TOC Editorial: PM Lee’s tasks ahead

TOC Editorial /

“The time has come for a younger generation to carry Singapore forward in a more difficult and complex situation. The Prime Minister and his team of younger leaders should have a fresh clean slate.”

With those words, contained in the press statement by Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew which announced their stepping down from the Cabinet, Singapore has entered a new era.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in the coming weeks, has many tasks at hand. The most urgent and important is putting together the next Cabinet. He is expected to reveal the make-up of his team in the coming week.

During the recent General Election, PM Lee said Singaporeans would be choosing their 4th Generation leaders. Among those identified as potential office holders and who will form the nucleus of this 4th Generation leadership are: Major General Chan Chun Sing, Brigadier General Tan Chuan Jin, Mr Heng Swee Keat, former managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, and Mr Lawrence Wong, former head of the Energy Market Authority. The fifth, Mr Ong Ye Kung, NTUC’s assistant secretary general, who was also identified as one of the new potentials, lost in the elections.

“We will throw them into the deep end,” PM Lee said, referring to the new office holders, in April. “That is the first step. Then we will see how they work out. There is no other way.”

Besides filling these as ministers, PM Lee will also have to find a replacement for Mr George Yeo who was Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Minister. Mr Yeo and his team lost the battle for Aljunied GRC to the opposition Workers’ Party team in the elections. Two other casualties from Mr Yeo’s team, Mrs Lim Hwee Hua and Mr Zainal Abidin Rasheed, have also left vacancies which need to be filled. Mrs Lim was Singapore’s first woman full minister, and Mr Zainal was expected to be picked as Speaker. Mr Zainal, although defeated in the polls and could still be appointed Speaker, has said that he would not accept the appointment if offered.

As for the post of Minister Mentor, PM Lee hinted that it is a special position created for MM Lee Kuan Yew and thus there will not be another MM. SM Goh’s resignation from the Cabinet and Senior Minister S Jayakumar’s retirement from politics in March, also means there are no Senior Ministers in the Cabinet.

The new Cabinet will thus be an interesting one to watch. Not only is it expected to compose of younger ministers but the portfolios assigned to the new recruits will make for interesting analysis, in particular those of MG Chan and BG Tan.

The assignment of one minister in particular will be closely watched. Mr Mah Bow Tan, the minister in charge of public housing, was at the centre of intense criticism prior and during the hustings. Mr Mah’s team in Tampines GRC saw the opposition wipe out 11 per cent of the votes he won in 2006. Will Mr Mah be moved out of the ministry and assigned elsewhere to assuage Singaporeans who are upset with his housing policies?

In the coming months and next few years, PM Lee’s government will also have to turn its attention to several other issues.

Perhaps one among the top of his list would be to look for a replacement for Mr Lee Kuan Yew at the Government Investment Corporation of Singapore (GIC). Mr Lee, who is 88 this year, is the current Chairman of the GIC. With even its sister investment arm, Temasek Holdings, having difficulty replacing Mdm Ho Ching as Executive Director, PM Lee will no doubt begin his search for Mr Lee’s replacement pronto.

Another thing which PM Lee must want to understand is how the vast network of feedback channels, including the ubiquitous grassroots organizations, failed to pick up on the negative ground sentiments towards the People’s Action Party (PAP) until it was too late. The PAP will also want to look into how it has failed to tap into New Media to engage the public, particularly the younger generation.

One of the most sensitive issue which PM Lee will face is ministerial salaries. The government is expected to raise these by another 10 per cent to bring it to its goal of 88 per cent of the benchmark, pegged to the salaries of top earners in the private sector. It currently stands at 77 per cent. Will PM Lee ignore once again unhappiness on the ground and proceed with this? If he does, Singaporeans may accuse him of reneging on his promise of listening to the ground.

The biggest challenge facing PM Lee in the coming years, however, is to lay out the path his government will take in addressing the groundswell of discontent which was evident during the elections. It is not an easy job to achieve this with a more vocal population, and with unhappiness cutting across a whole spectrum of issues – from immigration to employment, from wages to social security, from housing to retirement concerns.

Addressing these would allow him to manage the attraction and influence of a resurgent opposition which, besides scalping a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) from the PAP for the first time in Singapore, also reduced the ruling party’s vote share by almost seven per cent nation-wide.

PM Lee thus has his work cut out for him to install a new social compact between the government and Singaporeans. Perhaps the biggest comfort he can take, as he embarks on securing Singapore’s future, is that he now has, in the words of Mr Goh and Mr Lee, a clean slate to start with.

Indeed, Singapore’s entry into the post-Lee Kuan Yew era holds much promise – if PM Lee gets it right.