News analysis

A steady as it goes Cabinet with eyes firmly on Covid-19 crisis ahead


The latest Cabinet line-up places greater emphasis on continuity over change - a departure from the previous two post-general election reshuffles in 2011 and 2015.

And for good reason. The current grave crisis underlined the need to maintain a greater degree of continuity than he would otherwise have done, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted in his press conference yesterday.

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat takes on the role of Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies, and both senior ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam will stay on to help tackle the crisis.

As the Covid-19 pandemic poses a challenge to public health and the healthcare system as well as the economy and jobs, having ministers Gan Kim Yong, Chan Chun Sing and Josephine Teo remaining at the helm of their ministries provides much-needed continuity at a critical time.

The impetus for change has always been there to give ministers exposure and renew the front bench. But it has just been deferred, owing to Covid-19.

PM Lee himself acknowledged this when he said: "I hope that within not too long a time, as the situation stabilises... it will be possible for me to make further changes."

Nine years ago, when PM Lee announced his new Cabinet line-up after the 2011 General Election, 11 out of the 14 ministries had new ministers.

Two were new MPs: Former Monetary Authority of Singapore managing director Heng Swee Keat was made Minister for Education, and former army chief Chan Chun Sing was appointed Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports.

And seven new faces from among the re-elected and new MPs joined the Government, including Mr Lawrence Wong, who was made Minister of State for Defence and Education.

After the 2015 General Election, nine out of the 15 ministries saw new ministers at the helm.

Among them were newly elected acting education ministers Ng Chee Meng, who oversaw schools, and Ong Ye Kung, who oversaw higher education and skills.

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Other newly elected MPs made office-holders included Dr Janil Puthucheary, Dr Koh Poh Koon and Mr Chee Hong Tat, who became ministers of state.

In contrast, the latest Cabinet reshuffle sees just six of the 15 ministries getting new leaders: Environment and Water Resources, which has been renamed Sustainability and the Environment (Ms Grace Fu); Social and Family Development (Mr Masagos Zulkifli); Education (Mr Lawrence Wong); Transport (Mr Ong Ye Kung); National Development (Mr Desmond Lee); and Culture, Community and Youth (Mr Edwin Tong).

But there is even greater continuity, if you consider that Mr Wong had a stint at Education when he first entered politics.

Mr Desmond Lee has been at National Development ever since he became an office-holder in 2013, first as a minister of state, then senior minister of state, and second minister from 2017.

Ms Fu was at Environment and Water Resources from 2011 to 2012 as senior minister of state, and then second minister from 2012 to 2015.

At a time when issues are becoming more complex, familiarity with these issues - whether they are the concerns of home owners or hawkers - can help ministers better shape, refine and calibrate policy changes and explain them to Singaporeans.

This is a good thing.

But there has also been a degree of targeted change to expose office-holders to a range of portfolios.

Thus the appointments of key fourth-generation ministers to strategic portfolios such as Education and Transport.

Significantly, the process of renewal also continues. The appointment of Dr Tan See Leng as a full minister - Second Minister for Trade and Industry, as well as Manpower - will enable him to bring his private-sector perspective to economy policymaking, help ensure that policies are effective in helping businesses, and align economic and manpower policies.

Four new MPs will also be ministers of state - e2i deputy chief executive Gan Siow Huang in Education and Manpower; Mr Alvin Tan, outgoing head of public policy and economics at LinkedIn, in Culture, Community and Youth as well as Trade and Industry; former People's Association chief Desmond Tan in Home Affairs as well as Sustainability and the Environment; and former Infocomm Media Development Authority chief Tan Kiat How in National Development and the Prime Minister's Office.

As has been the case for previous batches of new appointees, younger office-holders who perform well can expect to be promoted in subsequent Cabinet changes, and stretched and stress-tested in new roles.

If Covid-19 abates in the next year or two, some of the seven current senior ministers of state and seven ministers of state can expect to be moved up and about, and the balance between continuity and change recalibrated as political renewal proceeds apace.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 26, 2020, with the headline A steady as it goes Cabinet with eyes firmly on Covid-19 crisis ahead. Subscribe