First priority is to listen and learn: Incoming Minister of Social and Family Development Desmond Lee

As Minister in Prime Minister's Office and Second Minister for National Development and Home Affairs, Mr Desmond Lee is known for his role in balancing Singapore's competing needs of development and conservation. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - At age 40, Mr Desmond Lee was the youngest member of the Singapore Cabinet.

On Monday (Sept 11), he will take over from Mr Tan Chuan-Jin and helm the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), in addition to his portfolio as Second Minister for National Development.

In 2011, he made a quiet entry into politics, known as the son of former Cabinet minister Lee Yock Suan. But in the past six years in office, the younger Mr Lee has carved a niche for himself.

At MND, he plays a key role in balancing Singapore's competing needs of development and conservation. One of his traits is to go down to the ground to solicit views and gain support across the board, said those who have interacted with him.

He held regular dialogues, many of them unofficial, with people across the spectrum, whether it is wildlife experts - from whom he learnt how to identify birds - or construction company bosses whom he would nudge to get on board the Government's industry transformation plan and invest in technology.

It is a trait he is expected to bring to the MSF, which is facing its own balancing act in meeting the growing needs of an ageing population with increasing demands from other segments of society.

Senior lecturer at the department of biological sciences at the National University of Singapore N. Sivasothi, who works closely with Mr Lee, said: "Desmond brought to the fore a ground-up approach, pulling members of the different communities in to discuss specific issues, which helps to reach out to a wider community. It's definitely a trait he can bring to the social sector."

In a reply to The Straits Times on Tuesday, Mr Lee indicated as much.

Mr Lee, now 41, and the father of three, said: "My first priority at MSF is to listen and learn. I hope to meet our frontline social workers and community partners to hear from them.

"This is because MSF's role is to bring stakeholders and the community together, to meet not only the needs and aspirations of today, but also anticipate and start preparing for the needs and aspirations of tomorrow."

He said it can be achieved through the SG Cares movement, a national campaign to get Singaporeans to volunteer.

"This is a major endeavour that will take some time and a lot of collective will and effort. I will be working closely with Chuan-Jin, Grace Fu and the social and people sector on this."

Mr Lee will continue as Second Minister in the MND, but will relinquish his appointments in the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Prime Minister's Office.

Besides the construction industry, he will strengthen community dialogues "so that our City in a Garden takes on an even deeper shade of green".

Earlier this year, he told The Straits Times during his first interview as full minister that the Government is looking at how the process of conducting environmental impact assessments can be strengthened.

Last Saturday (Sept 2), Mr Lee, a nature buff, attended the Singapore Eco Film Festival to mingle with nature enthusiasts.

On the same day, he announced the formation of the friends of the Marine Park community, comprising boaters, divers, scientists, fishermen and more, who will work on projects to conserve Sisters' Islands Marine Park, Singapore's first and only marine park, located south of Singapore.

Mr Stephen Beng, head of the Nature Society's (Singapore) marine conservation group, congratulated Mr Lee on his new role, and said he was heartened to see that Mr Lee will retain his portfolio in the MND.

"We embrace good leaders in governance, and we are glad that he will continue in the MND to follow through the processes and community networks he had initiated."

Mr Lee, in a Facebook post on his new appointment, said MSF has had to deal with complex challenges the past few years, such as helping children from low-income families level up through KidStart, enabling people with disability and special needs to live with dignity, and promoting the early childhood sector and supporting theteachers.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.