PM’s new Cabinet

Role on world stage not new to Vivian Balakrishnan

Analysts see Shanmugam taking 'activist approach' as new Home Affairs Minister

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan (left), who will head the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has played key roles in brokering environmental deals on the global stage.
Dr Vivian Balakrishnan (above), who will head the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has played key roles in brokering environmental deals on the global stage. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

SINGAPORE - Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's new role as Singapore's chief diplomat will not be entirely foreign to him, as he has played key roles in brokering environmental deals on the world stage.

The experience underlies his move to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) on Oct 1, he indicated in a Facebook post on Monday (Sept 28).

"I have learnt that so many of the most pressing and complex challenges of the future will require patient but purposeful negotiations and deep collaboration with multiple stakeholders," said the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources. "In this spirit, I look forward to my next posting at the MFA and am very grateful to the Prime Minister for his confidence."

Dr Balakrishnan, 54, succeeds Mr K. Shanmugam, who will be the new Home Affairs Minister .

At the same time, Mr Shanmugam will continue to head the Law Ministry, where he undertook groundbreaking legal reforms like removing the mandatory death penalty for specific cases of drug trafficking or murder.

These moves by Mr Shanmugam have led analysts to expect him to take an "activist approach" in the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).

Said law don Eugene Tan: "That activist approach towards law reform, I think we can expect him to bring with him, and for which he will have a larger canvas to paint on because MHA is a larger portfolio than the Law Ministry."

In announcing the new Cabinet line-up yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said "the (MHA) portfolio will be familiar to him".

Mr Shanmugam was Second Minister for Home Affairs in 2008 but took charge in 2010 when Minister Wong Kan Seng got a new portfolio. But it was a brief posting as, soon after, he became Foreign Minister, after Mr George Yeo's defeat in the 2011 General Election.

With the latest change, Mr Shanmugam follows in the footsteps of retired senior minister S. Jayakumar, who held both the MHA and Law posts from 1988 to 1994.

Analysts said the combination made good sense. "It's a natural affinity... Home Affairs, which is largely about domestic security, and Law go hand in hand," said Dr Alan Chong of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

A top lawyer, Mr Shanmugam entered Parliament in 1988 at age 29. Fellow MP and lawyer Edwin Tong said he is well suited to head the two ministries. "He's got a tremendous eye for detail but, at the same time, he has a very long-term view of things."

Dr Balakrishnan, meanwhile, was praised by PM Lee for doing a "good job at the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, including the international aspects".

"He has represented Singapore ably at international fora, for example, the climate change talks," said Mr Lee, as well as dealt with transboundary issues like the haze.

Dr Balakrishnan, a former eye specialist, entered politics in 2001 and the Cabinet in 2004.

Dr Eduardo Araral of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy said Dr Balakrishnan's role in Peru and in dealing with Malaysia and Indonesia on issues like water policy and haze "gives him the training and, most importantly, the gravitas to become a foreign minister".

"Indonesia and Malaysia are two of the most important relationships that Singapore has to manage and Dr Balakrishnan's nuanced understanding of domestic politics in these countries is important," said Dr Araral.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 29, 2015, with the headline Role on world stage not new to Vivian Balakrishnan. Subscribe