PM Lee held off on major Cabinet changes last year as S'pore was in the thick of Covid-19

PM Lee Hsien Loong wanted to move the ministers for Health, Manpower and Trade and Industry last year, but did not do so as the country was in the thick of fighting Covid-19. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Significant changes have been made to Singapore's Cabinet line-up, partly because a change in Finance Minister is a major move with many repercussions, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Friday (April 23).

At the same time, a more stable Covid-19 situation has allowed him to rotate the ministers who were directly handling the pandemic - adjustments that he held off making during last July's Cabinet reshuffle after the 2020 General Election.

PM Lee set out these two reasons to explain why such a major reshuffle was occurring this early in the Government's term, with seven ministries to have new heads from next month.

"Once you move the Minister for Finance, you are moving a major piece on the chessboard and you have to make many consequential redeployments," he said in response to questions.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat will pass the Finance portfolio to current Education Minister Lawrence Wong from May 15, but will continue to oversee the Strategy Group in the Prime Minister's Office, which coordinates policies and plans across the Government, and chair the National Research Foundation, among other responsibilities.

At the news conference, PM Lee said he wanted to move the ministers for Health, Manpower and Trade and Industry last year, but did not do so as the country was in the thick of fighting Covid-19.

PM Lee had said then that he was keeping on Mr Gan Kim Yong, Mrs Josephine Teo and Mr Chan Chun Sing in the three respective ministries to ensure continuity during a critical phase of Singapore's fight against the virus. "In the thick of a grave crisis, dealing with a fast-moving, uncertain situation... puts a premium on experience and a sure touch," he said last July.

This is why the appointments made following the election "were an interim set of changes, and now I am making the full set of changes", PM Lee said on Friday.

On the two ministers who are changing portfolios after less than a year at the helm - Mr Wong at the Ministry of Education, and Mr Ong Ye Kung at the Ministry of Transport (MOT) - PM Lee admitted that it was "a bit disruptive" for their ministries, but it could not be helped, given the circumstances.

For instance, he had wanted to fill a slot at the Ministry of Health (MOH) after the general election but was not ready to move Mr Gan at that point.

So, instead, Mr Ong was put into MOT, where he made an impact despite the short time he has been there, said PM Lee.

He added: "I am now following through to put Ye Kung into MOH, and because he is in MOH and he will be handling Covid on the front line, looking after the MOH part of it, I am putting him to co-chair together with Lawrence Wong."

Mr Gan will take over the Trade and Industry portfolio, with Mr Chan Chun Sing moving to Education.

Asked if the extensive reshuffle sets a precedent for ministers to spend only a short time in one portfolio, PM Lee disagreed.

"It is not desirable to move ministers after less than a year, (but) sometimes it is necessary, and then you think very carefully, and if it can't be helped, you do it," he said.

"And next time, you will have to think very carefully again... You cannot say that this is a precedent, and because the last minister served a few months, the next minister (will) likewise."

There were extensive consultations within the Cabinet before the line-up was decided, added PM Lee, who said that was the reason why the announcement of the new line-up came a fortnight after his last news conference.

"I talked to many of the ministers, including the DPM, DPM Heng, before I settled the moves, and then I had to discuss with each of the ministers to make sure that they understood what the new mission was and what their purpose of the deployments were before settling it," he said.

Asked about the significance of Mr Ong's move from MOT to MOH and the decision to have him co-chair the task force fighting Covid-19, PM Lee said it is best for the Health Minister to sit on the task force alongside Mr Wong.

"I appoint my ministers where they can best make a contribution," he said.

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