The press conference PM Lee Hsien Loong called on Saturday (July 25) to announce the line-up of Singapore’s latest Cabinet was probably not what he had in mind in February. When Covid-19 first reared its head in Wuhan, China in December last year, no one knew it was going to become a pandemic which is still threatening life and livelihoods everywhere.
When Heng Swee Keat cobbled up his first 2020 Budget in February, it looked at that time like “an election budget” with a swathe of strong and generous measures (thought to be so at that time) to help Singaporeans through the crisis. That was expected to have been enough to make the DPM and Finance Minister the man of the hour and, together with his other 4G colleagues, as leaders bonding with the people at a time of emergency. I even wrote a column worrying about a wipe-out for the Opposition in GE 2020.
A number of new heavy-spending and even bigger budgets later, the coronavirus is still around. Instead of a wipe-out, the Opposition has made significant inroads. It retained Aljunied and Hougang with increased majorities, captured a new GRC and did well across the island. While the Workers’ Party continued to show its growing strength in the east, the new Progress Singapore Party proved that it will be a political force to be reckoned with in the west and possibly the north by the next election and the Singapore Democratic Party may be just a footstep away from Parliament.
Little wonder that Saturday’s press conference did not turn out to be the celebratory coming-of-age event that it was meant to be. One where PM Lee would take a back seat as the 4G leaders hogged centre stage and fielded questions about the future direction of party and country. Instead, the mood was as sombre as at the PAP press conference after the results of GE2020.
The word that PM Lee used was continuity but for observers it would be: perfunctory. He did what he had done with most of his previous Cabinet reshuffles – explain the need to further expose his ministers, moving them around and giving them new portfolios, promote a few and retain a number of older ministers (in this case, the key 3G leaders, including the two Senior Ministers). Same same, as they like to say.
In other words, the 4G handing over ceremony has been postponed. PM Lee is not stepping down soon. SM Teo Chee Hean and SM Tharman Shanmugaratnam are still around. Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and Law Minister K Shanmugam are still carrying the burden as the heavyweight ministers.
And the most significant question posed at the press conference elicited a very telling answer. When asked whether the 4G leaders had reviewed their plans about backing DPM Heng, PM Lee very quickly deflected the question to Chan Chun Sing, who looked a bit surprised.
The Trade and Industry Minister regained his composure and gave this cryptic reply:
“We are entirely focused on helping the country in overcoming the economic challenges and saving the jobs at this point of time. We have no plans to do otherwise and we have no plans, no discussions on any change in plan.”
For the time being, perhaps.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of The Independent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.