Singapore Politics - Insights from the Inside

Thursday, March 08, 2007 

Some Political Prophecies That Might Never Come True

After the General Election, all things political in Singapore seem to be as dry and bland as watching “Days of Our Lives” – the never-ending-bore-you-to-tears soap opera. Year 2007 seems to be a year that is politically castrated. Rather, castrated of its politics. In this land sanitized of politics, we can’t look forward to the 10-yearly affair of military coups like Thailand (before Thaksin, it was almost a 2 yearly affair), 4-yearly event when we accuse another US President of election fraud, 2-yearly schedule where George W Bush invades another country, a yearly affair when Italy changes another Prime Minister, monthly fist fights in Taiwan’s parliament or daily dose of “Down with Ah-Bian (Taiwan’s Chen Shui Bian, of course)” street protest.

Watching the political upheavals of our neighbouring and other countries made us wonder what it would be like to have a day of chaos in Singapore. It is almost unimaginable, not even in the most tempting of situations when the IMF/World Bank’s stopover during September last year. As unlikely as Dr Chee Soon Juan becoming our next PM in the next elections, you will most certainly never find me advocating protest for the sake of protest. Once, someone commented that a certain level of fuzziness and messiness would lead to creativity and economic growth. I’d both agree and disagree with that, but to go into the whole argument of that might take another 10,000 words thesis.

So, aside from the all the political pandemonium, which is almost never going to happen, what other political events can we look forward to? Here are some prophecies. Like most prophecies, these come with disclaimers that you know they have got no basis of truth. Just like old times. :)

Old Man Vs Not-So-Old Men
In 2006, we witnessed the retirement of several Ministers. Well, in Singapore, retirement is really used to the dictionary’s definition here. Retirement is often associated with older people reaching to a certain age (around 55 to 60) before voluntarily or involuntarily stop working. But in the dictionary’s definition, age is not requisite for retirement. It is just the removal or withdrawal from service, office, or business.

Most notably, former DPM Tony Tan and Transport Minister Yeo Cheow Tong “retired” before the recent GE (as correctly predicted in my previous articles months back). While Minister in PMO Lim Boon Heng and MICA Minister Lee Boon Yang are slated to retire, the signal is mixed.
On 28 May 2006, the Straits Times report that: “Labour chief Lim Boon Heng, 58, who is Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, will hand the reins of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) towards the end of this year to Mr Lim Swee Say, who is now the deputy secretary-general. PM Lee said he has agreed 'to stay on in the Cabinet until he hands over in NTUC'.” As for Lee Boon Yang, “Dr Lee, 58, had asked to retire, said Mr Lee, who persuaded him to stay on till mid-term so a successor can be groomed.”

Although we have yet to reach to mid-term, Lee Boon Yang is clearly in the “ORD” mood with most MICA issues handled by Second Minister Dr Vivian and Senior Minister of State Dr Balaji. On the other hand, Lim Boon Heng has taken on new responsibilities in heading the Ministerial Committee on Ageing Issues and deputy chairman of the People’s Association, while retaining his post as the Chairman of PAP Central Executive Committee (CEC). Do not underestimate the seemingly-nominal post of Deputy Chairman in PA and Chairman of PAP CEC. Traditionally, the post of deputy-chairman of the PA was held by high-profile ministers, such as DPM Wong Kan Seng and former Education Minister Lee Yock Suan, and is no minor post since the deputy chairman constitutionally takes charge of the grassroots. (Note: Chairman of the PA will always be the Prime Minister). Also the Chairman of the PAP CEC, an elected post for the highest number of votes by party cadres, he is supposedly the “second in power” after the party Secretary-General. Being the party chairman puts him in the likes of Deputy Prime Ministers such as Dr Tony Tan and Toh Chin Chye.

But the significant point is why there was a U-turn in his earlier announced retirement, as suggested by PM Lee? It is difficult to understand the rationale from an external view. However, we could still attempt to second-guess the PM’s thoughts.

Before elections, he would have got a mental list of the ministers to retain and those he wishes to drop. The dilemma is not whether who to retain or drop (as he should have gotten a clear idea by then) but if he should announce it at all, and if so, when to announce it. It is imperative that such announcement would not swing the electoral votes against him, if he drops a minister just before elections. As cautious as he is, he left most ministers unchanged (except for Dr Tony Tan and Lee Yock Suan, both had stepped down during the term) to head the GRCs and waited after the GE to make the decision and announcement. First to fall was the not-so-popular transport minister Yeo Cheow Tong. Together with the same announcement was the impending retirement of Lim Boon Heng and Lee Boon Yang. While Lee Boon Yang is most likely to step down as planned, Lim Boon Heng’s U-turn was for other reasons. Several possibilities arise. The PM can’t ignore the fact that he has got several “senior citizens” in his Cabinet (LKY, GCT and Jayakumar) and has to make contingency on this. Compared to these senior citizens, Boon Heng is a teenager. But I don’t think this is the reason for his retention. This leads me to my next point. Maybe there is a lack of capable junior ministers taking over him, in the eyes of PM.

Who’s Hot Who’s Not?
The most junior ministers of state (MOS), Grace Fu, Lui Tuck Yew and Lee Yi Shyan have yet to prove their worth or demonstrated to be on par with the likes of Tharman and Ng Eng Hen. The recent promotions of Koo Tsai Kee, S Iswaran and Gan Kim Yong to MOS still needed time to impress. While the female MOS such as Lim Hwee Hwa and Yu-Foo Yee Shoon have certain advantages in the push for female Cabinet ministers. However, they have yet to shine and PM is insistent that he will not promote a female MOS just because she is a female. That leaves us with the “Senior” ministers of state, Ho Peng Kee, Balaji Sadasivan and Zainul Abidin.

Assoc Prof Ho Peng Kee has been in parliament since 1991, later, a minister of state in 1997 and a senior minister of state from 2001. Every Cabinet reshuffle, he seemed to be constantly overlooked and younger ministers from the 2001 cohort have leapfrogged over him, into the Cabinet. A possible and positive view of this that he is slated to take over DPM Jayakumar for the Minister of Law, since he is the most and only one qualified for that law position. However, this doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon, especially when he is still managing a single member constituency (SMC) ward. I think I’ve mentioned this many times over that in single member constituency, MOS MPs are quite often an indication that promotion is quite unlikely.

Like Ho Peng Kee, Zainul Abidin’s career path is quite similar. Entered parliament in 1997 as the senior parliamentary secretary, promoted to MOS in 2001, and was promoted to senior minister of state last year. As a MP, he was a strong Malay leader and commands great respect amongst the community. His presence in Aljunied GRC certainly swung the votes from the Malay community over. In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, his position was to handle the Middle East relations and to attract some investments out of the lucrative Islamic banking and finance industry to Singapore. All in all, he has demonstrated to be a good number two, but not quite a number one man. He hasn’t portrait himself to be capable of leading and defending a ministry in parliament. While he might be capable enough, he needs to demonstrate more to warrant a position in Cabinet.

Last, but certainly not the least, is Dr Balaji Sadasivan. Unlike Ho Peng Kee and Zainul, he jumped straight into office as a MOS after his first elections in 2001. While his other peers like Dr Vivian and Tharman has been promoted into Cabinet, he has not. In 2004, he was promoted to senior minister of state of health and MICA and later in MFA. Separately, I’ve already covered the career and political life of Dr Balaji in a previous article and will not be repeating it. Aside from his quiet demure, his chances of promotion seem to be the highest of the lot. But a lot will depend on how he fit into the political ideology and plans of the Prime Minister. Will he be too liberal or conservative for the Cabinet? We shall see in the coming year.

Temasek Holding’s Next Financial Statements?
After the Shin Corp disaster, it will be interesting to see how Temasek Holdings present their financial statements for the financial year. My view is that they will lump all into provisions, and state the group profits without the asset lost or income statement changes due to Shin Corp. This year, by concealing the impact in the provisions, they can hold the issue and present a credible book to the public. By next financial year, when they make the provisions material, the public would have forgotten the issue and Temasek will also have other profit generators to cover the losses.

Anyway, let’s not spoil the fun and wait for the results before commenting further.

Post-65 MPs – Egalitarians or Elitists?
You’ve seen them dance in Chingay ’07, and will have your own thoughts on their moves. But I don’t think I’m too far wrong to say that they will never get any “officer bearer” in Ministry of Sound (MOS). While it’s too early to judge or cast stones at them, they seemed to be more elitist than egalitarian. MPs are supposed to be reflective of their generation. Thus, the question is whether the P65 are reflective of their generation?

If you look at their backgrounds – eg; Christopher de Souza, a lawyer at Lee & Lee, first class honours and formerly from Raffles Junior College. Same with Hri Kumar and Michael Palmer, both lawyers. Teo Ser Luck, a tri-athletic, who rose to become the general manager of DHL Express similar to Jessica Tan at Microsoft. Dr Faisal, a career lecturer at NUS. Dr Lam Pin Min and Dr Fatimah, both doctors.

Yes, MPs are supposed to have credible backgrounds and proven track records in prominent business sectors. But I think having a group of lawyers and doctors, growing up in education fast track, don’t quite reflect the laymen’s concerns and problems. They might be excellence communicators and speech-makers, but in every speech, it must have a soul. The MP must feel for the issue and to feel the issue, they have to experience the issue. We don’t need another blue-nose aristocrat in parliament speaking in flowerily languages. There is a difference between a MP and a Minister. And far too often we have MPs falling in between the characteristics of a MP and a Minister. Ministers have every right to be “unlike” the common people and to be brilliant visionaries that sets the moral direction for the country. MPs are and have to be reflective of their generation and fight with conviction for the thoughts and feels of the people. But the problem is having people who are neither MP-like nor Minister-like. Background near a minister but can never be one, and being a MP that was never quite representative of a generation.

Like I said, the P65 group needs more time to prove themselves, and prove that they are not another academically “straight-As” MP. The reason I ask if they are elitists or egalitarians is that the social character is of this nature. The P65 never experienced the traumatic split from Malaya but was in an era of academic elitism of Lee Kuan Yew. If you scored well, you will be rewarded by having a ladder to climb upwards. Fair or unfair to say that these MPs are the ones who climbed the ladder and made it good in economic and social sense. In that view, they are the elitists who reflect their generation; rather, they reflect the cream of the crop of their generation.

Alternative way of viewing this is that they reflect, not society, but the ideological direction of the selectors (the PAP Ministers). If they land up being egalitarian or elitist, that is the way the selectors set it out to be.

In short, time will tell.
Note: By the way, I "googled" my own blog name and surprisingly found quite a few people convinced that this blog is setup by the PAP government. Rest assured that I'm not in the government, sent by the government, paid by the government, moderately look like anyone from the government, or intent to be part of the government. In summary, this blog has nothing to do with the government. Maybe I should just change the blog address to prevent any misconceptions. I'm just another ordinary blogger with too much political rumour to spread.

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  • Thrasymachus
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