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Friday, June 09, 2006 

Super Seven (minus one): Report Card of Ministers

Your votes have spoken! This is the first part of the “Super Seven” Ministers article. I have to apologize for taking such a long time with my articles. For the past few days, I have been away experiencing politics, Tom Yum style. Nonetheless, here is the article and hope that it is a useful and interesting read.

After each election, some of the new candidates will be thrown into the political office. In the recent GE, Grace Fu, Lui Tuck Yew and Lee Yi Shyan were the ones who became Ministers of State. In the 2001 General Election, seven were promoted to Senior Ministers of State and Ministers of State. They are, Tharman Shanmuguratnam, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Dr Ng Eng Hen, Raymond Lim, Dr Balaji Sadasivan, Khaw Boon Wan and Cedric Foo. With the exception of Cedric Foo, who quit political office during the term, the rest of Super-seven made quite good progress. The first part will feature two of the six Ministers, Tharman and Dr Balaji.

In the past Cabinets, Singapore has seen several great Ministers who are Indians, such as the late S. Rajaratnam (DPM, SM and Foreign Minister), ex-Foreign Minister Dhanabalan and DPM Jayakumar. Following the footsteps of these giants are Tharman and Dr Balaji. Five years has passed and let’s see the major issues surrounding these Ministers.

Tharman Shanmugaratnam
Current Portfolio:
Minister for Education (MOE)
Second Minister for Finance (MOF)
Deputy Chairman of Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS)

Previous Portfolios:
Senior Minister of State for MTI & MOE (Nov 2001 to July 2003
Acting Minister for Education (Aug 2003 to Aug 2004)

Previous Vocation:
Managing Director of MAS

Major Policies Introduced:
Reforms to Education System (Less Streaming, More Fuzziness)
Amendment to “Bilingualism Policies”
Promotion of Singapore as an Education Hub
Increase Number of Universities in Singapore
Promotion of Co-Curricular Activities in Schools
Social-Emotional Learning in Schools
Launching of Singapore Management University
Corporatisation of NUS & NTU
Life-sciences Education Programme
Bicultural Studies Programme
Compulsory Education Act

“Sticky” Point:
Ironically, his “stickiest” point was not during his time in politics but outside. December 1992, he was one of the five charged under the Official Secrets Act. The charges follow a 29 June 1992 Business Times article, headlined “2nd qtr: Flash estimates point to below 5pc growth” and written by correspondent Anna Teo, which said the early indications were of second-quarter growth of 4.6 to 4.8 per cent. The government later announced a growth figure of 4.7 per cent for the quarter. Tharman was charged with unlawfully communicating the flash estimate of 4.6 per cent given to him in confidence by the Department of Statistics to Mr Bhaskaran who faces three charges - receiving the information, and passing it on to Raymond Foo and BT senior correspondent Kenneth James.

The case lasted almost 16 months until March 1994 when the verdict was out. According to the AFP article dated 31 March 1994:

“The defendants are Business Times editor Patrick Daniel, 39, its technology editor Kenneth James, 46, Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) director Tharman Shanmugaratnam, 36, and Crosby Securities economists Manu Bhaskaran, 36, and Raymond Foo, 29.

The prosecution claimed Crosby's Bhaskaran saw the secret estimate in a MAS report that Shanmugaratnam carried for reference during a meeting with him on June 19, 1992.
Bhaskaran is accused of passing the estimate to his colleague Foo and to James at the Business Times.

MAS's Shanmugaratnam is charged with handling secret information in a way that endangered its secrecy. Bhaskaran, Foo, Daniel and James are charged with obtaining the classified estimate from a government source and communicating it. All five have denied the charges.”

On 31 March 1994, the verdict was out. Since the court had found “it was open to the prosecution not to accept the court's finding of no communication, but having given its consent and drafted an amended charge, it has accepted the court's finding of no communication by Shanmugaratnam to Bhaskaran”. Thus, Tharman was only fined S$1,500 (US$955) on one charge of handling secret information in such a way as to endanger its secrecy.

This incident was the talking point of the 2001 General Elections, but had no effect on the electorates at Jurong GRC. Tharman and the PAP team resoundingly defeated SDP (led by Chee Soon Juan) garnering 79.75% of the votes. It must be said that this OSA incident did traumatized him somewhat. However, he has recovered well from it and did a reasonably good job in a very unpopular Ministry (of Education). If you are interested in the full media reports of Tharman’s OSA cases, let me know via email.

Media Image:
In the media, he was always seen as the cool, calm and collected Minister. Articulated in words and responded well in dialogues and interviews. Comparatively to other new Ministers, he has gotten one of the most media spotlight.

Final Note:
Tharman meteoric rise is quite counter-intuitive. 14 years ago, he was involved in a highly-publicized criminal case and now, he is the Second Finance Minister. For people who are closed to him, would not have found it surprising. He is quite the same person as he is behind the scenes to in front of the media. He is eloquent, deep and methodical thinker, cool in the face of storm and well-liked by his followers.

Having taken over a “much-hated” Ministry, the Ministry of Education, Tharman has done quite a fair job in gradually removing the detested streaming system. To many, it seemed like a simple task for a Minister to direct the change but this is not the case in reality. While most might find it a necessary move to remove the streaming system, executing the change and not letting the public perceiving that it was a policy-gone-wrong is no simple feat. To execute it, he has to be careful not to be seen as correcting the ex-Education Ministers’ (some of them are still in Cabinet) policies. To add to the challenge, Singaporean parents are one of the world’s most difficult to satisfy bunch of people.

Despite these challenges, he has done a smooth job with relatively less troubles. I think there is room for progress for Tharman and he might take on more heavy-weight portfolios in the coming future.

Dr Balaji Sadasivan
Current Portfolio:
Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (MFA), Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA) Chairman of Committee on Ageing Issues (CAI)
Chairman of Service Improvement Unit (SIU)

Previous Portfolios:
Minister of State for Transport (Nov 2001 to August 2004)
Minister of State for Health (Nov 2001 to August 2004)
Minister of State for Environment (Nov 2001 to May 2003)
Senior Minister of State for Health (August 2004 to May 2006)

Previous Vocation:
Neurosurgeon, with external Law Degree
Before entering politics, he was the top neurosurgeon in Singapore and the only one that is recognized by the USA and Australian neuroscience boards. As full neurosurgeon in Singapore, he handles only the most serious brain surgeries but has a 100% success rate in operations.
When he was in Michigan, he was the neurosurgeon who extracts brain tissues (which has the most concentration of HIV virus) of HIV patients. Out of leisure, he also has a law degree. Unknown to many, he was a very successful entrepreneur as well. He had company that made medical surgery machines based on the global positioning to help the surgeon to make the incisions. Just when the company was about to take off and earn him millions in profit, he closed his businesses (he did not transfer it to any relatives) when became a Minister (as required by law). The pay he receives as a Minister is far less than what he earns as a neurosurgeon and director of the companies.

Major Policies Introduced:
General Election Campaigning (Podcasting and Internet Activities)
Curbing the Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease
Biological Agents and Toxin Bill
Entry into World Health Organization (WHO) Executive Member Board
Curbing Dengue Fever, Aedes Mosquitoes
Curbing Stroke Cases
Amendment to Telecommunications Act
Amendment to Broadcasting Act
Amendment to Electronic Transaction Act
Amendment to Maritime Offence Act
Amendment to Infectious Disease Act
HIV-AIDS Public Education Campaign
Bird-flu Prevention Campaign, and representative to WHO
Human Cloning and Other Prohibited Practices Act
Security at MRT Stations
Policies for Aging Population
Eldershield Care
Reduction in Cost of Ez-link Cards

“Sticky” Point:
Perhaps one of the stickiest issues is the issue that no health Ministers ever dare to deal with: HIV. The reason that most health Ministers in any countries avoided the issue of HIV is that no country or government has ever succeeded in combating the disease. Given his background in neurosurgeon and his time in Michigan where he deals with brain tissues (most concentration of HIV virus) of HIV patients, it seemed logical for a “doctor” to deal with the issue. However, politically, this is was a landmine for any Ministers. When dealing with HIV, inevitably, you will clash into the paths of gay rights activists and other “anti-discrimination” activists.

Of course, another more recent sticky issue is the prohibition of Podcasting and certain online political advertising during the nine days of GE. I’ve given my take on the issue and would just like to stressed that no additional laws have been implemented by is just an interpretation of existing laws (such as political film acts – introduced by George Yeo and PEA). I am going to make a bold prediction that laws governing the internet political commentary will be removed before the next GE.

Media Image:
Maybe at most times, he was at the unfair receiving end of the bad media publicity. Strangely, being the Senior Minister of State of MICA, he has made no attempts to restrict any media from bad mouthing him (trust me on this one, as I have got some friends both in ST, MDA and MICA). Unlike Dr Vivian who has written to the Straits Times to correct the misinterpretation of his words, Dr Balaji has never done that.

However, as a Minister, he seemed to be too soft-spoken and doesn’t have the assertiveness of Dr Ng Eng Hen or the charm of Dr Vivian Balakrishnan.

Final Note:
Behind the public view, many would not have gathered the extent of work that Dr Balaji has put in. Singapore’s recent entry to the Executive Committee of the World Health Organization (WHO), was almost the sole work of his. This is Singapore’s first election as an Executive Board member in our 40 years of membership with the WHO. Dr Balaji’s first active involvement with the WHO was during the SARS period. He acted as a “salesman” attracting and assuring the foreign investors that Singapore is safe from the disease, a task that he accomplished with merit.

As mentioned earlier, one of his greatest achievements was to lower the HIV infection rate. Not well-publicized in the media was the fact that Dr Balaji succeeded where no other developed countries or Health Ministers had; lower the HIV infection rate. Since his implementations, the number of HIV infected patients fell by around 20%. Transmission of the disease from mother to child dropped to zero since he imposed his policies on pre-natal detection. This is quite impressive policy result by any standards. Although some would be skeptical and doubt the methodology of measure or statistic interpretation, it is confirmed by WHO that Singapore is one of the few countries that managed to engineer such change in trend. Whatever the case, this is a high risk policy that no Health Ministers are willing to handle or have the capacity to take.

As a former medical doctor and top neurosurgeon in Southeast Asia, he certainly commands a great deal of respect from the medical community. Khaw Boon Wan, the Minister of Health, often is being seen tackling issues such as health care cost, medisave and operational efficiency, but seldom on specific medical issues. Dr Balaji provides the perfect contrast to Khaw, by tackling specialized medical issues such as gerontology as a compulsory part of the health education curriculum,

Dr Balaji has been representing the Cabinet in all international forums for Bird-flu and related dialogues. Should there be an outbreak, he will be the Minister-in-Charge. His recent appointment into the Foreign Minister suits him well given his Health and MICA background.

In MICA, he is a more liberal Minister compared to Dr Lee Boon Yang, who is slated to step down. Dr Balaji is influential in bring the gradual liberalization of the media and arts scene. Prior to his entry into MICA, the Ministry took a conservative stand against all media and arts affair. After his appointment in MICA, the gradual liberalization is seen in the permitting of “Crazy Horse”, the non-implementation of the PEA (Parliamentary Election Act) on blogging and podcasting as well as the soon-to-be introduced satellite TV.

Thus, I think Dr Balaji has done a fair deal of work to earn him a promotion to a full Minister. The recent Cabinet appointments (and non-promotion of Dr Balaji) must have dented him quite a bit. My guess is that once Lim Boon Heng and Lee Boon Yang steps down, Dr Balaji should be promoted to Acting Minister within that same reshuffling.
Photos will be uploaded soon...(Strangely, I can't seem to upload Tharman's photos....)

z:the criminal case involving Tharman was mainly aimed at the reporters; he was just there as collatoral damage to make the aim not so obvious to the public

being non-chinese, he was able to would the sacred cow of chinese language education, by reducing the content and making it more relevant; the previous ministers listened to the wrong curriculum experts whose bad designs made the content both useless and boring

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yes, Dr Balaji seems to be the most misunderstood minister!

Thanks for the interesting blog -- the world is so ready for a great leader who is bigger than orruption and smaller than ego! Interesting note on Dr. Baliji "However, as a Minister, he seemed to be too soft-spoken and doesn’t have the assertiveness of Dr Ng Eng Hen or the charm of Dr Vivian Balakrishnan." That trait could serve him well if he draws ethical and smart people around him to do some of the speaking parts... What do you think? You've made us curios for the outcomes...

Hi z
Well, you could be right in saying that it was an attempt to aim at the reporters, but I would defer. Given the short notice of the release of figures, finding the "internal ghost" was top of their minds. Anyway, that is 14 years ago...

Hi locky2ky
Yes, I couldn't have agreed more!

Hi Ellenweber
Thanks for your comments! You have made a good point in his trait serving him well. In politics, I guess you need a good balance of traits. Dr Balaji made good in whatever task he handles, but his humble nature prohibits him from announcing it in the media spotlight. Hopefully the leaders can see this aspect rather than just media mileage.

As always mentioned, Singapore politics is interesting, isn't it? =P



> finding the "internal ghost

hardly necessary; the leak occurred because Tharman took a confidential document to a meeting and the reporters sitting opposite him managed to read (upside down)the big letter title giving the MAS flash estimates of economic growth for the period that was unexpected; they were not supposed to publish any information they were not officially given, but went ahead

the higher powers decided to give the reporters a lesson so that in future even if other information somehow got into the hands of the media, they would not dare to use it; however, they had to include Tharman as well in the case, but he was not where the blow was aiming

"...Strangely, I can't seem to upload Tharman's photos", maybe his pictures are on the "negative list", you know, the same list that Balaji says pictures of the election rallies are verboten.
Seriously, Balaji's handling of the podcast ban, in so far as reported by the self-confessed self-censoring press, doesn't demonstrate any of the professionalism you seem to see in him. Maybe he was just doing his sycophant thing, maybe he was battling with his own conscience. But if he does bring about the availability of satellite broadcast reception, then we really owe this man a token of thanks and appreciation. But it is a big IF.

Your statement "Just when the company was about to take off and earn him millions in profit, he closed his businesses" sounds a wee bit suspicious. It takes much time and dedicated commitment to develop a business venture, just like it takes time and commitment to nurture a baby in the womb. So, to chuck it all so quickly makes it seem like Balaji hastily aborted his potential newborn for a more lucrative alternative. Also, most businesses will need 3 to 5 years to break even. But a walk-in through a GRC is a sure fire guarantee to a recession free million dollars a year for at least next 5 years. If Balaji is really professional about his medical calling, i.e. provide for the sick and sickly according to his Hypocrytic Oath, he should place his neurosurgical skills well above the dirt and slime of gerrymandering politics, especially the dubious politics of banning podcasts and blogs during an election.
You are right, though, on subject of Balaji's purported reduction of the transmission of the HIV disease from mother to child through his policies on pre-natal detection, that there is much skepticism and doubt "about the methodology of measure or statistic interpretation." Singapore, for that matter, can be an AIDs free society tommorrow, by simply arresting all HIV positive individuals and confining them on some neighboring island of lower land cost, a la Minister Khaw Boon Wan's magic solution for our greying population.

Singapore Likes to Remake Itself Often


Hi Z
Maybe you might have information that I don't. But my sources might differ from yours.

Hi Tuck Seng
Well, the Tharman photos that I have are not coded. Some of them are taken by myself. It could be a bloggers.com error.

As for the podcasting issue, there are more to it that the public face. That simple statement took more than two weeks to prepare as much is needed to convince the "old guards" that a liberal stand should be taken. If you want to suck up to the old guards and rise up the ladder, would you bother to do so? Just play by their ears. But he didn't.

Hi Suresh
Thanks for your lengthy comments. If you are familar with medical equipments, you will realize that you don't need 3-5 years to break even. Such medical sets are available for half a million USD per set (US markets). But it cost less than 1/5 the price to make. Set on set, you will make immediate profits. Trust me from the financial perspective. When he decided to shut it down, he pass on the sets to KK hospital.

Well, not all people entered for fame, glory and money. You can tell the difference between working in front of the scene and behind the scenes. Your argument is just like saying why not all human receive their religious calling and serve as a monk? In medical profession, you save a life at a time. For him to become a Health Minister, he reduced the AIDS/HIV transmission rate by 20%. Which is more?


>z: Maybe you might have information that I don't

my information about how the leak occurred came from newspaper reports of the trial; I dont have, nor trust, private sources

if you conclude from the case of Tharman that the system is quite forgiving, I am afraid you will be disappointed; it maybe sometimes forgiving, to the right person, but generally it is not

Maybe it's too early to pass judgment on Balaji, but I sure as hell wouldn't wave the banner that "he reduced the AIDS/HIV transmission rate by 20%". Witness the Boon Heng/Swee Say public altercation about employment figures. Add to that the play with statistics initiated by Ng Eng Hen - the MOM webpage actually states that if someone resigns(or asked to quit a la scholar ex-Minister David Lim) from his office, one new job is created. And was it 38,000 or 36,000 jobs that will be created by the building of the casino, oops, integrated resort? Stock markets plummet in the fear of rising interest rates, property prices takes another nosedive - hey, didn't PM Lee just say economic growth rates will be rosy after the elections?

Hi Z
Yes, my sources are from the papers as well as trial reports and some other private sources. Based on the transitions of reports, one could see how his charge of disclosing state secret to negligence. The jury is out there.

Well, that would depend on whether the majority of voters remember him as the case or not.

Hi Zulkifli
Haha, yes, as Churchil once said, there are statistics, more statistics and damn lies. No one would expect the PM to say that the economy would take a nosedive after GE, would he?

Figures have to be in comparison as a relative rather than absolute. The world suffered from the "tsunami" of cheap labour from China in the early 21st century. USA even now, didn't recover from it, so did Europe. Even our closes neighbours like Malaysia has discouraging figures. Perhaps we might have performed better from the lot. Of course, critics will remain as critics and think otherwise.


z: care to comment on LHL's performance in the overseas visit? I thought it absurd to say that nobody would vote for PAP if upgrading is de-linked; surely they are better than that?

Hi Z

Well, it is hard to judge his performances in overseas visits given the limited info we have. Basically, most of the talks are behind closed doors.

From the face of it, there is still no breakthrough in the airspace for SIA...

As for the PAP upgrading works, your comments is as good as mine.


his later comment on one party rule did not get across the real thinking: singapore is small and has to be run as a single corporate state with a board of directors and 3M shareholders; the talent pool is too small to divide among multiple, competing groups that get to manage the corporation only for one or two elections; being a single monolithic entity allows singapore to have some weight in the international scene

I consider this a valid proposition, but it has not been properly explained and debated because a monolithic system is not conducive to such discussions

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The Idealist

  • Thrasymachus
  • Propagating In: Singapore
  • The Critic, The Philosopher, The Pragmatist, The Moralist, The Egalitarian, The Confused, The True-Blue Singaporean
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Singapore Time

Poll Your Agony!

    Do you support the government's decision in barring certain Civil Society Organization members from the IMF/WB meetings?
    Fully support!
    Yes, but could have been more lenient
    Don't know...
    No, the govt is too rigid
    Absolute no!
    I don't give a damn about it...
    Current results

    Which topic do you wish to read at Singaporegovt?
    SM Goh Chok Tong: Behind the Scene
    Oppositions: Singapore Democratic Party
    Super Seven: Khaw Boon Wan, Dr Ng Eng Hen
    Super Seven II: Dr Vivian, Raymond Lim
    History V: Devan Nair
    History VI: Dr Goh Keng Swee
    Who is Thrasymachus (aka me)?
    All of the Above!
    None of the Above - I hate reading!
    Current results

    What do you think of the General Election 2006 (GE) Results?
    Accurately reflects the political preference of Singaporeans
    Somewhat accurate in reflecting Singapore's political preference
    PAP's win was too flattering
    Oppositions' percentage was too high
    Not accurate in reflecting the political preference of Singaporeans
    Totally inaccurate!
    Current results

    What do you think of the Gomez Issue?
    He is guilty of deceiving!
    He is not guilty!
    The whole issue was overblown by the PAP & media
    Don't care, Don't know!
    Current results

    What do you think of this site (singaporegovt.blogspot)?
    Good, Fair, Objective, Interesting Read
    Above Average
    Below Average
    Total Rubbish!
    Total mouthpiece of the PAP government!
    I HATE this site!
    I LOVE this site!
    Current results

    Which (Senior) Minister of State do you wish to see promoted to Full Minister?
    Ho Peng Kee
    Dr Balaji Sadasivan
    Zainul Abidin Rasheed
    Heng Chee How
    Lim Hwee Hua
    Grace Fu
    Radm Lui Teck Yew
    Lim Yi Shyan
    Gan Kim Yong
    Current results

    Which Election Candidate do you prefer?
    Low Thia Khiang (WP)
    Chiam See Tong (SDA)
    Sylvia Lim (WP)
    Chee Soon Juan (SDP)
    J.B. Jeyaratnam (Formerly WP)
    Lee Hsien Loong (PAP)
    Dr Ng Eng Hen (PAP)
    Sitoh Yih Pin (PAP)
    Eric Low (PAP)
    Current results

    How do you rate PM Lee Hsien Loong's Performance (as Prime Minister) so far?
    Very Good
    Above Expectation
    Poor ("I can even do better!")
    Very Poor
    Current results

    Do you have confidence in PM Lee Hsien Loong's leadership and his team of Ministers?
    Too early to tell...
    Any one but them!
    Current results

    Do you think Lee Hsien Loong became Prime Minister on his own merits?
    Yes! ("He was the best candidate")
    No! ("He has obvious backing from LKY")
    No! ("There wasn't any alternative candidate to challenge him in the first place")
    Current results

    Which of the (Junior) Minister to you wish to see him/her step down? (Part III)
    Raymond Lim
    Balaji Sadasivan
    Ho Peng Kee
    Chan Soo Sen
    Lim Hwee Hua
    Heng Chee How
    Gan Kim Yong
    Yu-Foo Yee Shoon
    Zainul Abidin
    Current results

    Which Minister do you wish to see him step down? (Part I)
    Lee Hsien Loong
    Goh Chok Tong
    Lee Kuan Yew
    Lim Boon Heng
    Lee Boon Yang
    Yeo Cheow Tong
    Mah Bow Tan
    George Yeo
    Teo Chee Hean
    Current results

    Which Minister do you wish to see him step down? (Part II)
    Lim Hng Kiang
    Wong Kan Seng
    S Jayakumar
    Tharman Shanmuguratnam
    Lim Swee Say
    Ng Eng Hen
    Vivian Balakrishnan
    Khaw Boon Wan
    Yaacob Ibrahim
    Current results

    What is your utmost concern for the coming General Elections?
    "Bread & Butter" issues - Jobs, economy, salary, etc
    Freedom of Speech - or lack of
    HDB issues - upgrading, high housing cost, etc
    International Issues - govt's handling of foreign relationships
    Transport issues - LTA, NEL, MRT
    Change of Leadership - from SM Goh to PM Lee
    All of the above
    I'll vote any party except PAP!
    I'll only vote for PAP!
    Current results

    Which is your favourite Minister?
    PM Lee Hsien Loong
    SM Goh Chok Tong
    MM Lee Kuan Yew
    DPM Jayakumar
    Dr Vivian Balakrishnan
    Teo Chee Hean
    George Yeo
    Tharman S.
    I Hate of them!
    Current results

Faces of Singapore

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    The author of this blog bears no responsibility for any misinterpretation, libel, defamation, injury and death as a result of reading this blog. Contents are high subjective and readers should read with caution. All readers should be 18 years and above, with half a decent brain to judge the validity of the articles.

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