By Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim
On 27 April 2017, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) announced changes to the Cabinet. Key among the changes were the promotion of two Senior Ministers of State to full ministers.
The cabinet is poised for expansion as the promotion of Mrs Josephine Teo and Mr Desmond Lee are just two of more that are expected to take place in 2018, according to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The future will not only see the appointment of more ministers but also the newer ones helming their own ministries.
The changes in the cabinet since the last General Elections (GE) reflect ongoing efforts to introduce greater certainty to public administration and political succession as Singapore braces itself for tougher decades ahead.
Back in 2015, two coordinating ministerial portfolios – Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies and Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure – were created. They added to the portfolio of Coordinating Minister for National Security, which was implemented in 2003.
The post of Coordinating Minister for National Security was conceived at a time when threats to national security were growing in scale and complexity, and projected to be a long-term global challenge. It can be inferred that the two new coordinating minister positions were created to cope with similar complexities emerging in other fields: economic restructuring in the face of slower growth, the diverse needs of a rapidly evolving social landscape fraught with problems such as ageing and poverty among certain groups, and infrastructure to support population growth, particularly in the areas of housing and transport.
The current coordinating ministers, Deputy Prime Ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, and Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan, are experienced leaders tasked to ensure relevant ministries remain aligned with national objectives and policies are in sync with one another. An example of lack of coordination in the past, according to some observers, is housing and transport systems lagging behind population growth. The outcome – soaring property prices and overcrowded public transport – led to much public disquiet.
The trend of ensuring a smooth transition to a new team dates back to the era of the late former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. While Mrs Teo and Mr Lee were appointed Ministers in PMO, formerly known as Ministers without portfolio, they are second Ministers in various ministries: Mrs Teo in Ministry of Manpower and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Mr Lee in Home Affairs and National Development. PM Lee remarked during an interview with Channel NewsAsia in April that Mrs Teo was paired to work with Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say while Mr Lee will be given greater responsibilities by the primary Ministers at Home Affairs and National Development. If PM Lee’s comments are anything to go by, it can be deduced that the newly appointed ministers are being groomed to helm their own ministries.
The appointment of two new Ministers, the promotion of Ministers of State to Senior Ministers of State and the impending changes to be announced in 2018, provide hints that a major cabinet reshuffle is in the works. PM Lee shared previously that he himself will step down sometime after the next General Election (GE), which must be held by April 2021. It is likely that, along with him, several current older Ministers will go too.
Where the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs is concerned, unless another Malay ministerial potential is appointed and follows a path as dramatic as Mr Heng Swee Keat’s ascension to full minister, or if Dr Mohamad Maliki Bin Osman is promoted to minister from his current appointment as Senior Minister of State, it is likely that Mr Masagos Zulkifli will succeed incumbent Dr Yaacob Ibrahim.
Minister of State Koh Poh Koon, who made his formal entry into the political arena in 2013 but lost the Punggol East Single Member Constituency (SMC) by-election to Workers’ Party candidate Lee Li Lian, was fielded again in the 2015 GE, winning this time under a six-man Group Representative Constituency (GRC) team led by PM Lee. Since then, his rise to the Senior Minister of State position can be described as relatively swift, raising speculations that he may be a future ministerial candidate. There are parallels between his case and that of Mr Ong Ye Kung, one of the two Ministers for Education. Mr Ong likewise lost during the 2011 GE at Aljunied GRC to Workers’ Party’s most formidable team but returned to contest in the 2015 GE at Sembawang and won. Within a year, he became the Senior Minister of State for Defence and Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills).
The current cabinet is the most diverse in terms of its ethnic and gender make up. For the first time in Singapore’s political history, there are two Malay and two female cabinet ministers. While their promotion to full ministers were on merit, it came about amid discussions about Malay and female representation in the nation’s highest policy-making body.
For the Malay/Muslim community, the presence of two full ministers apparently did not assuage its aspiration to see greater Malay presence in positions of leadership. Dr Yaacob said in November last year that the desire for a Malay president reverberated across the community, based on his observations during closed-door discussions. He added that the “psyche” of the Malay community and the “historical burden” of being perceived as an “underachieving community” stoked a yearning greater than in other communities to see one of their own recognised for excellence and leadership.
The lack of female representation in local politics has been raised on a number of occasions, particularly by gender equality advocacy group, AWARE. Writing to TODAY in October 2015, which marked 20 years of commitment to gender equality after the Singapore government acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1995, it noted that, while commendable steps were being taken towards gender equality, only five of the 37 office-holders are women, making up 13.5 percent of Cabinet. Only one full Minister, out of 20, is a woman. CEDAW recommends that women’s political representation should be at least 30 percent to have a real impact on political style and content of decisions.
The Government has instituted a sturdy process to ensure administrative continuity and efficacy as one team hands over the baton to another. This is crucial especially during a time when uncertainty looms over Singapore’s economic outlook, rocking its social and political paradigms. There are, however, gaps to be bridged in terms of diversity in the cabinet. Two key aspects that have gained relative prominence are ethnic and gender representation. In addition, there are other areas that have not been given due attention.
Considerations for the Future
A trend readily observable, and which is likely to persist in the foreseeable future, is that the cabinet comprises mainly of those with distinguished educational attainments and careers in the public service. As Singapore progresses well into the developed economy phase, the economic, social and political landscapes of the future demand a more nuanced understanding of issues and experience in various sectors to develop policies that could help Singapore effectively negotiate the rapidly evolving terrains and paradigm shifts.
Apart from diversity in terms of ethnicity and gender, talents scouted for ministerial positions should also include those who have excelled in the private and non-governmental sectors, who have a track record for delivering results that benefited the stakeholders they serve. They are neither necessarily those who have achieved educational excellence or have public service experience nor those from specific sectors such as medicine and law. They could include those from the social service and arts sectors. The humanities background of the latter is just as essential in policy-making because, ultimately, the aim of policies is to nurture the progress and prosperity of people.
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 2017, Volume 12, Issue 3
Photo Source: Yahoo News Singapore