Singapore Cabinet Reshuffle Points to Key Trends
August 2, 2012
On July 31, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore restructured his government’s ministries and reshuffled his cabinet, revealing important trends to watch as the city-state seeks to evolve its political foundation. Lee made changes in two existing ministries, established a new ministry, and brought new faces into the cabinet.
The moves can be seen as a process of adjustment following the general elections in May 2011, when the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) received a wake-up call from Singaporean voters who cast a record number of votes for opposition candidates. The changes show that the government is trying to enhance its alignment with Singaporeans as the country strives to maintain its razor sharp competitiveness.
Q1: What changes did the prime minister announce?
A1: The Ministry of Community Development, Youth, and Sports will be renamed the Ministry of Social and Family Development. It will promote the critical role of families as the fundamental building blocks of society and strengthen social safety nets in response to Singapore’s rising income inequality and aging population.
The Ministry of Information, Communications, and the Arts will become the Ministry of Communications and Information. It will oversee the government’s information and communication policies and foster closer rapport with netizens in the age of social media.
A new Ministry of Culture, Community, and Youth will be established on November 1 and will focus on engaging youth, nurturing arts and sports, and promoting a strong and integrated society.
In the cabinet, six new leaders were promoted, including first-term members of parliament (MPs) Chan Chung Sing, Tan Chuan-Jin, and Lawrence Young. Grace Fu was also promoted, becoming only the second female minister in Singapore’s history.
Q2: Who are the new faces and why were they chosen?
A2: Much attention has been drawn to the three novice politicians, Chan, Tan, and Young, aged 39 to 43. They have been promoted to senior ministers of state (SMS), prominent positions that put them in leading roles charting the course of ministries. Prime Minister Lee and the PAP are clearly trying to inject new energy into governance in Singapore by promoting young leaders who have demonstrated their strong connections to communities and people in their constituencies (all Singaporean ministers must be elected MPs).
Chan Chun Sing, current acting minister for community development, youth, and sports, will continue in that role when it is renamed minister for social and family development on November 1. He will also serve as SMS in the Ministry of Defense. Lee appointed Tan Chuan-Jin to be the acting minister for manpower and SMS in the Ministry of National Development. Lawrence Young will continue to hold his current post as SMS in the Ministry of Education until November 1, and then he will become the acting minister for culture, community, and youth and SMS for communications and information.
The appointment of Grace Fu, aged 48, is also telling. Fu represents the relatively new face of female ministers in Singapore, and her selection indicates the PAP’s recognition that it must reach out to and connect with female voters to sustain its dominant role in Singaporean politics. Fu was named minister in the prime minister’s office, second minister for the environment and water resources, and second minister for foreign affairs.
Q3: Why did Singapore reshuffle now?
A3: The restructuring is timely and smart. While it will be criticized by some Singaporeans as too little, it demonstrates a core understanding that political renovation is necessary as Singapore, and indeed the rest of Southeast Asia, undergoes a reorganization of political power as voters assert themselves and the strongly autocratic regimes that dominated the Cold War era cede ground to new polities.
The reorganization of two ministries and the launch of a third address Singapore’s urgent need to reprioritize and focus on increasingly significant issues of society building, youth engagement, and enhancement of the social safety net. Not all Singaporeans have benefitted from the incredible growth and globalization of the country, and there are significant calls for rebalancing growth and development. Prime Minister Lee has said these improvements are integral to Singapore’s success in its “new phase of development.”
Q4: Will the changes impact Singapore’s foreign policy and competiveness?
A4: Expect a very high degree of continuity in foreign policy and international economic engagement. Singapore has managed both of these portfolios very well, and they are not the focus of the push for evolution in domestic politics. However, the appearance of new faces and women in the leadership ranks of the Singaporean government should help the country in its mid- and long-term engagement with other countries. A balanced Singapore is important to a strong Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The new batch of young ministers represents Singapore’s fourth generation of leaders. Their distinguished political acumen and diversified portfolios should empower them to offer fresh approaches and help the PAP connect with a more politically active electorate that wants the government to give it more room to think and contribute to the country’s governance. Through its investment in education, technology, and engagement, Singapore should now be able to harvest solid returns from its young leaders, who could bring innovation and alignment to the strong foundation built by former leaders Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong.
Ernest Z. Bower is senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Trang Anh Do is a researcher with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.