News analysis

New Cabinet line-up: Bold move to prepare new team for the future

SINGAPORE - As he announced his new Cabinet on Monday (Sept 28), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made the point that he would aggressively prepare a new team to take Singapore forward.

Monday's shake-up did not just see key changes to the leadership of nine of the 15 ministries. It went much deeper to expose a broader group of fourth-generation leaders to vastly different portfolios, many for the first time, to stretch and test them for higher office.

It is exposure that many current ministers had, including Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and incoming Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan.

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Three Coordinating Ministers, two Education Ministers and the first female minister with her own ministry. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced changes to the Cabinet at a press conference on Monday. Managing Editor of The Straits Times Ignatius Low, Assistant Political Editor Rachel Chang and political desk's Francis Chan weigh in on the Cabinet changes including why Mr Khaw Boon Wan was chosen as the new Transport Minister.

But this time round, the newer office-holders will be helped by a key shift - the appointment of three coordinating ministers - which is set to radically restructure how the Government deals with a more complex landscape ahead.

One consideration why PM Lee moved, as he put it, "more boldly" on leadership renewal this round was the presence of coordinating ministers - Deputy Prime Ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam as well as Mr Khaw Boon Wan - in the new Cabinet.

"They will play an important role, pulling the pieces together and mentoring the younger ones," Mr Lee said at the press conference.

These younger ministers include two of the four fourth-generation leaders who entered politics in 2011 who will take on two key portfolios: outgoing Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, 54, goes to Finance; and outgoing Culture, Community and Youth Minister Lawrence Wong, 42, goes to National Development.

Their peers, labour chief Chan Chun Sing, 45, and Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin, 46, took on their posts in a Cabinet reshuffle in April and will not be moved yet.

But they have been given additional key responsibilities: Mr Chan will take over the deputy chairmanship of the People's Association from Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say, and as Party Whip from Health Minister Gan Kim Yong. And Mr Tan will assist Mr Chan on Community Development Council matters.

Two core members of the fourth-generation leadership who entered politics in 2006 will also helm their own ministries.

Ministers in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu, 51, and Masagos Zulkifli, 52, will lead the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, and the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources respectively.

They, too, are being given key roles: Ms Fu will take over from Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen as Leader of the House, and Mr Masagos will assist Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim in handling Muslim Affairs.

Much of the attention in the months ahead will likely fall on how well the two newly elected Acting Ministers for Education perform in their roles - former defence chief Ng Chee Meng, 47, in charge of schools, and former senior civil servant Ong Ye Kung, 45, in charge of higher education and skills.

Crucially, Mr Ng will also be Senior Minister of State for Transport and Mr Ong, Senior Minister of State for Defence.

While these eight individuals will be a key part of the fourth- generation leadership, together, they make up less than half of the 20 Cabinet ministers who will assume their new posts on Thursday.

The answer to who else from among their peers might join their ranks will come from among the 17 other office-holders PM Lee named yesterday. It is, he noted, a larger than usual team because it is a transition team. But it is also a team where promising backbenchers have been moved up the ranks and into new areas of work to test their abilities.

Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah, 52, will move from Education to Finance, and remain at the Law Ministry, while Senior Minister of State Josephine Teo, 47, will move from Finance to Foreign Affairs, and remain at Transport.

Mrs Teo will also join the Prime Minister's Office, where she will assist Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean in population matters.

Three ministers of state are being promoted to senior ministers of state and given new portfolios this round: Dr Maliki Osman, 50, Mr Desmond Lee, 39, and Ms Sim Ann, 40.

Also set to join their ranks are three new ministers of state: former second permanent secretary Chee Hong Tat, 41, who has been touted for higher office, as well as second-term MP Janil Puthucheary, 42, and newcomer Koh Poh Koon, 43, both of whom will take up office on Jan 1 next year.

These moves are meant to help prepare the next generation of leaders, and PM Lee expects to do a review midway through the term.

Two years, or slightly more, may not be time enough for a clear leader from the core fourth- generation team to emerge. But hopefully by then, Singaporeans will get a clearer picture of who can make it to the fourth-generation Cabinet and, more importantly, how well their fourth- generation leaders are able to work together and inspire confidence.

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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 New Cabinet line-up: Bold move to prepare new team for the future. Subscribe