Oxley Road dispute: No mystery surrounding ministerial panel, says Tharman

DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam said there is "no mystery" to why a ministerial committee was set up to look into options for the house of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.
DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam said there is "no mystery" to why a ministerial committee was set up to look into options for the house of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.PHOTO: ST FILE

Committees similar to the one on Oxley Road house set up to consider key issues, he says

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam joined the debate over the appointment of a ministerial committee to consider the options for the house of the late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, saying there was "no mystery" behind it being set up.

Similar committees of ministers are often set up to deliberate on important issues affecting Singapore, he added, noting the practice began many years ago and has evolved.

"It is how we ensure that important issues are given in-depth attention, and the options are weighed by the ministers closer to the issue, before Cabinet makes its decisions and takes collective responsibility," he said in a Facebook post.

"It is how we ensure we are not a government that operates in silos, that the national interest prevails even when there are valid sectoral or private interests, and that the long view prevails over the short view wherever possible."

Questions had arisen over the ministerial committee on the fate of Mr Lee's house at 38, Oxley Road, after the siblings of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong charged that it was set up secretly to block the demolition of the house.

Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang - joint trustees and executors of their late father's estate - have accused their brother of abusing his power to preserve the house against their father's wishes, a claim that PM Lee has refuted.

  • The Cabinet and special committees

  • The Cabinet, consisting of the prime minister and ministers, is the top decision- making body in the Singapore Government.

    It has general direction and control of government, and deals with day-to-day administration and policies as well as long-term plans for the country.

    While the Cabinet is collectively responsible for these tasks, some of its work is done through ministerial committees set up for specific purposes.

    Such special committees comprise a group of ministers who are sometimes supported by civil servants from their ministries.

    They can be chaired by various ministers. Deputy Prime Ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam chair some of these special committees.

    The ministerial committees can last from a few months to many years, depending on the complexity of the issues they deal with.

    For instance, those focusing on issues such as foreign worker policies, and healthcare and retirement needs, are more permanent.

    The practice of setting up such committees is longstanding.It is also common in Britain, from which Singapore inherited its Westminster system of government.

    The British Cabinet sets up Cabinet committees, which "reduce the burden on Cabinet by enabling collective decisions to be taken by a smaller group of ministers", says the British government's website.

    The prime minister decides their composition and terms of reference.The committees could be ad hoc, standing committees or special committees. For example, the British Cabinet has set up a committee to take care of negotiations on Britain's withdrawal from the European Union.

Yesterday, Mr Tharman urged Singaporeans to "have confidence, no matter today's sad dispute", saying the Government can be counted on to uphold the system of governance - built by the late Mr Lee and his team - that respects the rule of law.

He also sought to dispel suggestions of ill intent behind the establishment of the ministerial committee on the house. He said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean had "explained straightforwardly" why he set it up: because it is ultimately the Government's responsibility to make decisions on matters which involve public interest.

Mr Teo, who chairs the committee, had also said that "this does not preclude public consultations or the involvement of some memorial committee at an appropriate time".

Shedding more light on ministerial committees, Mr Tharman said they are set up to consider a range of issues.

"They help us think through difficult choices in Government before they come to Cabinet, and to canvas views outside when appropriate," he said, adding that he chairs several committees, especially those on social and economic issues. "In the last month alone, I met with five ministerial committees that we had set up to develop policies on key issues."

While some committees that deal with simpler issues sit for just a few months, others - such as those on foreign worker policies, and funding healthcare and retirement needs - "have to stay engaged for years", with new ministers coming on board over time.

A Ministerial Committee on Changi East Developments, for instance, has been around since 2014, Mr Tharman said. He also said it involves several ministers, supported by civil servants from their ministries, and focuses on coordinating plans for the airport expansion and the relocation of Paya Lebar Airbase, among other issues.

The committee's task is to find the best balance between different demands and plan options for 10, 30 and 50 years ahead. "That is how long-term our planning has to be," Mr Tharman said.

He noted that balancing all the competing interests is a challenge in governance faced by governments around the world.

"We have never got it perfect in Singapore, and let's be frank, we have had our share of policies that have turned out quite wrong at different points in our history," he said.

"But we have a system of preserving the rule of law, and of policymaking that balances public against private interests, and the long term against the short term, that is still a rarity in the world - and is at the core of how Singapore has succeeded."

He said this system, built by the late Mr Lee and his team, has continued through the governments under former prime minister Goh Chok Tong, who is now Emeritus Senior Minister, and PM Lee.

"You can count on PM Lee Hsien Loong and all of us in his team for that. You can count on the fourth- generation leaders to keep to a system that upholds the laws of the land, prioritises the common good and looks to the long term. Never thinking Government has got everything right, but always wanting to do right for Singapore," he said.

"And count on Singaporeans to ensure Government sticks to those principles - and to play our part collectively to keep Singapore united and inclusive."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2017, with the headline 'No mystery surrounding ministerial panel, says Tharman'. Print Edition | Subscribe