Tan Kian Hwee
There have been many cabinet reshuffles in the PAP government’s history. The most recent one announced on 26 March 2009, coming just up to two years before the next general election is due, gives away some telltale signs of the election permutations that could pan out.
Pasir-Ris Punggol GRC
One PAP man, who had long been anticipated to become deputy prime minister (DPM), has finally been made one.
When then-RAdm Teo Chee Hean entered politics in the 1992 by-election, observers predicted that he would be DPM, along with Mr George Yeo, by the time Mr Lee Hsien Loong took office as Prime Minister.
That didn’t immediately happen, though, for after PM Lee was sworn-in, two DPMs who were older than him were already in place, one – Mr Wong Kan Seng – being incumbent.
The part about Mr Yeo becoming DPM did not happen, nor is DPM Teo likely to take over as prime minister, for he is merely two years younger than PM Lee.
In other words, this is the farthest DPM Teo will go in the Cabinet.
With Mr Teo’s appointment as DPM, Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC becomes a tougher “nut” to crack. Likewise, chances are he may meet with a stronger “adversary” in the next elections.
The PAP team in Pasir Ris-Punggol met a contest from a team from the SDA in the 2006 GE but there are indications that it would face a WP team the next time round.
East Coast GRC
Chances are now high that Prof S. Jayakumar will retire from politics in the next election. When the late Mr S. Rajaratnam became the first Senior Minister of the country in 1985, he retired at the next GE in 1988. As observers may discern, unless one is a former prime minister, he does not hold the SM position for more than an election term.
While the PAP cabinet is perceived to be bloated, the PAP is still wary of setting tongues wagging by having two SMs in a long-term period. Also, SM Jayakumar was relieved of his law minister portfolio in 2008. Therefore, even as SM Jayakumar leaves the Cabinet, SM Goh Chok Tong is likely to remain.
Another very likely exit in the same East Coast GRC that SM Jayakumar helms is Mr Abdullah Tarmugi, as he is one of the few PAP MPs in his 60s – a threshold at which PAP MPs are often retired.
Hence, the new leader for the PAP’s East Coast GRC team in the next GE can only be Mr Raymond Lim, the current Minister for Transport. Should the WP return to this GRC since in the next elections, it will face a new PAP anchorman.
Jalan Besar GRC and Hong Kah GRC
Another indicator of a political retirement is when a full minister steps down to become a backbencher. Normally, this is to allow him to complete his term as MP before a new PAP candidate is fielded in his place in the subsequent GE.
With that, Dr Lee Boon Yang, along with Mr Yeo Cheow Tong in Hong Kah GRC who stepped down as minister not long after the 2006 GE, are not likely to run for elections again.
Given that there is another Cabinet minister in Jalan Besar GRC – Yaacob Ibrahim – he is likeliest to be the one to replace Dr Lee as leader of the PAP team there. As Jalan Besar is a regular “turf” of the National Solidarity Party (NSP) – which contested under the SDA banner in the 2001 and 2006 GE – they are likely to face a now-independent NSP challenge in the next round.
Chua Chu Kang SMC
Now that Mr Gan Kim Yong, the SMC’s MP, is a full minister and with the absence of a full minister to helm Hong Kah GRC, one of Singapore’s longest-surviving SMCs may well be absorbed into a GRC.
In any case, Chua Chu Kang SMC is nearly surrounded by Hong Kah GRC, according to the electoral boundaries map, and such an occurrence would appear rather “natural”. Therefore, if former NCMP Steve Chia of the NSP is planning to return to the SMC for a third time, he may well need to develop a contingency plan.
Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC
As with SM Jayakumar, DPM Wong’s tenure as DPM is not likely to be much longer in lieu of his age and his most probable successor – Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
However, this is probably going to take place only after the next election.
In the meantime, the GRC is likely to continue housing two Cabinet ministers – the other being education minister Dr Ng Eng Hen. This is especially so when Potong Pasir opposition MP, Mr Chiam See Tong of the SDA, has publicly announced that he will be leaving the seat he has held for six election terms to enter the fray in this GRC with a team.
One surprise retirement by the next election could be Mr Lim Boon Heng’s, who stepped down as NTUC secretary-general in 2006 in favour of Mr Lim Swee Say and currently holds no other portfolios apart from being a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office.
If that happens, the likely DPM candidate in the same GRC – Mr Tharman, as mentioned earlier – is poised to replace him as the PAP team’s anchorman. Jurong GRC was not contested in 2006 and in the 2001 elections, a Singapore Democratic Party team garnered only 20% of the votes.
It is another “tough nut” GRC to crack.
Nee Soon Central SMC
Another PAP MP who is in his 60s is Mr Ong Ah Heng. If he does quit politics, the SMC, also one of Singapore’s longest-surviving single wards, is likely to be absorbed into a neighbouring GRC.
The ward was captured by the SDP in the 1991 GE but Mr Ong, with his skills with the grassroots, defeated the opposition incumbent by 60% to 40% in 1997. While Mr Ong increased his margin to nearly 80% against another SDP candidate in 2001, an unknown and new candidate from the Workers’ Party slashed it by 15% in 2006.
This shows that the SMC has always been a potential hotbed for the PAP.
Yio Chu Kang SMC
Given the unfortunate incident involving the PAP incumbent Mr Seng Han Thong, there is a chance that he will not be seeking another term.
The SMC may be reabsorbed into Ang Mo Kio GRC, although chances put this as less likely to occur because the single ward is perceived by the PAP to be sound enough to “stand on its own feet” with any veteran PAP MP parachuted into it.
Mrs Lim Hwee Hua, an MP of Aljunied GRC, has been appointed to the Cabinet and becomes the first female full minister.
Effectively, this increases the stakes of a second Aljunied GRC battle when the PAP meets its opposing WP team, expected to be led once again by another key woman politician – WP’s chairman Ms Sylvia Lim, whose stature has, like Mrs Lim, also since increased with her NCMP stint.
The GRC is presently anchored by another more experienced minister, Mr George Yeo.
The other to watch is whether Mr Zainul Abidin Mohamed Rasheed, a strong grassroots man capable of winning the Malay swing voters, would also call it quits after his post of Northeast CDC mayor was assigned to Mr Teo Ser Luck.
Mr Zainul Abidin is past 60 and ministers of state are normally retired younger but before an election.
Tampines GRC and Sembawang GRC
Yet another surprise retirement could be Mr Mah Bow Tan’s, who currently holds the position of national development minister. This is because Mr Mah is one of the oldest and longest-serving PAP minister in the cabinet.
Should that happen in the next GE, the only GRC with two cabinet ministers – save for the tough battlegrounds of Bishan Toa-Payoh GRC and Aljunied GRC – is Sembawang GRC.
In this hypothesis, law minister Mr K Shanmugam could be shifted to helm the PAP Tampines GRC team.
The PAP team’s leader in Sembawang, Mr Khaw Boon Wan, is unlikely to move, for he had already been shifted once – from Tanjong Pagar GRC – and he has shown himself capable of helming a GRC on his own in the 2006 election.
In conclusion, the above possible ministerial retirements are not to be unexpected and cannot be ruled out, for with the latest appointments, the government cabinet has further bloated from 18 to 21 ministers.
Tan Kian Hwee also blogs at: tankianhwee.wordpress.com.
Headline picture from yawningbread.