This story was first published on May 19, 2011, in The Straits Times.
During his National Day Rally speech in 2003, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong singled out Mr Wong Kan Seng for his dogged determination.
“Kan Seng is a very effective minister. Give him the most difficult operational task and he will sink his teeth into it, like a bulldog,” Mr Goh had said of his Home Affairs Minister.
“And without him, this place would be full of illegal immigrants, crawling with criminals, and torn by terrorists. He catches them all.”
It is clear now, as Mr Wong prepares to relinquish his positions as Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security, that his work in the Home Affairs Ministry is what he will always be identified with.
He was Home Affairs Minister for 17 years before handing over the portfolio to Mr K. Shanmugam last year.
His departure from the Cabinet was one of the biggest surprises announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday when unveiling the new Cabinet. PM Lee said Mr Wong had earlier asked to step down but was asked to stay on to help fight the election.
After the polls, he repeated his request and it was accepted.
DPM Teo Chee Hean will take over his portfolio as Coordinating Minister for National Security and as head of the National Population and Talent Division. Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam will be Deputy Prime Minister.
In a sense, the timing of the announcement makes Mr Wong’s exit from Cabinet a rather swift one. It was less than a year ago that he had stepped down as Home Affairs Minister. Now, he will no longer be an office-holder, just an MP.
Yesterday, in a statement to the media, Mr Wong thanked PM Lee, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew for letting him make a contribution to Singapore.
He said he had long been prepared to take a step back: “For some time now, I have informed Prime Minister Lee and Senior Minister Goh when he was Prime Minister that I could leave the Cabinet any time when they wish to renew the team.”
He noted there was a generational change and a new team of younger ministers would be better able to connect with the ground.
“Prime Minister’s new Cabinet comprises a core of experienced ministers and younger office-holders with strong potential. It is my sincere hope that from among them, the fourth generation of leaders will emerge,” he said.
Mr Wong also reiterated calls made by other leaders for Singaporeans to stand united now that the election is over. “Life must go on. We must not allow the deep emotions raised by a robustly contested election to polarise Singaporeans. There are great challenges ahead.”
As for what he would do now, he said his lighter load would allow him to devote himself more to grassroots work. “I will be able to spend more time to engage my residents, and continue to do my best to serve them. I will also be able to spend more time with my family, especially my four young grandchildren,” he said.
The six-term MP – now entering his seventh – has held various portfolios since entering politics in 1984. His ministerial posts included heading the then Ministry of Community Development as well as the Foreign Ministry.
He became Home Affairs Minister in 1994.
The ministry oversees departments such as the police force, the Singapore Civil Defence Force, the prison service, the Internal Security Department, and the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority.
It was in this ministry that Mr Wong, 64, built his reputation as a “bulldog” for his able handling of everything, from crime and illegal immigrants to the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) crisis.
But it was also in this ministry that he suffered his lowest point – the escape of terror leader Mas Selamat Kastari.
The mistake was often raised by the opposition candidates. A favourite refrain was to question why Mr Wong was not held personally accountable for the escape.
Inevitably, some will see his retirement as a direct result of Mr Wong being unable to shake off the Mas Selamat incident.
However, MP Alvin Yeo, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Law in the last Parliament, said he felt the move had little to do with the escape.
He reasoned that since the incident took place in 2008 and the People’s Action Party (PAP) was well aware it could become an election issue, there was no reason to wait until now to get Mr Wong to retire.
Mr Yeo added that PAP ministers tend to retire after turning 60, with DPMs staying a little longer.
He said he had always found Mr Wong to be an approachable and good Home Affairs Minister.
“He has brought quite a firm hand to law and order, which is the right approach. I think the low level of crime and the fact that we have been free of terrorist incident, is at least in part attributable to him,” Mr Yeo said.