In a somewhat surprise move on Thursday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced his third Cabinet reshuffle since the general elections of May 2011.
Eight People’s Action Party (PAP) Members of Parliament (MP) were affected by the changes. Most notably was Mr Chan Chun Sing, who was promoted from Acting Minister to a full minister, cementing his leadership at the Ministry of Social Development and Family (MSF).
Mr Chan, the former Chief of Army, was also given a second portfolio to handle – that of Second Minister for Defence.
Mr Chan’s promotion to full minister, only two years after he entered politics, has sparked talk of him being the ‘chosen one’, the one to succeed PM Lee and become Singapore’s fourth prime minister.
That is left to be seen, of course, and there is still some ways to go before a clear successor to PM Lee is certain. For the moment, the talk is that the ones most likely to succeed PM Lee are Mr Chan and Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, who had just seen through the one-year long National Conversation project and is overseeing the slew of changes to the education system. Mr Heng was also recently appointed to chair the committee which will plan Singapore’s 50th year of independence celebrations.
Mr Chan’s and Mr Heng’s position as forerunners were further enhanced by the “demotion” of Mr Tan Chuan Jin, the Acting Minister for Manpower (MOM) and Senior Minister of State (SMS) for National Development.
In the Cabinet reshuffle, Mr Tan remains Acting Minister but has his SMS appointment removed.
PM Lee explained that this was to allow Mr Tan to “concentrate on his responsibility at MOM” as “taking on two portfolios is too heavy.”
This is a curious explanation given by the prime minister, considering that he assigned two portfolios to Mr Chan and also promoted him to full minister. PM Lee explained that this was because he wanted to “promote those who have done well.”
The PM’s remarks were taken by some to mean that Mr Tan did not perform well in his job, since he was not promoted, and that he is not as capable as Mr Chan, because “taking on two portfolios is too heavy” for him.
The government mouthpiece, Straits Times, tried to dismiss any suggestions that Mr Tan was “demoted”.
“[The] Manpower portfolio that Mr Tan is grappling with is at the centre of Singapore’s economic restructuring,” Ms Rachel Chang wrote in her article on Thursday. She also said that “both Mr Chan and Mr Wong [Acting Minister for Community, Culture and Youth] are effectively helming half a ministry each – the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports was split last year” into the new ministries of MCCY and MSF.
Ms Chang’s remarks are unkind on the two ministers, given that the creation of the two ministries in 2012 was to enable them, as PM Lee explained then, to “break new ground, try fresh approaches and keep up with rapidly changing conditions and needs.”
With Singapore society changing – a declining birth rate, an ageing population, social and economic stratification, etc – the job of the MSF, for example, is not an easy one. It is in fact an insult to Mr Chan to say that what he helms is “half a ministry”. Indeed, Mr Chan’s job is no less daunting than Mr Tan’s. In fact, it could be argued that the MSF has become one of the most important ministries in the government, given how our society is evolving. In any case, even if the MSF and the MCCY are “half ministries”, it still does not explain why Mr Tan is not promoted to full minister.
Mr Tan, however, need not lose too much sleep over the “demotion”. He should also not wonder too much why he is not promoted. He has had to deal with some rather contentious issues – notably the proposed highway through Bukit Brown cemetery, the MDA Internet regulations, the SMRT/foreign workers issues, and the changes to labour policies. By no means are these simple and easy matters to handle either, let’s be fair.
Fans of Mr Tan need not fret. Unless Mr Tan resigns from the PAP, he will most probably be promoted to full minister next year, or before the next General Election (GE) which is due in 2016.
The minister who helms Mr Tan’s Marine Parade Group Representation Constituency (GRC) is Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong who is presently 72-years old. Mr Goh would be 75 by the next GE and could be expected to retire from electoral politics then.
Mr Tan would then be expected to helm the 5-men GRC. It would look rather odd if he were still Acting Minister then. It might raise questions about his capability – as a minister and as anchor of the GRC team too. Given that even under Mr Goh, a highly popular and seasoned minister in Marine Parade, the PAP only managed 56.64 per cent of the vote in GE2011, the PAP would not want to rock the boat there unnecessarily. So, it is quite certain that Mr Tan will be raised to full minister before the next elections. There is still some time yet before we go to the polls again, and this will give Mr Tan the time he requires to see through the policy changes at his ministry. So, even if Mr Tan was “demoted”, he can take comfort that chances are he will still be promoted before too long.
In any case, he would not be the first to be appointed full minister after some years.
Even Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who entered politics in 2001, took 3 years before he was appointed full minister in 2004.
But what should concern Singaporeans is whether we will have a capable team at the helm in government, going forward. PM Lee, who is 61 this year, has indicated that he wishes to step down by the time he is 70.
The 3 Cabinet reshuffles the last two years by PM Lee are to position the main players on his chessboard, for future battles, and to put in place the next generation of leaders. Nonetheless, the picture still remains somewhat murky. There is still no clear successor to PM Lee.