputy Prime Minister or First Deputy Prime Minister was appointed.
Controversy appears to be brewing over the length of time taken to decide. Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, while acknowledging that while every succession is different, argued that one thing that ought to remain the same is that each cohort will have to nevertheless pick one amongst themselves to lead and to accord him with due support. He further stressed the urgency of settling on a prospective premiership candidate from among the 4G leaders. Based on a timeline he has sketched, Singaporeans should know who their next Prime Minister would be by end of 2018.
Mr Lee’s retort was that Mr Goh was speaking with the privilege of watching things rather than being responsible to make it happen. He added that the 4G leaders need time for Singaporeans to be familiar with capabilities of the potential candidates, their ability to carry and defend significant policies and to make the policies work, thus justifying that they deserve to lead.
One aspect of the race that is becoming clearer is that it has narrowed down to three candidates: Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat. There are speculations that Mr Chan is the one leading among the three but, if Mr Lee’s remark about 4G leaders needing to be tested is anything to go by, it can be surmised that Mr Ong and Mr Heng arguably face the more daunting tasks. Education and fiscal policies are probably the most visible or felt by the masses compared to trade and industrial policies that Mr Chan, as the Minister of Trade and Industry, oversees. The ongoing debates on education and the looming uncertainty over the future economy have left them somewhat in a bind.
Mr Ong’s call for shifts in mindset with regards to what defines success in education – the shift from the pursuit of paper qualifications to the pursuit of deep skills – is likely to hit a major stumbling block because, on the ground, it appears that parents remain bent on ensuring that their children do well in PSLE and tread the shortest and most prestigious pathway, such as the Integrated Programme (IP), to higher institutions of learning.
Students who do not make the cut for the more elite schools or programmes tend to fit a familiar profile: lower socioeconomic status. In relation to this, there were questions about whether Singapore’s education system can address a nagging social concern: inequality. In response to Mr Ong’s remarks on the second day of the debate on the President’s Address last May about the pressing need to tackle inequality, Mr Masagos asserted that Singapore’s education policies must enable each Singaporean to pursue their aspirations and realise their potential, regardless of their family background.
However, Professors Linda Lim and Pang Eng Fong, in a commentary written for Channel News Asia, argued that family background is a very important variable affecting educational performance and earnings of individuals. Thus, changes within the school system itself will not necessarily bring about more equal performance of students in school. They alluded to the separate research by NTU associate professor of sociology Teo You Yenn, and NUS associate professor of social work Irene Ng, which confirms the dominant impact of family circumstances on student performance in Singapore today.
Mr Heng’s main challenge is in facing the effects of an ageing population. The toll that the greying demographic is exacting on government spending is likely to intensify in the coming years. To meet this challenge, there was a pressing need to strengthen Government revenue. In February during his Budget 2018 speech, he announced that the Government planned to raise goods and services tax (GST) by two percentage points, from 7% to 9%, sometime in the period from 2021 to 2025. It led to unhappiness among some quarters and queries over whether there are alternatives to raising the GST, such as relaxing the 50% cap on the long-term expected real returns (including capital gains), under the Net Investment Returns (NIR) framework, that the government can spend.
Amid mounting concerns and ensuing debates in parliament, Mr Heng reiterated that the government had looked at all the different taxes that it could change, even non-tax measures that it could undertake. While each of these has its merits, Mr Heng said that, considering the overall scheme of things, the Government decided the GST is still the most appropriate.
Apparently, convincing the public that raising GST is the way to go is still work in progress for Mr Heng. It does not help that, across the causeway, the new Malaysian government kept its election campaign promise to abolish the GST as Singaporeans looked on wistfully.
Confusing or Comforting?
More recently, the ability of the 4G leaders to connect with the common people came under scrutiny. One instance of this was sparked by Mr Chan’s comments about having a “global mindset and global skillset” and another by Mr Heng who spoke about striving for multiple ladders of success and multiple peaks of excellence in education during the debate on the President’s Address. It prompted a response from noted journalist, The Straits Times Editor-at-Large Han Fook Kwang, who, in a commentary written for The Straits Times, urged Ministers to “speak plainly” to the people. He argued that one worried about holding on to one’s job or a mother concerned about her child’s schoolwork are longing to have their anxieties heard and understood. The terms used by Mr Chan and Mr Heng, which Mr Han described as “abstract”, may not be what the average Singaporean can relate to.
To be fair, both Mr Chan and Mr Heng were making well-founded points about the future of employability and education respectively but Mr Han’s feedback was also no less valid in that a scan of speeches and remarks made by leaders does suggest that their speaking in terms that the man in the street can relate to is scarce. This is a significant segment of the population that should be engaged, thus imperative for leaders to couch their language in a way that will reach out to them.
Another related issue that emerged was the response by Mr Heng’s press secretary Lim Yuin Chien, who described Mr Han’s commentary as encouraging pandering to populism. Former Member of Parliament Inderjit Singh and former associate editor of The Straits Times Bertha Henson expressed concerns that the letter goes against the spirit of considering all views with an open mind and listening with respect and humility, which Mr Heng pledged during the debate on President’s Address. Lim’s reply is reminiscent of the days when the government was less consultative and more top down in its approach towards policymaking.
It is also likely to discourage some Singaporeans from freely expressing their views when the 4G leaders kick-start a series of discussions to engage all segments of society to solicit views on charting the future.
The 4G leaders face tough challenges ahead: a disruptive economy that is poised to destabilise the job market, an ageing population that is placing upward pressure on social expenditure and hence taxes to raise government revenues, net immigration to prevent working-age population from shrinking, a society that is divided along class lines, the spread of online falsehoods, and the threat of religious extremism. Their leadership qualities and tenacity will indeed be tested. It remains to be seen who amongst the premiership frontrunners would finally muster sufficient confidence amongst his 4G peers to be appointed Deputy Prime Minister or First Deputy Prime Minister and, eventually, the Prime Minister.
Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim is a Researcher / Projects Coordinator with the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA), the research subsidiary of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP). The views expressed in the article are his own.
This commentary was also published in Karyawan, July 2018, Volume 13, Issue 3
Photo Source: Yahoo News Singapore