FARAWAY in San Francisco, on the final day of his 11-day trip to the United States, Heng Swee Keat was a little cryptic when asked if a Cabinet reshuffle would take place.
He did not give a timeline nor did he say anything on the likely senior Cabinet position he might adorn with the reply: “It is likely to happen soon but I will leave the Prime Minister to announce the details.”
The much-awaited changes to the Cabinet and the possibility of younger ministers in key posts has been the subject of much speculation in the last few weeks as predictions of a General Election (GE) will be held in the final quarter of this year.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, too, when addressing the media in Argentina last December while attending the Group of 20 Leaders’ Summit, indicated that the time-frame for the ministerial reshuffle may well be after the Budget debate, hinting that the “changes could be made in April or May”.
Presently there is much trepidation following Finance Minister Heng’s latest remarks on Sunday. For the leadership transition to the fourth-generation (4G) team to happen according to plan, the People’s Action Party (PAP) must, in the words of PM Lee, “first win the next general election”.
PM Lee, who some say holds the ace when it comes to political cards in calling the shots, said: “It depends on the party staying together and the party winning elections. And the first thing to do will be to win the next election.”
Apart from the appointment of two new Deputy Prime Ministers (DPMs), the next Cabinet reshuffle is unlikely to be as extensive as the changes made earlier this year, say political analysts. But it’s likely to be more “substantive and strategic”.
Singapore Management University (SMU) law academician Eugene Tan expects a “fair amount of movement among the ministries as the younger leaders need to step up after the GE…but before that they have to possess a broad exposure to more facets of government”.
INCREASE IN POLITICAL HOLDERS?
Speaking to The Independent, he says: “We might see an increase in the total number of political office holders. As the PAP is in election mode, there may not be the retiring from the Cabinet of any more 3G (third-generation) leaders for now. The theme has to be one of change, represented by 4G (fourth-generation) amidst continuity (the 3G). As such, how DPMs Teo (Chee Hean) and Tharman (Shanmugaratnam) will be deployed will be closely analysed.
“The forthcoming line-up will have to consolidate the government’s report card on all fronts including dealing with hot-button issues whether they relate to the cost of living, income inequality and social mobility. Overall, we can expect the 4G leadership to ramp up their profiles collectively and individually from here on.”
Lawyer Lukshumayeh Mahadevan believes an early announcement may be a “tricky situation as the 4-G leaders may still not have got the endorsement and mandate from the voting population of Singapore”. He explains: “For example, it may also be too early to replace the incumbent Deputy Prime Ministers. Perhaps what we may see is current Ministers being re-shuffled between ministries for greater exposure and more MOS (Ministers of States) and Deputy Ministers being appointed.
“It must not be forgotten that with General Elections expected to be round the corner and with some current Ministers possibly standing down, anchor ministers to stand at GRCs have to be appointed, too.”
THE THARMAN FACTOR
Schoolteacher Patrick Winifred of Toa Payoh North feels that recent media reports of the apparent popularity of Tharman Shanmugaratnam among the younger generation of Singaporeans may tip the scales towards having a “meritocratic choice”. He says: “Minority or majority, the final big political decisions must be made according to a meritocratic choice, with a leader who can command the respect of the new generation of Singaporeans.”
But widely expected to be leading the reshuffle will be 58-year-old Heng and Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, 49. They are in pole positions, after taking up the first and second assistant secretary-general positions respectively in the newly-minted PAP Central Executive Committee (CEC).
Significantly, PM Lee – who is the party’s secretary-general – also announced that it was the unanimous choice of branch activists to pick Mr Heng as their leader, and he in turn asked Mr Chan to be his deputy.
It is likely that Mr Tharman, 61, and his present DPM-colleague Teo Chee Hean, 64, will continue to hold high-profile positions as Senior Ministers, following the path of some past DPMs like the late S Rajaratnam in 1985, and Prof Jayakumar in 2009.
But the microscope in the new shift-lineup will be who fills four key portfolios that now hog the media spotlight in education, defense, foreign affairs and transport.
Even the re-positioning or elevation of Home Affairs & Law Minister of K Shanmugam, 59, will be an eye-catching proposition with his wide-ranging expertise in regional security issues and governance. He looks a very capable choice to move up to the key role of Coordinating Minister for National Security from Mr Teo, on top of his current Home Affairs & Law portfolios.
Media artiste Thiyaga Rajan feels that the “immediate concern will be to show that the 4G leaders are a team”. He says: “The cabinet change will be a demonstration that the 4G leaders have the capacity to govern well, make tough decisions and, most importantly, be able to counter the kind of inroads the opposition seems to be making.
‘YOUNG, BRIGHT-SPARK LEADER’
Insurance manager Rahman Latiff, 49, of Sengkang East wants to see a “young bright-spark leader who is daring enough to set his own identity”. He says: “It’s easier said than done by Singapore’s political contexts as it means getting into very big shoes to be like Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong as he has to show that he is keeping the PAP tradition.
“Likewise there could be, in the coming years, a re-think of CPF and HDB policies and tighter regulation of employing foreign talents as the economic focus shifts over the next decade. If the Heng-Chan duo leadership does a good job, people will say they were the right choices to be future leaders. If the reverse happens, the pair may well take the brunt of criticism.”
Among the rising political “heavyweights” will be Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, 49, Labour chief Ng Chee Meng, currently a Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and Heng Chee How, the Senior Minister of State for Defence.
New portfolios may also go to equally ambitious women folk like Grace Fu, Minister of Culture, Community and Youth and Josephine Teo, Manpower Minister, Second Finance & Education Minister Indranee Rajah and Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State of Environment and Water Resources.
Notably, with the changing regional political demographics, even the Foreign Affairs post, too, will be of strategic importance for Singapore.
Whatever said, the timing of the big announcement matters. Right now, the cabinet-reshuffle cards are being held close to the chest of PM Lee, who will consider many factors, especially the fast-shifting political landscapes in neighbouring countries.
Indeed, like a deck of playing cards, the element of unpredictability remains strong in the much-anticipated General Elections (GE).
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