In 2001 General Elections, then-Prime Minister introduced several new candidates to the campaign but seven of the new candidates stood out. The “Super-Seven” are Khaw Boon Wan, Dr Ng Eng Hen, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Dr Balaji Sadasivan, Raymond Lim and Cedric Foo. Immediately after the elections, Khaw and Tharman were appointed Senior Minister of State* and the rest as Ministers of State.
By 2003, Dr Ng was appointed Acting Minister for Manpower, Tharman was appointed Acting Minister for Education and Khaw was appointed Acting Minister for Health. One year later, they were promoted to full Ministers and Dr Vivian and Raymond Lim was also promoted to Acting Ministers and later full Ministers in 2005. So are they that special or is this to just an emergency reaction to fill the void (David Lim resigned and several changes from the Cabinet)? This article hopes to provide some opinions based on my personal encounters, feedbacks from other people and their styles of politics.
Dr Ng Eng Hen
Dr Ng was a surgeon specializing in cancer prior to entering politics. His background prior to politics was not well publicized but he was quite active in community involvement through the Breast Cancer Foundation. When he entered politics, Straits Times ran an article on these “super-seven” and mentioned Dr Ng as an “aloof” and seemingly high-handed and authoritative figure (partly due to his physic). But I think he is very much different from his image in 2001 and what the press made of him.
I was very privileged to attend a closed door forum on employment with him as the guest speaker. Dr Ng is one of the more eloquent and quick thinkers in the Cabinet. When answering tough questions, he doesn’t evade the point like some Ministers do but tackles it by allowing the audience to see his point of view. He has an excellent grasp of history and labour models of most major countries and has a holistic view on the subject matter. He doesn’t take political or economical extremes of thought which will delight all pluralists and political scientists. His clarity of thought is undoubted but he also has this natural flair of selling his policy by asking the questioner “what ifs” and making his point clear with the examples of other countries.
That day, there were quite a few people from the audiences who asked him questions, but he remembered the names of each person, the question they asked and in which order. The way he speaks reminds me a little of a mixture of Lee Kuen Yew (in the late 1990s) and Goh Chok Tong. But yes, I do feel a sense that he can be an authoritative figure when he addressed himself “Minister” a few times.
If you do noticed or have a chance to attend the National Day Rally live, do observe which Ministers comes early, which Ministers mix with whom and which Ministers kept to himself. When Dr Ng walked into the rally, he was just slightly earlier then the Deputy PMs and walked straight to his seat. He didn’t really mix with the other MPs, Ministers or guests, unlike Ho Peng Kee, Lim Swee Say, Khaw Boon Wan and others who usually come early to chat around. Maybe is it just a one-off occasion that happened. Not conclusive to make any other judgment solely based on this incident.
Overall, Dr Ng will go far in the Cabinet. He has the aura and intellect to see the most difficult of tasks or Ministries. In terms of public speaking, you need to hear him live and understand his words to really appreciate his thoughts. This is his plus point and is also his minus point. Maybe due to his overall image, he might seem to be an unfriendly or authoritarian Minister to talk to. Unless his speaks or warms the audiences up, his “aloof” image will still remain. Thus, he is not a very grassroots Ministers but one who is willing and will make unpopular but necessary policies.
Dr Vivian Balakrishnan
Dr Vivian was a President’s Scholar and, prior to politics, he was active in a variety of involvements ranging from debates, hosting the televised Singapore 21 series to becoming the presenter of health education programmes in the 90s. He was a vocal critic of the PAP government prior to joining politics but was actually “converted” by Minister Lim Swee Say. Thus, Vivian holds Lim Swee Say is very high esteem and respect in all matters.
Dr Vivian probably has one of the most portfolios in the history of Singapore Government. Here is a list of his present portfolios:
Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports
Second Minister of Trade and Industry
Minister in-charge of Entrepreneurship
Chairman of Young PAP
Chairman of Remaking Singapore Committee
Chairman of National Youth Council
Member of Ministerial Committee for Low Wage
Member of PAP Central Executive Committee
Among other things, he deals with the whole Casino issue and the IOC Committee meeting as well.
“Sink or Swim”, seems to be the message to Dr Vivian. Apparently, he is not only swimming but seems to be on a “speedboat” for greater things. From my several encounters with him, he seems to be able to handle all his portfolios with ease and even answered my email at 2.30am when I emailed him 20 mins earlier!
His strengths are that he has this charming speaking style that would attract most youths to believe in his thoughts and probably his image (youthful image as a Minister and is the youngest in the Cabinet at 45 years old). However, when you listen to his closed-door forums, you can sense a slight streak of controlled impatienceness and authoritarianism in him. Maybe all Ministers need some of these qualities in them to succeed in politics but I think Dr Vivian’s impatienceness and authoritarianism has improved through his years in politics. In 2002, he labeled the Malaysian Media as “wild animals”, which is quite an unprecedented comment made by any Singaporean Ministers. Since then, he has tone down and is not as rash as he used to be in giving comments. One way of testing his level of patience is to ask a conceptually wrong question and see his reactions to it. You might get the sense which I got. Occasionally, he can be quite defensive or invasive in answering some questions that has some basis for arguments.
People who attend his forums will find that he can be more of an emotional thinker rather than a logical thinker on certain issues. There is no doubt that he is a very intelligent Minister but maybe he could have more control over his emotional side. I think you can see his speeches in Parliament on the casino issues that he tries to appeal to emotive aspect rather than the economics of the issue. This is quite an asset for the PAP as many Ministers have tried to use such way to appeal to masses but not much success. With Vivian, it seems that they have on speaker with such strengths and successes. This will allow them to cover a wider range of audiences and voters with different appeals (since there are more than enough Ministers who can speak with conviction on the economic and logical aspects).
One thing I am uncertain about is how ambitious is he? He mentioned on the televised Ministers dialogue (iContact on Channel i) that he has no desire or the intention of entering politics to be the Prime Minister. I’m not quite sure about that. Somehow, with my interaction with him and seeing him so often on the papers and TV, he might be slight more ambitious than what he state he is. Then again, my gut feel can be wrong.
Dr Balaji Sadasivan
Dr Balaji was the top neurosurgeon in Singapore and the only recognized neurosurgeon in the boards of America and Australia. In addition to his medical qualifications, he also has a degree in law with honours, which he took out of interest. By entering politics, he probably took a huge pay cut. Much of his background has been covered in my previous article on the HIV issue.
Anyway, he has always been labeled as one who is too soft-spoken for a politician and for a Minister. But I think he has improved tremendously in his speaking style and assertiveness. He is one of the brainiest Ministers and was behind the success in tackling the SARS outbreak couple of years ago. Unknown to many, he also made a lot of overseas trips, such as Pakistan and India, to smoothen the paths and foreign relations before the PM or other Cabinet Ministers make their trips there. He also represents Singapore in WHO conferences in Geneva quite often. Maybe it is due to his strengths in language abilities, as he speaks fluent English, Tamil, Malay and even Mandarin, that made him an asset in foreign affairs. In general, he does more “behind the scene” work then most people think of Ministers.
He is very popular in his constituency but he is one Minister that didn’t like the limelight much. But he did make the headlines with his controversial comments on the HIV and gays issues although he was misquoted by media on certain parts. When dealing with the grassroots, he has totally no airs as a Minister and joins his people and residents in kopitam talks. He is very supportive of his grassroots and the youth wings of his constituency which made his grassroots very loyal to him as well. When he has to tackle sensitive issues in his constituency such as closing down the Seletar Market, he is tactful and called for an open dialogue session with all the hawkers of the market.
His style of speaking is quite different as well. He can be quite candid at times and will usually agree with you but will modify your thoughts slightly to see the perspectives laymen wouldn’t see. Even his public speeches, it contains more substances than most Ministers’ speeches (http://stars.nhb.gov.sg/public/index.html). His strength is that he can speak fluently in Mandarin which won the Chinese residents over whenever the need calls for it. By the way, like most Indian Ministers in the Cabinet, he didn’t marry a person of the same race, he married a Chinese.
Not many people know of this fact but he was in the last elected student union in the University of Singapore. Younger readers may not find any special about this fact but actually, the last elected union was quite active in voicing their concerns to the authoritarian government (under LKY in the 70s) under they were disbanded by force. Not until recent years, all student unions were appointed rather nominated. Activist, like all of us! Since then, he has spent much time in Michigan doing his neurosurgeon training before heading back to Singapore.
He should be promoted to a full Minister after the next elections and will be interesting to see which Ministry he heads. In the short term, most probably it will be a Ministry which deals with social issues such as transport, environment, health and others. Maybe 10 years down the road, he might take over as the Foreign Minister due to his good overseas contacts.
* For those who are unfamiliar with the Cabinet Rankings and labels for Ministers, this is how the hierarchy goes:
1) Prime Minister
2) Senior Minister
3) Minister Mentor (holds significant influence but have no executive or cabinet power)
4) Deputy Prime Ministers
5) Cabinet Ministers (also known as full Ministers. Eg: Minister of Defense)
6) Acting Ministers (Temporary promotion)
7) Senior Ministers of State
8) Ministers of State
9) Mayors, Senior Parliamentary Secretaries, Parliamentary Secretaries
10) Permanent Secretaries (Highest ranking in Civil Service but does not sit in parliament)
Aside from the ranking, the Minister’s portfolios can also be ranked by importance. For example, all Prime Ministers and Deputy PMs must head a least one of the Ministry of Defense, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs or Finance. Thus the portfolio can be ranked as such:
a) Ministry of Defense, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, Finance
b) Ministry of Trade & Industry, Education, National Development, Manpower
c) Ministry of Transport, Health, Lawd) Ministry of Information, Communications & Arts (MICA), Community Development, Youth & Sports (MCYS), Environment & Water Resources (MEWR)
e) Prime Minister’s Office – On the contrary, this is the least important as it is usually labeled (by critics) as a “dumping ground” for Ministers in their twilight years. Ministers who entered the PMO, usually retires soon. Eg: Lee Yoke Suan, Othman Bin Haron Eusofe, Matthias Yao Chih