By Andrew Loh
Once upon a time, Vivian Balakrishnan was among a group of PAP candidates which was termed “super-seven” by the local mainstream media. In the 2001 General Elections, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong had introduce the seven - Khaw Boon Wan, Dr Ng Eng Hen, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Dr Balaji Sadasivan, Raymond Lim and Cedric Foo.
Immediately after that elections, Vivian Balakrishnan, who was said to be a critic of the government before he joined the ruling party, was made Minister of State for National Development in 2002.
Following this, he was given numerous positions in the next few years:
2002 – Chairman of the Remaking Singapore Committee
2003 – Minister of State (Trade and Industry)
2003 – Chairman of the National Youth Council
2004 – Acting Minister for Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS)
2004 – Senior Minister of State (Trade and Industry)
2005 – Minister for MCYS and Second Minister for Trade and Industry
2005 – Minister responsible for entrepreneurship
2007 to 2008 – Minister for MCYS and Second Minister for Communications and the Arts (Mica)
In addition to all these, he was also Chairman of the Young PAP, was responsible for the casinos issue (he led a govt team to the Bahamas to study the Atlantis Resort there), a Member of Parliament for Holland-Bukit Panjang GRC and oversaw Singapore’s 2010 Youth Olympics bid.
Vivian Balakrishnan was the youngest Cabinet minister at 45 years old when he joined the PAP.
Indeed, super-human feats were expected of him.
So, how has Vivian Balakrishnan fared – 10 years after having won in the 2001 elections under the PAP banner? What portfolios does he now hold? Let's recap:
Chairman of the Remaking Singapore Committee – Defunct
Minister of State (Trade and Industry) – Now Lim Hng Kiang
Chairman of the National Youth Council – Now Teo Ser Luck
Senior Minister of State (Trade and Industry) – Now S Iswaran
Second Minister for Trade and Industry - Li Yee Shyan
Minister responsible for entrepreneurship – Now Li Yee Shyan
Minister for MCYS
Second Minister for Communications and the Arts (Mica) – Now, Lui Tuck Yew (Acting Minister)
Chairman of Young PAP – Now Teo Ser Luck
MP Holland-Bukit Panjang GRC
Youth Olympics – Now Teo Ser Luck
Vivian Balakrishnan now has, basically, two portfolios – Minister for MCYS, which is considered a light-weight ministry and MP for the Holland-Bukit Panjang Group Representation Constituency, along with five of his fellow PAP MPs.
It looks like Vivian Balakrishnan has either fallen out of favour or may have been unable to handle the numerous portfolios given to him. Or it could simply mean that the PAP has found more people to shoulder the weight previously carried by him. Whatever the reasons, one thing’s for certain: Vivian Balakrishan’s once-shining star has diminished. Once said to be on a “speedboat for greater things”, he instead seems to have fallen off the boat.
What could be the reason?
One clue could perhaps be his public gaffes since becoming MP and minister. In his early years in office, according to this website,
“… when you listen to his closed-door forums, you can sense a slight streak of controlled impatienceness and authoritarianism in him… In 2002, he labelled the Malaysian Media as “wild animals”, which is quite an unprecedented comment made by any Singaporean Ministers.”
Indeed, in February 2009, Vivian Balakrishnan, who was then Second Minister for Mica, made an explicit threat to those in cyberspace:
"Anonymity in cyberspace is an illusion.....if need be, we can identify you, and if we have to, we will be prepared to prosecute you." (21st Feb 2009, Channel NewsAsia.)
Ironically, the very next month (March 2009), his MICA portfolio was removed when PM Lee reshuffled his cabinet (see more below).
At times, Vivian Balakrishnan’s emotional streak – such as during the debate on bar top dancing – leaves even his supporters with red faces:
“If you want to dance, some of us will fall off that bar-top. Some people will die as a result of liberalising bar-top dancing, not just because they have fallen off the bar-top. Because usually a young girl, with a short skirt, dancing on a bar-top, may attract some insults from some other men, and the boyfriend starts fighting. Some people will die. Blood will be shed for liberalising this policy.”
Of course, no one died when bar-top dancing was eventually allowed and the minister probably heaved a huge sigh of relief – not that no one died (because no one would have) but because that episode was finally over and he could get over the public embarrassment of his statement.
In 2007, when he had become Minister for MCYS, another gaffe, this time in Parliament – and over a very sensitive subject. When MP for Jalan Besar GRC asked the government to raise Public Assistance for those in need, Vivian Balakrishnan retorted with what is now a classic:
“How much do you want? Do you want three meals in a hawker centre, food court or restaurant?”
It caused a public outcry.
That was in 2007. In 2008, when the issue came up again, MCYS finally raised PA assistance by a mere $30, to the dismay of many. Then in 2009, after some prodding by MPs, Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, in his Budget Speech, announced that PA assistance will be increased by a further S$30 to S$360 – a sort of slap in the face for Vivian Balakrishnan who had been unwilling to consider such an increase.
When MICA minister, Lee Boon Yang, announced that he would like to step down, it was expected that Vivian Balakrishnan would assume his post. After all, he had been in MCYS since 2004 and ministers are regularly rotated. Also, he was then Second Minister at Mica. However, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced his Cabinet reshuffle in March of 2009, Vivian Balakrishnan not only had been passed over as successor to Lee Boon Yang but his Second Minister of Mica portfolio was altogether taken away from him. Lui Tuck Yew was made the new Mica minister instead.
In the previous year, 2008, Vivian Balakrishnan’s chairmanship of the Young PAP was given to Teo Ser Luck and it is also Teo Ser Luck who was widely considered to be responsible for Singapore’s successful Youth Olympics bid. And it is Teo Ser Luck who was put in charge of the S$400 million Sports Hub project as well.
In 2010, the issue of homeless Singaporeans camping out in public parks apparently caught his ministry unawares. It was only after The Online Citizen brought the issue to the public's attention that Vivian Balakrishnan's ministry started to do something about it - but did it in a most condescending and threatening manner. The ministry brought police officers and Nparks officers to these areas and started to shout at and threaten the campers with fines, ordering them to remove themselves from the parks immediately.
Perhaps Vivian Balakrishan was upset at having been caught sleeping on the job. But nonetheless, despite his tough talk Vivian Balakrishnan seems to have had his wings clipped – and clipped severely.
It would thus be no surprise if he decided not to stand in the next elections. After all, he is not expected to be able to handle any heavyweight portfolio. Would he want to remain in a lightweight capacity, given that he may have ambitions to be Prime Minister as those who know him suspect?
That’s left to be seen.
For now, Vivian Balakrishnan has been a huge disappointment to those who had expected him to be a stand-up guy and speak up for the less fortunate – just as he was said to have done before joining the PAP.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem likely that he will – given his frequent off-hand dismissals of appeals for help for the less fortunate and his wannabe “tough guy” statements.
In short, Vivian Balakrishnan’s political future is one of going with the (PAP) flow. Don’t expect the man to be any different from other PAP MPs or ministers – or to be a maverick.
"If you were a poor person, anywhere on this planet, Singapore is the one place where you will have a roof over your head, where you will have food on the table...Even if you can't afford it, we will have meals delivered to you." - Vivian Balakrishnan, 2010