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PM Lee unveils Cabinet that seeks to balance continuity and renewal in a time of crisis

SINGAPORE — With Singapore facing a crisis of a lifetime and a pressing need to renew its political leadership, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s new Cabinet line-up was, as he put it, about striking a balance. This means ensuring continuity in governance during the Covid-19 pandemic while giving political office holders exposure to new ministries and inducting new blood.

Left to right: Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat; Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong; Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing; Dr Maliki Osman, Second Minister for Foreign Affairs; and Ms Gan Siow Huang, Minister of State for Education at a media briefing on the latest Cabinet appointments.

Left to right: Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat; Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong; Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing; Dr Maliki Osman, Second Minister for Foreign Affairs; and Ms Gan Siow Huang, Minister of State for Education at a media briefing on the latest Cabinet appointments.

  • Six of the 15 government ministries will see new ministers at the helm
  • PM Lee said that he had to ensure continuity during the pandemic
  • At the same time, he wanted to give the younger ministers exposure to new fields
  • Seven new political officeholders will inject new ideas and perspectives, he said

 

SINGAPORE — With Singapore facing a crisis of a lifetime and a pressing need to renew its political leadership, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s new Cabinet line-up was, as he put it, about striking a balance. This means ensuring continuity in governance during the Covid-19 pandemic while giving political office holders exposure to new ministries and inducting new blood. 

During a press briefing on Saturday (July 25) to unveil the latest Cabinet, PM Lee was asked about the thinking behind the changes he had made this time around, and why there were fewer ministerial movements compared with the reshuffle after the 2011 General Election (GE). 

This year, only six out of the 15 government ministries are getting a new minister, whereas in 2011 there were top leadership changes made to 11 out of the 14 ministries then.

“(GE2011 was) a different situation, and the big difference this time, as I explained, is because we're in the middle of Covid-19, and therefore I have had to maintain a greater degree of continuity than I would otherwise have done,” PM Lee said.

“The ministers who have been directly handling Covid-19, I've kept in place, but I hope that in not too long a time, as the situation stabilises and we get on top of it, it would be possible for me to make further changes.”

In the latest Cabinet reshuffle, the portfolios of three ministers most directly involved in handling the pandemic remain unchanged — Minister for Health Gan Kim Yong, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing and Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo.

Three in the current team will retire from their office. They are: Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan; Mr Sam Tan, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Social and Family Development; and Dr Tan Wu Meng, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs and for Trade and Industry.

Both Mr Khaw and Mr Tan announced their retirement before the election and did not contest, while Dr Tan was re-elected as a Member of Parliament (MP) for Jurong Group Representation Constituency and will remain a backbencher.

There were seven new political appointments, including those of six People's Action Party candidates then who made their debut in GE2020. Among them is Dr Tan See Leng, who will take on three ministerial roles, as a Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and Second Minister for Manpower and for Trade and Industry.

The seventh new appointee is Ms Rahayu Mahzam, previously a backbencher MP who will now be the Parliamentary Secretary for Health.

In total, there will be 37 officeholders in the new team — same as after GE2015, PM Lee noted — and one more than the current batch of officeholders. They will be sworn in on Monday at the Istana and Parliament House.

PM Lee said: “This is the team that will lead Singapore through our current public health and economic crisis and also plan for our future beyond the crisis, so that Singapore can recover strongly and seize opportunities in the post-Covid world.”

CONTINUITY

Explaining his thinking behind the moves, PM Lee said that he had discussed the reshuffle with his senior colleagues as well as with Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who is tipped to replace PM Lee as premier.

With Covid-19 placing a “premium on experience and a sure touch”, PM Lee said that most of the Cabinet ministers have experience, who have held office for at least one term. 

The older ministers — Senior Ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, as well as Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam and Health Minister Gan, are staying on.

Mr Heng, while remaining as DPM and Finance Minister, will also be designated as Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies as he chairs the Future Economy Council and the National Research Foundation. 

The position of Coordinating Minister, which was a newly created role in 2015, has until now only been held by Mr Tharman, Mr Teo and Mr Khaw.

In response to a question about labour chief Ng Chee Meng, who was voted out of Parliament in GE2020, Mr Lee said that the Cabinet will continue to work closely with Mr Ng.

Mr Heng added that regular meetings with Mr Ng and the National Trades Union Congress have continued even after the election.

“Because of the structural changes that I spoke about earlier, there (is) a significant change... in how we need to help our workers acquire new skills for us to create new jobs, and then embrace our workers and new jobs, and also to retain as many of our workers as possible,” Mr Heng said. He added that he met Mr Ng with the economic ministers two days ago to discuss how this can be done.

EXPOSURE

PM Lee also said that he needed to rotate the Cabinet team and expose officeholders to “different portfolios to gain both breadth and depth” as well as to see issues from a national perspective.

The six ministers who will be taking on new roles are Mr Lawrence Wong as Education Minister, Mr Ong Ye Kung as Transport Minister, Mr Desmond Lee as National Development Minister, Mr Masagos Zulkifli as Social and Family Development Minister, Ms Indranee Rajah as Second Minister for National Development and Ms Grace Fu, who will lead the renamed Ministry of Sustainability and Environment (MSE).

The MSE replaces the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, and the name was changed “to better reflect its future role”, PM Lee said.

Mr Wong, who will continue to co-chair the multi-ministry task force leading Singapore’s response to Covid-19, will continue the work of MOE in improving the education system and lifelong learning for adults, PM Lee said.

On Mr Ong’s move to the Ministry of Transport, PM Lee said that on top of domestic priorities, the work of the minister requires engaging neighbouring countries on major bilateral projects and sensitive matters such as airspace and maritime issues.

“So we need a very good minister at the helm, with Cabinet experience and political nous.” 

Mr Desmond Lee, who at 44 is the youngest full minister in the current Cabinet, will head the Ministry of National Development after several years as its Second Minister. 

PM Lee said that Mr Lee has been doing good work engaging community groups on physical development plans, and had been helping in the arrangements for migrant construction workers to resume work during the pandemic.

When asked to elaborate on his comment that the fourth generation of leaders needed more exposure, he noted that most of them had been elected into Parliament just one or two terms ago, and so their exposure to government has not been as comprehensive or lengthy as those of third-generation ministers such as Mr Teo, Mr Tharman, Dr Ng and himself.

“Therefore, it's valuable for them to have to be put in different and contrasting places, in order to understand issues from different perspectives and be able to come to a considered judgement collectively on what should be the national perspective to take when you make decisions in Cabinet, and not just be speaking on behalf of the seat which they are sitting upon at that time,” PM Lee said.

Ministers have to make decisions, including those that require money to be spent, knowing that the money must also be earned and collected one way or another, he added.

“You must make up your mind on what is the best thing to do for Singapore… and you must have the experience of having been in other places, having had the other responsibilities and therefore you know these are the trade-offs.”

RENEWAL

Another consideration behind the Cabinet changes is the need for leadership renewal through the injection of “fresh blood”, PM Lee said. 

Of the newly elected MPs who are being appointed to political office, he said: “They will reinforce my team, and offer new ideas and perspectives.”

Aside from Dr Tan See Leng, other new faces who will be holding office are Ms Gan Siow Huang, Mr Alvin Tan, Mr Desmond Tan, Mr Tan Kiat How and Mr Eric Chua.

Dr Tan See Leng's appointment as a full minister right after leaving the private sector to join politics is rare in Singapore's political scene. A close example is Mr Ong Ye Kung, who became an elected MP in GE2015 after a short stint at shipping corporation Keppel, and was appointed Acting Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) a month later.

Mr Ong was in public service for a large part of his working life, before he went into the private sector.

Dr Tan See Leng is the former managing director and chief executive officer of IHH Healthcare, a healthcare group that is listed in Singapore and Malaysia, and has a network of 28 hospitals in Asia, including Mount Elizabeth Hospital and Gleneagles Hospital.

He sees his appointment as an affirmation of the private sector’s contributions to Singapore.

“We are facing a pandemic, which is once in a lifetime. This crisis requires the support and the partnership of everyone in the country, and I see this as an affirmation of the importance of the private sector coming in, working in partnership, and I hope to be that bridge.”

Several current officeholders were also promoted: Dr Maliki Osman and Mr Edwin Tong will become full ministers, after having served as senior ministers of state. 

Ms Low Yen Ling, Associate Professor Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim and Ms Sun Xueling will move up from their roles as senior parliamentary secretaries to become ministers of state, while Mr Zaqy Mohamad, now a minister of state, will be promoted to senior minister of state.

Addressing the three who are leaving their political office, PM Lee thanked Mr Khaw, Mr Sam Tan and Dr Tan Wu Meng for their contributions.

PM Lee said he was glad that Mr Khaw will continue to advise the younger ministers and share his experience and wisdom. 

“Some of you may have heard, you would have read in the papers, that he was hospitalised for dengue fever this week. But I have good news, he has recovered well and has been discharged just this morning,” PM Lee said.

PM Lee also said that Dr Tan Wu Meng — who had caught flak just before the GE for criticising Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh’s support for poet Alfian Sa’at — had asked to leave the Government to return to medical practice.

Asked about the status of Mr Singh’s title as Leader of the Opposition, Mr Lee said that more details will be announced next week.

“It is not complicated. The main thing is we are recognising the leader of the main opposition party in Parliament and we hope that this will lead to the opposition in Parliament playing a more constructive and more substantive role. Not just asking questions of the Government, but also putting up alternatives putting up proposals and being scrutinised so that Singaporeans can understand what the trade-offs are, what the choices are,” PM Lee said.

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Cabinet reshuffle Lee Hsien Loong

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