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New Cabinet line-up throws up some surprises

Gerald Giam

The new Cabinet announced by the Prime Minister's Office on Saturday evening unveiled some surprises in both promotions and non-promotions.


The most significant promotion was that of MP for Sembawang GRC K. Shanmugam, who has been appointed as the new Law Minister. That he was appointed as an office holder at the Ministry of Law was not unexpected.

He had been mentioned in the press quite a few times as a likely successor to Prof S. Jayakumar, who has been the Minister for Law since 1988.

However, Mr Shanmugam's hop-step over many rungs of the political ladder comes as quite a surprise. Into his fifth term as a backbencher, he skipped over the offices of Parliamentary Secretary, Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Minister of State, Senior Minister of State, Second Minister and Acting Minister, to be appointed immediately as a full Minister. Not only that, he was given a double portfolio.

He will also be the Second Minister for Home Affairs, a heavyweight ministry that is often seen as second in importance to only the Defence Ministry.

Reshuffle at MICA

Many had anticipated a leadership change at the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA). Dr Lee Boon Yang was expected to step down as Minister into retirement after 17 years in the Cabinet.

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, the Second Minister, was widely regarded as almost a shoo-in to replace him as Minister. Instead it was Dr Balakrishnan who was dropped from MICA. (He retains his appointment as Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, though.) It is unclear why he was not promoted to full Minister at MICA, nor why he had his ministerial portfolios reduced from two to one.

Senior Minister of State Balaji Sadasivan will also be leaving MICA. Singaporeans would recall that it was Dr Balaji who announced just before the May 2006 General Elections that websites which "persistently propagate, promote or circulate political issues relating to Singapore" will be required to register and will thus be prohibited from engaging in election advertising. This directive was largely ignored, and it led to the creation of a series of "persistently non-political" podcasts by mr brown, including the famous "Bak Chor Mee" clip.

While there was no replacement for Dr Balakrishnan at the Second Minister's post, Dr Balaji's position will be filled by the newly promoted RAdm(NS) Lui Tuck Yew (left), previously the Minister of State for Education. Speculation will be rife as to whether the former Navy Chief is being tested out as the next potential successor to Dr Lee Boon Yang.

It should be noted that the senior management at MICA has recently also seen some changes. Mr Chan Yeng Kit, the former CEO of the Info-Comm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), took over as Permanent Secretary at the start of this year. Last week, Mr Lock Wai Han, the former Director of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) was appointed as MICA's Deputy Secretary.

The effect that these changes (and non-changes) will have on the government's approach to the old and new media is something that many will be watching with baited breath to unfold. Will Singapore beat Sudan and improve on our 141st ranking on the press freedom index? Will the "light touch" approach to the Internet become lighter or heavier? And will "party political films" ever be allowed in Singapore, like in virtually all other democracies in the world?

It is difficult to assess what the rationale for these recent leadership changes at MICA were, but I would not be surprised if the "political tsunami" in Malaysia fuelled by independent Internet media was factored in the decisions. We have seen the stepping down of an office holder who was seen as resistent to the tide of the new media, to be replaced by another who is prepared to go in there "listening, learning, and then contributing".

No Madam Minister?

The much hoped-for appointment of Singapore's first female Minister was not to be in this Cabinet reshuffle. The most touted candidate, Minister of State for National Development Grace Fu, was promoted to Senior Minister of State and given another portfolio in the Education Ministery. However, she did not make it to full Minister this time around. While gender equality champions are bound to be disappointed, this outcome was unsurprising.

Ms Fu is only a first-term MP who did not face an election fight during the last elections. (Her Jurong GRC team received a walkover.) It would be premature to promote her to Minister so soon, as this could raise questions about whether her gender played an "affirmative" role in her promotion. Besides, the most likely ministry for a first time minister, the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), is still being helmed by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan. Nevertheless, one could expect that MCYS will eventually be headed by a female minister, possibly by the next reshuffle.

Where is our Fourth generation PM?

When Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam was recently appointed Finance Minister, it set tongues wagging as to whether he might be a possible successor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Some had expected that this Cabinet reshuffle would give a clear signal of who the anointed leader would be. That clear signal would have been the appointment of a new Deputy Prime Minister. Some had wondered if Prof Jayakumar would step down to make way for a new DPM.

This was not to be the case. Prof Jayakumar remains as DPM and Coordinating Minister for National Security. Even the other DPM, Mr Wong Kan Seng, held firmly to his position as DPM and Home Affairs Minister, despite calls from some quarters for his resignation after the embarrassing escape of alleged terrorist Mas Selamat Kastari.

Singaporeans will have to wait a bit longer to get a sense of who may succeed PM Lee.

Conclusion

In keeping with Singapore's tradition of predictable succession planning, this latest Cabinet reshuffle had a few eyebrow-raisers, but on the whole steered away from any radical departures from the status quo. Therefore, in the remaining three years of this Government's term in power, we can expect more of the same old politics and policies.

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Read also:

'Loss to law profession, but gain for S'pore' by The Straits Times.

Absence of woman minister 'disappointing' by The Straits Times.

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Cartoon from My Sketchbook.

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