Commentary: How COVID-19 shaped this Singapore Cabinet line-up
More medical expertise to bolster the Health and Manpower ministries, coupled with experience in communications in engagement-related ministries, can address perception gaps about the Singapore Government’s management of COVID-19, says Gillian Koh.
SINGAPORE: Singapore's leadership renewal continues apace but the management of the health and economic crises arising from the COVID-19 pandemic is top priority.
This is the message of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Cabinet line-up announced 15 days after Singapore’s most recent General Election.
Younger and newer leaders must take this time to prove their mettle not just to their ministerial mentors but also to a Singapore public that has now been exposed to robust debates - fair, accurate or otherwise - led by the opposition parties during the campaigning period on how the country has dealt with the severe impact of the pandemic.
BOLSTERING THE HEALTH AND MANPOWER MINISTRIES
Mr Lee said he has kept the status quo in ministries and the multi-ministry taskforce directly involved in addressing this “crisis of a generation” – something he would have done irrespective of opposition charges during the election.
He has also boosted their capacity to develop better policies and programmes on the ground. These moves also address important perception gaps that emerged in the hustings.
Two medical practitioners - Dr Koh Poh Koon and Dr Janil Puthucheary - have been introduced into the team at the Ministry of Health (replacing the one, Dr Lam Pin Min, from the previous Cabinet). Dr Tan See Leng will join the team at the Ministry of Manpower.
Bear in mind that this is a Cabinet comprising six doctors before the General Election, and now stands at five post-election. They are, as before, supported by the medical specialists in the public health system, led by the Health Ministry's Director of Medical Services Kenneth Mak.
When Mr Lee explained his rationale for rotating the junior ministers, he said he expected Cabinet colleagues to be able to bring in their perspectives and expertise on issues. This reinforced a point he had made on numerous occasions before that the Cabinet plays as a team, with individual members bringing their past and professional experience to bear in decision-making.
It will be up to the multi-ministry taskforce, strengthened with political office holders with healthcare expertise, to demonstrate that the Singapore response is well-considered with the best prevailing medical advice and balanced out to meet competing national demands especially of preserving livelihoods.
This comes amid allegations made by the opposition Singapore Democratic Party that Government decisions on COVID-19 lacked medical input, especially the falsehood that MOM had discouraged employers from testing. Though this was swiftly refuted with an official correction such charges could chip away at public trust in the Government.
With a grasp of the implications of these new Cabinet moves, it will be difficult to argue that medical expertise and the Hippocratic ethos have been left out from the Government’s approach to the crisis.
NEED FOR STRONGER COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH
This speaks to a second, and perhaps even more critical, aspect to the management of the crisis than continuity – communications and connection between the Government and the public.
This Cabinet will have to address arguments that the fourth generation (4G) leaders had mishandled the COVID-19 crisis and put political considerations and desire to showcase their abilities ahead of scientific and healthcare considerations.
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In that regard, the three new recruits into Cabinet with background in communications may be an asset if they can indeed work together and help explain how Government functions especially during these difficult times.
Mr Tan Kiat How, former head of the Infocommunications Media Development Authority (IMDA), will head up the Government feedback unit Reach. Former Facebook and LinkedIn executive Alvin Tan and former SGSecure Programme Office head Eric Chua will be in the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth that facilitates citizen engagement with young Singaporeans.
They should lend themselves to efforts at the Ministry of Communications and Information, which has another medical practitioner, Dr Janil Puthucheary, as Senior Minister of State to set out the evidence that the evolving scientific knowledge, as well as public health considerations, have been critical in shaping a sustainable response to the pandemic.
Revealing how the Government makes its decisions, not just at the operational and tactical levels but also at the strategic level, and offering perspectives from the National Centre for Infectious Diseases and hospitals managing the outbreak right up to Cabinet, will further reinforce the level of public trust in its decision-making.
In this, the Government can afford to give greater insight into how recent decisions were arrived at to preempt concerns.
For example, is it possible to provide more details in the types of policy negotiations that have transpired between Singapore with other countries and multilateral organisations to moderate the international community’s current “high risk” assessment of Singapore? And how bilateral negotiations in facilitating green channels and cross-border travel are being conducted?
This was another theme in the opposition Progress Singapore Party’s (PSP) criticism of the Government’s management of infections in foreign worker dormitories - its negligence in one area of risk, namely foreign worker infections, meant Singapore has had to suffer universal travel bans and the economic ramifications.
It is stunning to realise, then, that while the absolute number of infections in Singapore just breached the 50,000 number on Sunday (Jul 26), infections among the non-foreign worker population actually stands at a fraction.
More importantly, the fact that all foreign workers are being tested, treated and segmented to keep well must make a difference in local as well as international perceptions of Singapore's response.
Again, the re-opening of the border with Malaysia has just been agreed upon but there is certainly much to explain and understand about how the management of risk, considerations of business continuity, sustaining livelihoods as well as the goodwill on both sides of the Causeway have contributed to this breakthrough.
NO CHANGE IN LEADERSHIP TRANSITION
Aside from the strengthening of the Government’s policy orientation and engagement efforts, this new Cabinet line-up also sends a strong signal of continuity in the leadership transition journey.
It was notable that there remains one Deputy Prime Minister in Mr Heng Swee Keat, who is also Finance Minister.
Looking at how the People's Action Party's (PAP East Coast Group Representation Constituency (GRC) fared, some speculated the 53.41 per cent of the votes polled by the team, anchored by Mr Heng, might have wounded him politically. Others said he “rescued” East Coast from falling to the competing Workers’ Party.
However, because he is still the only DPM, this signals that he is still the person to succeed Mr Lee as was the case before the election, even if the handover is likely to be delayed until the pandemic is neutralised.
This was reiterated a day after the announcement of the Cabinet line-up. Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan, who is considered within the same leadership cohort as DPM Heng, said there was complete and absolute unity behind Mr Heng’s leadership among the 4G leaders, laying to rest a reopening of the succession question.
GREATER DIVERSITY, MORE FOCUS ON GROOMING FUTURE LEADERS
This Cabinet has also showcased greater diversity in Singapore’s national leadership, with nine women, or about a quarter of the 37 positions. There are also five Malays, of whom two are full ministers, and six Indians, five of whom are full ministers. Of the 13 new PAP MPs from the private sector, two have been brought into Cabinet – Dr Tan and Mr Alvin Tan.
The final feature is this: Several GRCs in the East - East Coast, Marine Parade and Pasir Ris-Punggol - now see up to three political office-holders in the team. WP has contested in the first two seriously, so these shifts should shore up the PAP position in these wards.
The pace of leadership development seems slower in other parts of Singapore. There are just two members of Cabinet in the Jurong, Chua Chu Kang, Marsiling-Yew Tee and Nee Soon GRCs.
But there is time, with more reshuffles expected ahead, to promote good performers in the junior ranks in those parts of the island, bearing in mind that the opposition parties such as PSP are not standing still either in this dynamic, interactive quest of securing political dominance.
The next development to watch then is the PAP’s election of its Central Executive Committee due at the end of the year.
Dr Gillian Koh is Deputy Director (Research) and Senior Research Fellow in the Governance and Economy Department at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore.