2022 Cabinet Changes: Extensive reshuffle or routine change?

A look at the upcoming reshuffle.

Eugene KB Tan | June 02, 2022, 08:48 PM

COMMENT: Will the upcoming Cabinet Reshuffle have significant developments or will it be largely business as usual?

Eugene K B Tan, is an Associate Professor of Law at the Singapore Management University's Yong Pung How School of Law and a former Nominated Member of Parliament. He gives us his thoughts at the upcoming reshuffle of the Cabinet of the Singapore Government.

  • How will DPM Heng Swee Keat's role evolve?
  • Will the 3G ministers move on?
  • Who among the new blood will get a bigger role?

Will Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong opt for a comprehensive reshuffle or incremental change in the upcoming changes to his Cabinet? Slightly more than three years remain to the current government’s term.

We can expect some significant changes but they are unlikely to amount to a comprehensive reshuffle. One probable significant change would be Finance Minister Lawrence Wong’s promotion to Deputy Prime Minister (DPM). It was announced last month that Wong was picked by his peers as the leader of the People’s Action Party (PAP)’s fourth-generation (4G) leadership, which paves the way for him to be the country’s next prime minister.

Political observers will keep a close eye on how DPM Heng Swee Keat's role will evolve in the 4G team. He remains a key 4G leader and still has much to contribute given his vast public sector experience, deep expertise, and steadfast commitment to serving the nation.

Heng had announced in April last year that he was stepping aside as the leader of the 4G team. He would not have a “sufficiently long runway” to master the demands of the job given that he would be close to his mid-60s by the time the Covid-19 pandemic is over.

Now that the PAP leaders have decided on Wong, there may be the imperative to focus on Wong as the first among equals in the 4G team. Wong could be appointed Acting Prime Minister in the Prime Minister’s absence.

Heng’s decision to step aside precipitated a slew of extensive changes in the last Cabinet reshuffle in May 2021, which came less than a year after PM Lee had formed his Cabinet shortly after the July 2020 general election.

Then, seven ministers switched portfolios resulting in about half of the 15 ministries having new ministers. These seven ministers are likely to continue leading their Ministries:

  • Communications and Information
  • Education
  • Finance
  • Health
  • Manpower
  • Trade and Industry
  • Transport

The security portfolios could see changes at the top. Ng Eng Hen has ably helmed the Defence Ministry since 2011 and was Second Minister between 2005 and 2011. Home Affairs is another where K Shanmugam has held office there since 2015 (and a short stint in 2010-11) and was Second Minister between 2008 and 2010. Shanmugam has also held the fort at the Law Ministry since 2008 when he was first appointed to the Cabinet.

Should Shanmugam and Ng continue in their respective ministries, it is likely that a 4G minister could be appointed as Second Minister in Defence and in Home Affairs, with a view to their succeeding the incumbents. Josephine Teo and Edwin Tong are the incumbent Second Minister for Home Affairs and Law respectively.

Retirement of Cabinet Ministers cannot be excluded but it is unlikely. Retirements are more common when the Cabinet is first formed after a general election or mid-way through the term of government.

While the domestic pandemic situation has improved significantly, PM Lee’s preference is likely to have his Government continue having the benefit of steady hands and deep experience in 3G leaders such as Senior Ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, as well as that of Ng and Shanmugam. This combination of younger and older leaders provide a reassuring ballast in governance as Singapore navigates the post-pandemic world and charts her next phase of development.

The next general election, which must be held latest in November 2025, promises to be a watershed one with the final chapter in the changing of the guard. Even as political renewal is in an advanced stage, the PAP government will want to emphasise change amid continuity and also capitalise on younger 4G and fifth-generation (5G) leaders coming to the fore with their own style of political engagement and mobilisation.

Promotions are also typical of Cabinet changes. On this front, women political appointment holders will likely feature prominently. They include Minister of State Sun Xueling and Parliamentary Secretary Rahayu Mahzam, who with Minister of State Low Yen Ling, successfully co-chaired the Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development. In this regard, would any of the seven senior ministers of state be made Cabinet ministers?

Indranee Rajah may also helm a Ministry. She is currently Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, Second Minister for Finance and National Development, in addition to being the Leader of the House and assisting Senior Minister Teo on population matters.

The imminent round of Cabinet changes may also draw attention to the younger political office holders who were first elected into Parliament in the July 2020 general election. They are Parliamentary Secretary Eric Chua, Ministers of State Gan Siow Huang, Alvin Tan, Desmond Tan, and Tan Kiat How. Would any of them be promoted?

PM Lee is also likely to appoint first-time office holders from the ranks of the backbenchers as part of the routine process of blooding new blood and challenging them with new and heavier responsibilities. Cabinet changes may also include changes to concurrent appointments where office holders are assigned responsibility to issues such as population matters, Smart Nation and cyber-security, and the Public Service.

The main task in this last lap in the political transition is to ensure that the 4G team is collectively and adequately exposed to the various facets of government and to have the leaders think intuitively across portfolio silos. Many big issues today—such as climate change, social mobility, population—cut across various Ministries and a holistic whole-of-Government policy approach is vital and necessary.

Unlike last year’s Cabinet reshuffle where much of the public focus was on sizing up the Cabinet changes for clues and hints on the 4G leader likely to succeed PM Lee, this year’s Cabinet reshuffle will likely be low profile. It will continue PM Lee’s knack for enterprising and intriguing appointments while also ensuring that the Cabinet continues to develop the depth and width in policy nous and, crucially, the ability to rally Singaporeans in more challenging times.

Every appointment must strengthen the Cabinet line-up to enhance government leadership, performance, and outcomes in addressing Singapore’s priorities and challenges. We can expect the accent on Cabinet changes going forward to be on the 4G ministers having a free hand to rethink and reshape policies to better serve Singapore and Singaporeans.

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Top image from PMO YouTube.