All the bestest to Swee Say, Hng Kiang and Yaacob

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah



I like the three veteran Cabinet ministers who are stepping down  –  Minister for Trade and Industry Lim Hng Kiang, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Dr Yaacob Ibrahim and Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say.  They are good men who have each done a good job and we will miss them.

Somehow Lim Hng Kiang reminds me of Heng Swee Keat and the late Hon Sui Sen. They and many such PAP leaders are not natural politicians. If you ask them to solve a problem, they will be able to that, at least with all their education, professional experience and a formidable administrative machine. But if you ask them to persuade an unconvinced or hostile segment of the population to back them on a particular policy, they will not be so effective. These are the be calm, don’t panic taciturn types of ministers who are always needed in any national lineup, so kudos to them. Communication across the crowded din may not be their forte.

Lim Hng Kiang admitted it in The Straits Times: “I’m not a good communicator, as you know by now.” He was referring to his ill-advised “advice” to women to “save on one hairdo and use the money for breast cancer screening”.  For which he received a tongue-lashing from fellow PAP MP Dr Lily Neo and many irate women.

Yet, over the years as ministers came and went, the trade minister continued to be around. He was almost invisible. Trade and Industry is not a sexy ministry but it is a vital one. And he has done us well. As he said: “Today we are a $400 billion economy…38th (in world rankings)”. Not many trade ministers of a small country can claim this.

Besides Muslim affairs, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim has been involved in Community Development, Water and the Environment and Communications and Information. But it will be in the battle against Islamist extremist ideology – part of his Muslim affairs portfolio – that Dr Ibrahim’s legacy will be judged. He has been forthright in rallying fellow Singapore Muslims to reject exclusivist beliefs.  That took courage, especially in a region where the terrorist threat seems here to stay. Hence, we owe him.

It is the exit of the third veteran minister – Minister for Manpower Lim Swee Say – which will attract the greatest interest. The portfolio itself will be filled in a  heartbeat by Josephine Teo. She is no stranger to Lim, having also worked in the Economic Development Board and the NTUC.

Lim’s departure, however, will create a not insignificant vacuum in his East Coast GRC for the PAP.  He is the anchor minister for the constituency which was hotly contested in 2011 and 2015 and will still be a hot spot in the next general election.

At the last GE in 2015, as a result of the big-swing 2011 poll which brought about the fall of the mighty PAP in Aljunied GRC, East Coast seemed ripe for the picking. Sensing that it had a great chance of pulling off another coup, the Workers Party sent in an A team.

The East Coast was one of the last results on GE2015 polling night. Early results already showed a swing back to the PAP from the 2011 backlash caused by national healthcare problems, loss of jobs, MRT overcrowding and the influx of foreigners. The PAP’s efforts to win back support succeeded. But even the incumbent party was surprised by size of the voter turnaround as the night wore on.

Lim’s team was returned. The WP was left wondering what happened.

Let’s recall the results.

In 2011, the PAP had 54.8 per cent of the votes, compared to the WP’s 45.2 per cent. The gap was that small. But, in 2015, the PAP’s share went up to 60.7 per cent and the WP’s down to 39.3 per cent.

The WP, however, did well enough to have two of its East Coast candidates – Leon Pereira and Daniel Goh –  accepted as Non-Constituency MPs. Its percentage share in East Coast was respectable, looking back at it three years on.

All its candidates are fairly young and well educated. Their performances in Parliament have been vigorous. Singaporeans wish to see more of such firm pressure on PAP MPs and ministers.

The opposition party should camp itself in East Coast and work the trenches of Bedok, Siglap and Changi – from now till 2020.

It has been on the cards that Lim Swee Say would not be in East Coast for long. While he is politics all these years, he has been a colourful leader. Definitely what we in the press would describe as good copy, meaning, we can usually expect some very quotable remarks to brighten up the headlines.

So, to Mr Better, Betterer and Betterest, all the bestest to you.

Sense And Nonsense is a weekly series. Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.