Singapore’s delegation to China for top gov meeting reveals much about our future political leadership

20 members in the Cabinet, 8 of them are in Beijing.

By Chan Cheow Pong | February 26, 2017

After much speculation about how Singapore and China relations may be headed for a downturn, the much anticipated top level bilateral cooperation meeting is finally happening in Beijing tomorrow (Feb 27).

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean is leading a high-level delegation to visit China from today (Feb. 26) to Tuesday (Feb. 28), where he will co-chair The Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC) meeting with Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli.

The current level of engagement via the JCBC is unique as it is unlike other bilateral cooperation platforms China has with other countries, including the United States of America.

Given the importance of the meeting, let’s take a closer look at the Singapore delegation that has travelled to Beijing.

According to a Lianhe Zaobao report quoting a press release from the Prime Minister’s Office, this is the list of Ministers and political office-holders:

7 Ministers: Minister for Trade and Industry (Trade) Lim Hng Kiang; Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan; Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu; Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing; Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong; Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng; Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung.

3 Senior Ministers of State: Senior Minister of State, Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources & Ministry of Health Amy Khor; Senior Minister of State, Prime Minister’s Office, Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Ministry of Transport Josephine Teo; Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth & Ministry of Trade and Industry Sim Ann.

1 Minister of State: Minister of State, Ministry of National Development & Ministry of Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon.

1. Singapore-China relations: The changing of guard on the Singapore side is underway.

The bilateral relationship with China is one of our most important diplomatic relationships, hence it is crucial that key members of the 4th generation of leaders and other high potential political office holders are groomed to take over the reins in time to come.

In a way, the rejuvenation of leadership on the Singapore side has already started.

At the Chinese provincial level, there are 7 provincial business councils, that are co-chaired by our emerging 4G leaders and political office holders, together with their Chinese counterparts.

They have been put in charge since Jan 2016 after the formation of the new Cabinet post-GE2015. These councils include:

Guangdong: Co-chairman: Ong Ye Kung
Sichuan: Co-chairman: Ng Chee Meng
Zhejiang: Co-chairman: Sim Ann
Tianjin: Co-chairman: Lawrence Wong; Vice-co-chairman: Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Home Affairs & Ministry of National Development Desmond Lee
Jiangsu: Co-chairman: Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat; Vice-co-chairman: Koh Poh Koon
*Shandong: Co-chairman: Minister of State, Ministry of Manpower Teo Ser Luck
*Liaoning: Co-chairman: Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin

(*There were no changes to the Singapore leadership on the Liaoning and Shandong councils. Tan Chuan-Jin and Teo Ser Luck remained as co-chairmen of their respective councils.)

Except for Heng Swee Keat, Tan Chuan Jin and Teo Ser Luck, four co-chairmans (Ng, Ong, Wong and Sim) of the business councils are part of DPM Teo’s delegation.

2. First-timers at JCBC

For new Ministers identified as key members of the 4G leadership like Ong and Ng, this will be their first time participating in the JCBC meeting in Beijing.

Source: PM Facebook
Source: PM Facebook

(Though for Ong who was the Principal Private Secretary to the Singapore co-chair of the inaugural meeting held in May 2004 in Beijing — then DPM Lee Hsien Loong, there may be a sense of déjà vu.)

But compared some of their colleagues, such as Chan, who is also seen as a key member of the 4G leadership, they have relatively less experience engaging China, and will have much to learn.

Chan is the cabinet member overseeing the third Government-to-Government (G-G) project — The Chongqing Connectivity Initiative (CCI). He will be co-chairing the first Joint Steering Council meeting for the project after its launch in November 2015.

Another junior political office holder to look out for is Koh. He is currently the vice co-chairman of Singapore- Jiangsu Cooperation Council, and was part of PM’s delegation to Chongqing, China in September 2016.

3. More hints about the 4G leadership

If we exclude veterans like Lim Hng Kiang, Vivian Balakrishnan and Grace Fu, the key members of the 4G leadership touted by political observers are all part of the delegation: Chan, Ong, Wong and Ng.

Heng who has recently recovered from a serious stroke suffered last May, is the conspicuous absentee. He is slowly easing himself back to full time work while avoiding work-related travel.

Comparing the JCBC delegation with the delegation of another important visit to the US last August, Chan and Ong are the only two 4G Ministers who have made it on the list for the two high-powered visits.

Both Chan and Ong are 47 years old, and are tipped to shoulder heavier responsibilities in future. They have been involved in key national initiatives such as serving together on the The Committee On The Future Economy (CFE).

As political observers count the number of agreements that will be signed between Singapore and China, looking for signs that Singapore and China relations are fully back on track, all eyes are also on the subtle competitive dynamics on the Singapore side as we renew our leadership.

The search for the next PM is on.

Related articles:

An important China-S’pore event didn’t take place for the 1st time since 2004

S’pore-China’s top level meeting, held annually from 2004-2015, will finally take place in Feb 2017

S’pore-China’s top level meeting will be held in Beijing on Feb 27.

Top photo from MFA

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About Chan Cheow Pong

It took Cheow Pong two decades to recover from the trauma of memorising General Paper essays before he was ready to be an English writer. In between affliction and recovery, he thoroughly enjoyed his time writing in Chinese and doing Chinese translations.

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