Cabinet reshuffle: Three veteran ministers who will retire from Cabinet talk about their political stints and plans

(From left) Mr Lim Hng Kiang, Mr Lim Swee Say and Dr Yaacob Ibrahim will step down as Minister for Trade and Industry (Trade), Minister for Manpower and Minister for Communications and Information, respectively.
(From left) Mr Lim Hng Kiang, Mr Lim Swee Say and Dr Yaacob Ibrahim will step down as Minister for Trade and Industry (Trade), Minister for Manpower and Minister for Communications and Information, respectively.PHOTO: MCI

SINGAPORE - Three veteran ministers - Mr Lim Hng Kiang, Mr Lim Swee Say and Dr Yaacob Ibrahim - will retire from Cabinet, paving the way for younger ministers to helm the portfolios they vacate on May 1.

Mr Lim Hng Kiang, 64, the Minister for Trade and Industry (Trade), will, however, continue in the ministry as special advisor, assisting his successor Chan Chun Sing.

The other two are Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say, 63, and Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob, 62, who is also Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs.

All three will remain as MPs after they leave the Cabinet. Dr Yaacob is an MP for Jalan Besar GRC, Mr Lim Hng Kiang is an MP for West Coast GRC and Mr Lim Swee Say is an MP for East Coast GRC.

Among the three, Mr Lim Hng Kiang has been in politics the longest, entering the political arena 27 years ago in 1991 when he contested in Tanjong Pagar GRC.

The political career of Dr Yaacob and Mr Lim Swee Say each spans 22 years, from the time they contested in the 1997 general election. Dr Yaacob won in Jalan Besar GRC and Mr Lim in Tanjong Pagar GRC.

Asked about their future plans in interviews with The Straits Times, Mr Lim Hng Kiang and Dr Yaacob shared their immediate plans outside of politics but did not rule out contesting in the next general election, which must be held by April 2021.

Dr Yaacob said he has to consider his options if he is asked to contest. His first priority, he said, is to make sure the People's Action Party comes out victorious in the next election as he is a "party man".

He added: "Whatever consideration there is at the time, I have to balance it against my other considerations. If I'm already doing something and (the Prime Minister) has enough people, it's okay.

"But if he doesn't have enough people, there's a vacuum, I have to balance that against my other needs. I'm not getting younger, you know."

Mr Lim Hng Kiang also said whether he contests or not depends on the PM.

"My approach is always - I believe in renewal. The earlier generation made way for the third generation and similarly, it's my firm belief the third generation of leaders should make way for the fourth generation.

"So my approach to PM is, any time you want me to stand aside, I'm more than happy to do so."

 
 
 
 

When they retire, Mr Lim Hng Kiang would have held his MTI post for 14 years, while Dr Yaacob would have been the Minister-in- charge of Muslim Affairs for 15 years.

Mr Lim Swee Say, the labour chief for eight years, has been the Manpower Minister since 2015.

Mr Lim Hng Kiang said it was PM Lee Hsien Loong's decision that he stayed at MTI as long as he did. Before his MTI stint, he was Minister for National Development from 1995 to 1999 and Minister for Health from 1999 to 2003.

His years at MTI coincided with a period of rapid growth for Singapore, but it also saw the 2007 global financial crisis that led to a recession. Most recently, he represented Singapore in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact that became the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for TPP (CPTPP) after President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of it.

He declined to discuss the highs and lows in his political career, willing only to say: "There are many things which I'm very happy with and several things which I'm disappointed with."

What does he plan to do in his newfound free time?

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," he said, adding that his grassroots volunteers in Telok Blangah are looking forward to spending more time with him.

Dr Yaacob said that as a member of the Muslim community, he intends to find a way to contribute to Muslim affairs.

"What that contribution will be, I will have to sort it out. When the new minister comes in, I don't want to be in his way obviously but I will find my role," he said, adding that he will take a short break before that happens.

Dr Yaacob fronted Muslim issues in a period that saw a rise in Islamophobia after the Sept 11 attacks in 2001, and the subsequent emergence and spread of global terrorism. Even before politics, he has been involved in Muslim groups, such as the Association of Muslim Professionals, Jamiyah, Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) and Yayasan Mendaki.

As Communications and Information minister since 2012, the former structural engineer is also in charge of cyber-security issues and helped roll out a new Cybersecurity Act in 2017.

Mr Lim Swee Say was a career public servant before he joined politics, holding senior positions in the National Computer Board and the Economic Development Board.

A Singapore Armed Forces scholarship holder, his entry into politics heralds what was to become his long affiliation with the labour movement when he joined the National Trades Union Congress as a director in July 1996. Four months later, he was named a PAP candidate in the 1997 General Election.

Mr Lim was the labour chief for eight years, from 2007 to 2015, when he passed the baton to Mr Chan Chun Sing, who is also Minister in the Prime Minister's Office.

He became Manpower Minister in 2015 and kept a close watch on the unemployment rate as slow economic growth took a toll on the country. The overall unemployment rate rose from 1.9 per cent in 2015 to 2.2 per cent in 2017. Among Mr Lim's notable achievements is his tough stand against discriminatary hiring practices like putting companies that hire a disproportionate number of foreigners on a watchlist. He also further calibrated Singapore's foreign workforce policies to shrink even more the pool of foreigners.

Second Manpower Minister Josephine Teo, who will take over his portfolio, described him as "a good minister and a rare breed, given his energy and his many years of experience in the labour movement".

When contacted on Tuesday (24 April), Mr Lim told The Straits Times his immediate priority after May 1 is to spend more time with his family and the residents in East Coast GRC where he is an MP.

"It has been a privilege for me to serve in the Cabinet for the past 18 years since being appointed as Acting Minister for the Environment in 2000," he said. "I will leave the Ministry of Manpower in the good hands of Josephine. She is a bright, capable and passionate 4G leader whom I have tremendous confidence in."