SINGAPORE: The three 4G ministers thought of as frontrunners to be Singapore's next Prime Minister have all been given new portfolios, in the latest Cabinet reshuffle announced on Friday (Apr 23).
Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing will become Education Minister, taking over from Mr Lawrence Wong, who becomes Finance Minister. Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung will be the next Health Minister, replacing Mr Gan Kim Yong, who takes over as Trade and Industry Minister.
All new appointments will take effect on May 15, after the next Parliament sitting.
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, widely thought to be the next Prime Minister, had announced earlier this month that he is stepping aside as a 4G leader for a younger person to become the future Prime Minister.
Mr Heng will continue as Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies. He will relinquish his portfolio as Finance Minister.
A new Deputy Prime Minister was not announced as part of the reshuffle.
At a press conference announcing Mr Heng's decision earlier this month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong did not rule out the possibility of a 4G minister being appointed as an additional Deputy Prime Minister to gain experience.
Following Mr Heng's announcement, political observers touted Mr Chan, Mr Wong and Mr Ong as possible candidates for the role of Prime Minister in the future.
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Mr Lee said at a press conference on Friday that this round of Cabinet changes will allow the 4G ministers to gain new experience and exposure.
"Most of the 4G ministers have already accumulated experience in a wide range of portfolios," he said.
However, Mr Lee said they have to "get to work quickly", because although Singapore's COVID-19 situation is more stable now, the country is still in the midst of a public health and economic crisis.
"The reshuffle is also an opportunity for them to work together in new capacities, so that they can understand each other better, and strengthen their cohesion as a team," he added.
"This will make the new team readier to take over from me and my older colleagues."
Mr Wong and Mr Ong would have spent less than a year in their current portfolios before being moved on, and Mr Lee acknowledged that these quick movements were "not desirable" and "a bit disruptive" for the ministries.
"Sometimes it is necessary, and then you think very carefully and if it can't be helped, you do it. And next time you'll have to think very carefully again," he said.
"As for how we came to this configuration, it was a result of extensive consultations. I talked to many of the ministers, including DPM Heng, before I settled the moves.
"And then I had to discuss with each of the ministers to make sure that they understood what their new mission was and what the purpose of the deployments was before settling it."
Nevertheless, Mr Lee said he hopes after these adjustments, the two ministers will be able to "settle down for some time".
CHAN CHUN SING
Mr Chan, who alongside Mr Heng makes up the People's Action Party's two assistant secretary-generals, will take over as Education Minister.
The Prime Minister said that Mr Chan has done an "excellent job" getting Singapore's economy back on track and preparing its industries and companies to respond to structural changes in the global economy.
"This has been a major national priority," Mr Lee said.
"Now I am sending him to education, where he will build on the work of previous education ministers, to improve our education system to bring out the best in every child and student, and to develop young Singaporeans for the future.
"Nurturing people is quite different from growing the economy or mobilising unions. I look forward to Chun Sing taking on this fresh responsibility and broadening his experience."
Mr Chan will relinquish his role as deputy chairman of the People's Association. He will be replaced by Culture, Community and Youth Minister Edwin Tong.
After leaving the Singapore Armed Forces as Chief of Army, Mr Chan, 51, was first elected as Member of Parliament (MP) in the 2011 General Election.
The Tanjong Pagar GRC MP has held various portfolios as Minister for Social and Family Development, Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office.
He was also the secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress from 2015 to 2018. He became Trade and Industry Minister in 2018.
Mr Lee said Mr Wong, who has been assisting Mr Heng as Second Minister for Finance since 2016, has the experience and is a "natural fit for the job" as Finance Minister.
"The Ministry of Finance team is otherwise unchanged. Minister Indranee Rajah will support Lawrence as Second Minister," Mr Lee said.
Mr Wong will continue to co-chair the COVID-19 multi-ministry task force, Mr Lee added.
Mr Wong, 48, was also elected as MP in 2011. He had previously helmed the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth before being appointed the Minister for National Development in 2015. He became Education Minister during the most recent Cabinet reshuffle in July last year.
Before entering politics, the former civil servant was principal private secretary to Mr Lee from 2005 to 2008 and chief executive of the Energy Market Authority.
ONG YE KUNG
Mr Ong, 51, will build on the "strong foundation" that current Health Minister Mr Gan has laid in healthcare, Mr Lee said.
"(He will) deal with issues like ageing healthcare infrastructure and healthcare finance. These need our unremitting efforts spanning many health ministers," Mr Lee said.
Mr Ong will also replace Mr Gan as co-chair of the COVID-19 multi-ministry task force, Mr Lee added.
Mr Lee said he expects the new partnership helming the task force to work closely together, ensuring that COVID-19 policies are well-coordinated and "nothing slips through the cracks".
"And that's how the whole Cabinet has to work because people must know that you're working, doing this as part of a team and you're doing your part but at the same time you're covering for one another," he added.
"So that when a problem comes up, we deal with the problem holistically and not just each person, tackling his piece, and leaving gaps in between or overlaps and conflicts between the different ministries."
In 2015, Mr Ong was elected as MP for Sembawang GRC, after which he was appointed Education Minister overseeing higher education and skills, as well as Second Minister for Defence.
In a 2018 Cabinet reshuffle, Mr Ong took over the full education portfolio, including the role of overseeing schools - a role previously held by Mr Ng Chee Meng. He also relinquished the defence portfolio.
Shortly after the 2020 General Election, Mr Ong was appointed Transport Minister, replacing the retired Mr Khaw Boon Wan.
When asked on Friday whether the reshuffle provided greater clarity on 4G leadership succession, Mr Ong said this was a question for the Prime Minister.
"I think as far as we are concerned, (there are) new portfolios, new responsibilities, new opportunities for 4G colleagues to work together," he told reporters on the sidelines of a Land Transport Authority exhibition.
"And as we said earlier, it's a process that will take time, because it's different from, say, the corporate world when you a pick a CEO. Once you pick, the rest move aside or some of them leave the company.
"In our case, we can't afford to do that because we are a team. Give it some time for us to select amongst us a person."
NEW INFECTIONS IN DORMITORY
On the appointment of Mr Ong as co-chair of the COVID-19 task force, Mr Lee said he does not think the change will impact the situation at the Westlite Woodlands dormitory, where 17 workers who had recovered from COVID-19 have tested positive again.
He noted that Second Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng, who will take over Mrs Josephine Teo as Manpower Minister, will be in charge of the dorms.
"It will mean different people in charge of our overall COVID response, but that is something which I think we can take in our stride," he added.
"I should also say that the appointment changes take effect on the 15th of May, which is three weeks from now. And during the next three weeks, I am quite sure that we will be doing a lot in Westlite Woodlands as well as the other dorms."