Global uncertainty likely determined nature and extent of Cabinet changes, say observers

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong will be promoted to Deputy Prime Minister from June 13, paving the way for him to succeed PM Lee Hsien Loong. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

SINGAPORE - Geopolitical uncertainties, including challenges such as inflation, the Ukraine war and regional trade disruptions, likely precluded major changes to the Cabinet, said observers.

The fact that a significant reshuffle was last made just over a year ago also meant that any changes in ministers helming key portfolios could be disruptive.

Political observers said these considerations could have been why the latest Cabinet changes announced on Monday (June 6) included no other movements involving full ministers.

At the same time, the promotion of Finance Minister Lawrence Wong to Deputy Prime Minister eliminates any ambiguity about the political leadership's succession plans, said Dr Woo Jun Jie, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) think-tank.

He said the latest round of Cabinet changes was very much focused on Mr Wong's appointment as DPM, coming on the back of his selection as leader of the People's Action Party's (PAP) fourth-generation team in April.

"For the Government's leadership succession, this serves to further clarify and confirm Mr Wong's position as Singapore's next prime minister," he said.

Former PAP MP Inderjit Singh, who was a backbencher from 1997 to 2015, said: "The key thing right now is to test the 4G (fourth-generation) PM and not so much to test 4G members as ministers. They have already been tested since they came in 2011."

Dr Gillian Koh, deputy director of research at IPS, said it seemed sensible that the key portfolios of defence, foreign affairs and security continue to be helmed by experienced hands, given the current disruptive changes globally.

"Presumably, these are leaders who have close ongoing networks with leaders across the region and globe that will serve Singapore well for the sharing of intelligence and the coordination of responses with the international community," she said.

Dr Woo cited global inflation, the Ukraine-Russia conflict, regional trade disruptions, and emerging strains of Covid-19 as looming challenges, saying that for Singapore, policy experience and stability are critical to handling such external challenges.

"These global and regional instabilities may have made it difficult to consider more substantial changes."

Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser of the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Department of Sociology noted that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently said the next PM should decide how his team should be configured.

"Hence, this reshuffle is, in my view, quite minimalist, except to reinforce the plan that Minister Lawrence Wong is the designated heir apparent," he said.

"The movements among the junior office holders are not very significant, except to facilitate their exposures to different portfolios, but no promotions to full ministerial rank."

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Former minister of state Teo Ser Luck, who was an MP from 2006 to 2020, said the 4G team is shaping up slowly.

The latest reshuffle will give Mr Wong some time to assess the individual office holders and form his own team in time to come, he said.

"We need a strong team as there are greater economic and social challenges," he added.

Observers interviewed said at least one more round of Cabinet changes can be expected before the next general election, which is due by November 2025.

IPS' Dr Koh said there seems to be a rhythm of announcing Cabinet changes once a year.

Prof Tan from NUS said a probable line-up of the core team around Mr Wong could emerge in the next round of Cabinet changes.

He added that Mr Wong could be leading the PAP into the next general election, given how there would be a need for the 4G team to spell out its tone and priorities in a post-pandemic and uncertain world.

Mr Wong had, at the May Day Rally last month, announced that the 4G team would draw up a road map for Singapore for the next decade and beyond.

He said he and his colleagues will engage the labour unions as well as the people and private sector for their thoughts on the economy, healthcare, housing, education and other areas, as part of an exercise to refresh the social compact.

Mr Wong had added: "We will consider what we need to do differently, but also affirm what is being done well and how we can do it even better."

On Monday, Mr Singh said: "I think the real 4G Cabinet will appear just before the next elections. So we should be looking at two years from now for the 4G to almost take over."

By the next election, the future 4G Cabinet will be seeking a mandate together with the 4G prime minister, he added.

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