Trimmer, slimmer, leaner Cabinet: analyst

A veteran journalist and political analyst believes Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong's decision to step down from Cabinet is just the beginning.

PN Balji, who is the director of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and former editor-in-chief of Today newspaper told Yahoo! Singapore that he expects other older ministers to follow in MM Lee's and SM Goh's footsteps.

"We are going to see a trimmer, slimmer and leaner Cabinet," predicted the 62-year-old former deputy editor of The Straits Times.

Compared to the US which has 17 full ministers, Singapore is "over-sized" with 21 full ministers, he noted.

Besides MM Lee and SM Goh, Deputy Prime Minister S. Jayakumar, Foreign Minister George Yeo and Ministers in the Prime Minister's Office Lim Boon Heng and Lim Hwee Hua will also be exiting politics and will also not be part of the new Cabinet, expected to announced in the coming week.

Of the current batch, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng, 65, and National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan, 62, are the oldest Cabinet Ministers left.

Balji said the decision to give PM Lee and his team a fresh slate to connect with younger Singaporeans is an "indirect admission that MM and SM have not helped PM's drive to engage the younger voters."

"Their statements during the campaign showed that they have lost touch with the ground and had actually contributed to the worse electoral performance of the PAP," he said.

The People's Action Party saw their share of valid vote drop by 6.5 percentage points to 60.1 per cent this General Election.

However, Balji still expects MM Lee and SM Goh will be "given some kind of role", with one possibility being in the area of foreign affairs where both politicians can fill part of the vacuum left by the impending departure of Foreign Minister George Yeo.

"Both are well known to world leaders and have been useful to open doors for businesses. Also, they can be used to feel the pulse of the important players in the world," he said.

Other political analysts Yahoo! Singapore spoke to said MM Lee and SM Goh's announcement marks a "new dawn" for Singapore.

Political commentator and law lecturer at the Singapore Management University Eugene Tan said, "The news suggests that a new dawn in our political landscape awaits us."

Reacting to the news of Singapore's two most senior political leaders' retirement from the Cabinet, he said that this will now give Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong a free hand in deciding on the new Cabinet line-up.

"There will be a period of adjustment as we transition to a new reality," said Tan. "One can say that PM Lee is now fully in charge and fully accountable."

He said this move is a recognition of the "resentment and unhappiness across broad swathes of Singapore society to the PAP government".

The presence of the two senior leaders could "image-wise, invariably reinforce the view that the party and government may be out of touch", said Tan. By stepping aside, they allow for a new Cabinet "not cramped by (their) political style".

"The systems, processes and policies of government are robustly in place and well-established. Their departure will reinforce the belief that the system in Singapore is institution-based rather than personality-based," he said.

"It also demonstrates that Singapore is confident enough to proceed forth without hanging on to the past," he added.

Independent scholar Derek da Cunha added, "Like many others, I had thought, given his age, there was a good possibility Mr Lee would not run in this last election. His decision to run therefore came as a surprise."

"Now a week after the election, that both Mr Lee and Mr Goh have indicated they no longer want to serve in Cabinet is an even bigger surprise," he said.

Dr da Cunha noted, "one of the main roles of ministers is to anchor home a GRC to victory". After they have done so, the decision to remain in Cabinet depends on various considerations, including whether they wish to do so.

"The Prime Minister now has an opportunity to inject fresh blood into the Cabinet," said Dr da Cunha, highlighting the possibility that one or two individuals may move from the backbenches straight into Cabinet.

"The Prime Minister has already indicated he is not averse to such a move when in 2008 he took Mr K Shanmugam (Minister for Home Affairs & Minister for Law) straight from the backbenches and made him a full Cabinet minister," he pointed out.

Dr da Cunha added, "Even with Mr Lee's departure from Cabinet, he has such a stature that his voice cannot be ignored."

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