By Andrew Loh
The recent appointment of former Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Wong Kan Seng as Special Advisor for Economic Co-operation is the latest in what is a curious phenomena in Singapore — the role of advisors in government, particularly the appointments of former Cabinet ministers to such roles.
Wong, who stepped down from the Cabinet in May following the general election, is now tasked with advising the prime minister "on economic co-operation programmes with China and other Asian countries."
He is the second economic advisor to the prime minister, the other being Philip Yeo, who is perhaps best known for his former chairmanships of the Economic Development Board (EDB) and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR).
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, besides being the head of government, also wears several other hats, notably as chairman of the Government Investment Corporation of Singapore (GIC) and the People's Association (PA).
At the GIC, PM Lee is the chairman, taking over from former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew this year. The senior Lee is now Special Advisor to PM Lee there.
PM Lee is not the only senior minister in government who has advisors, however. Deputy PM and Finance and Manpower Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who replaced former Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong as chairman at the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), now has Goh as Senior Advisor to the MAS Board.
Ministers turned into advisors
The role of advisors is nothing new. In Singapore's early days, from 1961 to 1984, Dutch economist Dr Albert Winsemius was advisor to the Singapore government. And perhaps more famously, Lee Kuan Yew, after having stepped down as Prime Minister in 1991, re-emerged as the biggest advisor of them all, with a special title to boot — that of Minister Mentor.
What perhaps raises eyebrows in the present day appointments is the recall of ministers as advisors after their supposed resignation from Cabinet. Granted that the advisory roles are quite different from that of being Cabinet ministers. For one, advisors would not be privy to Cabinet meetings and their advice would be just that — advice, recommendations, suggestions. Nothing binding on the government.
Still, the return of former ministers, especially in advising the prime minister and the deputy prime minister, casts a shadow over the abilities and independence of the incumbent leaders of government. Some have said that this phenomena is indicative of the older former leaders' distrust of the current Cabinet to deal with the many complex issues which Singapore faces.
The role of advisors is not limited to the government itself, evidently.
Over at the PA, where PM Lee also holds the chairmanship of the Board, former Cabinet minister Lim Boon Heng is now "Special Advisor to the chairman of the PA Board". Lim had stepped down as minister in the Cabinet after the May elections.
Singaporeans would also know that Members of Parliament (MP) from the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) are appointed — by the PA — as advisors to its grassroots organisations.
An obvious question critics would ask would be: Why does Mr Lee Hsien Loong need advisers in each of his various roles, from economic policies to the GIC to the PA?
Not only the PM gets advisors
Not to be outdone, the president himself is accorded a Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) which consists of eight members. They are to "advise the President in the exercise of his custodial and discretionary powers. It is obligatory for the President to consult the Council before he vetoes the budgets of the Government and key government-linked bodies and the appointments of government nominees to key posts."
The eight advisers to the president include two former Cabinet ministers — S Dhanabalan and Lim Chee Onn.
The incumbent president is himself a former Cabinet minister and DPM.
What should one make of all this? To be fair, the world has become a much more complex place. What affects one corner of the earth has implications on another. In the past 20 years, especially, the rise of terrorism, the spread of health epidemics, the sudden meltdowns of financial systems, all point to a new era of global connectedness with its accompanying unpredictability. As a result, it is harder to see what is next on the horizon.
One could therefore, quite contrary to what critics may assume (that the presence of former Cabinet ministers in advisory roles is because they are power-hungry and thus would not let go of the reins of government), understand that in such a world, the experience of senior or former statesmen would be useful in helping the country navigate the treacherous waters of today.
Having said that, however, it is important for the current government to show that it is firmly in control and that it is not averse to making decisions which may be against the advice of these former ministers. After all, the results of the general election this year clearly indicated that the electorate wanted a departure from the ways of the past — a past which these former ministers had a huge part in.
Even the prime minister himself admitted and accepted this, in the event declaring it an "epochal" change when he reconfigured his Cabinet which, ironically, included the resignation of these very same former ministers who now return as advisors in various capacities.
"Incidentally, the prime minister's wife, Ho Ching, who chairs the other government investment arm, Temasek Holdings, also has a "special adviser" in Hsieh Fu Hua, the former chief executive officer of the Singapore Exchange.
Hsieh was appointed special advisor to Ho Ching in February 2011. He became executive director and president of Temasek Holdings from August 2010, and resigned just on Wednesday.
Well, at least he is not a former Cabinet minister.
Andrew heads publichouse.sg as Editor-in-Chief. The site tells stories of the community and its people, capturing their many different and diverse aspects in interesting ways.