SINGAPORE: The practice of setting up special ministerial committees, like the one set up to consider the future of the late Lee Kuan Yew's Oxley Road home, is how the Government ensures that important issues are given in-depth attention, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said on Thursday (Jun 22).
In a Facebook post, Mr Tharman said the committees ensure that the Government is not one that "operates in silos" and that national interest prevails, even when there are valid private interests.
At the centre of the dispute among Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his siblings is the removal and subsequent re-insertion of a clause in their late father's will, stating his wish that the Oxley Road house be demolished after his death.
In an opinion piece, The Straits Times' editor-at-large, Han Fook Kwang, questioned Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean's decision to set up a ministerial committee, asking if there was a need for Cabinet ministers to get involved in the dispute.
In his response, Mr Teo asserted that the Government of the day had to be responsible for making a decision on the Oxley Road property.
Echoing this, Mr Tharman said in his Facebook post on Thursday: "It’s how we ensure that important issues are given in-depth attention, and the options are weighed up by the Ministers closer to the issue, before Cabinet makes its decisions and takes collective responsibility.
"And it’s how we ensure that we are not a Government that operates in silos, that the national interest prevails even when there are valid sectoral or private interests, and that the long view prevails over the short view wherever possible."
Mr Tharman acknowledged that this was "a challenge in governance that will never disappear", as well as one faced everywhere in the world.
"We have never got it perfect in Singapore, and let’s be frank, we’ve had our share of policies that have turned out quite wrong at different points in our history.
"But we have a system of preserving the rule of law, and of policy-making that balances public against private interests, and the long term against the short term, that’s still a rarity in the world - and is at the core of how Singapore has succeeded," he said.
SYSTEM OF GOVERNANCE BUILT BY LEE KUAN YEW'S TEAM "ISN'T GOING AWAY"
Mr Tharman noted that such a system of policy-making began with the foundation that Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his team built, which continued through government under the leadership of Mr Goh Chok Tong and Mr Lee Hsien Loong and their teams.
Elaborating on the practice of setting up ministerial committees, Mr Tharman said the Government had such committees on "a whole range of issues".
"We in fact do this often - setting up special committees comprising a group of Ministers. We started the practice many years ago, and it has evolved," he said.
"(The committees) help us think through difficult choices in Government before they come to Cabinet, and to canvas views outside when appropriate," Mr Tharman said, noting that he chaired several committees as well.
Some ministerial committees might sit for just a few months, Mr Tharman said, adding that this was because the problems could be sorted out quickly. He also pointed out that there were committees - such as those on foreign worker policies, and funding healthcare and retirement needs - that had to stay engaged for years.
He cited the ministerial committee on Changi East developments as an example of a longer-term committee. It is tasked with coordinating plans for the airport expansion, its manpower and security needs, the relocation of Paya Lebar Airbase, industrial opportunities, land transport provisions, and housing development. "It brings several ministers together, supported by their civil servants, to find the best balance between different demands and plan our options for 10, 30 and 50 years ahead. That’s how long-term our planning has to be."
"So have confidence, no matter today’s sad dispute," Mr Tharman said.
"We have a system of governance that Lee Kuan Yew and his team built, and it isn’t going away. You can count on PM Lee Hsien Loong and all of us in his team for that. You can count on the fourth-generation leaders to keep to a system that upholds the laws of the land, prioritises the common good and looks to the long term. Never thinking Government has got everything right, but always wanting to do right for Singapore. And count on Singaporeans to ensure Government sticks to those principles - and to play our part collectively to keep Singapore united and inclusive."