Between the pre-election cabinet and the one just announced on 18 May 2011, nine ministers disappeared: Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong, S Jayakumar, Lim Boon Heng, George Yeo, Lim Hwee Hua, Raymond Lim, Mah Bow Tan and Wong Kan Seng.
This demonstrates Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s commitment to reform, some might be quick to say. I reserve judgement.
First of all, how many did he sack? For the record, none. Two were voted out by the residents of Aljunied. The rest retired or resigned. In other words, the departures were not exactly selected by Lee. If they were not selected by him, then how does one conclude that it demonstrates a commitment to reform on his part?
Unless, of course, the statement he made yesterday that Mah, Wong and Raymond Lim had expressed a desire to resign prior to the elections was false, and that in truth they had not wanted to go but was asked to by Lee post-Polling Day. I am aware that there is such speculation going around, but unless Lee says otherwise, the thing to do is to take him at his word, that (a) he did not ask them to go and (b) he therefore cannot claim credit for their going.
People quit for all sorts of reasons. One possibility might be that some of them were truly sick of political infighting within the People’s Action Party (PAP). Another might be that they felt so humiliated by the vote swing against them, they didn’t think they should stay. A third could be that Lee has started thinking about cutting ministerial salaries (Yes, I continue to hope) and they don’t want to be seen leaving after salaries have been cut — they would look so mercenary — they feel it better to leave now. And the fourth? Maybe they got slapped.
The one move Lee can definitely take credit for is the sort-of demotion of Vivian Balakrishnan. Moving him to the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) from his Olympian perch at the Ministry of Community, Youth and Sports is — forgive the repetitive use of the word — a slap in the face. MEWR is generally regarded as the least prestigious ministry; it is certainly no heavyweight ministry like Finance, Defence or Education. Frankly, I would have liked Balakrishnan to be out of the cabinet altogether and given a learning opportunity as the government’s Outreach Ambassador for Making Amends to the Gay Community — now, that would really demonstrate reforming intent — but a sort-of demotion is a consolation of a kind. The guy who engaged in homophobic slime-ball gutter politics now is in charge of cleaning out slime from gutters, drains and sewers.
Yet, in the end, that’s just my point. Even Balakrishnan was not chucked out. Lee has not chucked out anyone. What he instead did was to rubber-stamp a mass exodus.
Second, even if Lee was liberal with the truth and did push Wong, Mah and Raymond Lim out, letting a few heads roll is not reform. Quite often in politics, it is used as a substitute for true reform. Such sacrifices satisfy the public baying for blood, but once that baying is appeased, governments often hope to be able to get back to politics-as-usual.
Is this the case here? I don’t know. As I said, let’s reserve judgement.
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As I argued recently, true demonstration of reforming intent should take the form of announcing new Key Performance Indicators (KPI). One of the two root causes of the present malaise in the social compact between the government and the people is the extremely narrow focus on overall economic growth. We worship the god of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), together with two demigods: trickle-down economics and the politics of crisis.
The demigods ensured that even when we saw the adverse consequences of over-fixation with GDP growth, the government excused itself from taking sufficient corrective action. The demigod of trickle-down economics gave them unerring faith that whatever problems arose, they were self-correcting. Perhaps the occasional band-aid might be necessary to salve the loudest cries for help, but no systemic change was necessary. . . because the good life would eventually trickle down. The demigod of the politics of crisis gave justification to the view that Singapore and Singaporeans ought to stoically bear the pain in the name of survival. Anyone who cried out for help was an undeserving wimp.
The other root cause was the PAP’s belief that they were the anointed priesthood who mediated between the masses and the god of GDP. This belief in their priestly status then moulded their behaviour towards the masses, creating for example the mindset that accountability is for them to define and regulate, not for the lower orders to demand. I don’t need to elaborate, I’m sure.
From these core beliefs flowed, quite rationally, a whole set of policies with respect to seeking foreign investment, talent, price signals, labour as a factor of production, the marshalling of private savings for public goods (better yet, the sequestering of private savings into locked state reserves), and not least, the suspension of human rights and civil liberties. The collateral damage inflicted on individuals and the social and physical environment were there for all to see, but so long as the belief in the god of GDP held, seeing did not impel action.
This is not to say that GDP growth is not important. It is an enabler of many things, but we must remember that it is not a provider of everything.
So what would “reform” mean? It must necessarily mean the renunciation of this set of beliefs, and the adoption of a whole new model for what Singapore is about. It should begin thus: We are a society. We are not an economic machine. Reform must include a drawing up a whole new set of KPIs, among which, as I have mentioned before, should be a Gini Coefficient of Household Income that is under 40, in line with Western European countries. We should also have other measures pertaining to health, family life, human rights, artistic creativity (one of the best indicators of cultural vibrancy), etc.
And so, I wait for Lee to convince me by announcing new KPIs for his administration.
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Success at reform always depends on getting the right people to carry it out. Right now, there is some hopefulness because Tharman Shanmugaratnam, considered one of the most liberal ministers, at least on social issues, has been promoted to Deputy Prime Minister with responsibility for coordinating inter-ministerial economic and social policies. But one man cannot carry the day, especially when among the remaining ministers several may still be hardliners.
There are also some ministers whose competence has been widely questioned. Vivian Balakrishnan has been mentioned, but let’s not forget Lui Tuck Yew (formerly Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts, now Minister for Transport) and Gan Kim Yong (formerly Minister for Manpower, now Minister for Health).
Of the new inductees, the most prominent one is the Prince of Lanfang, Chan Chun Sing (right), so called because in his first election speech, he made a thoroughly quixotic reference to an obscure Hakka Chinese community in Kalimantan, in order to make a (laughably bad, overstretched) point about the need for prioritising Defence. If his Emotional Quotient and people skills are anything like that choice of election speech topic , then I have no reason to feel confident. I’d have given him better marks if he had spoken about UFOs; at least it would have entertained the audience more.
The problem for the PAP is that in the run-up to the election, they were focussed on renewal. As Terence Chong said in a note he placed on his Facebook profile, Renewal and Reform, there is a risk that “PM Lee may conflate renewal with reform”.
When they were deciding on their new candidates, the party was looking for renewal, not reform. That suggests that they were looking for young blood that would be more or less made of the same stuff that the older ministers and members of parliament were made of. To replace them.
Now, they discover that the catchword is reform. But they had not really been looking for reformists. It’s as if they had spent all their time recruiting engineers only to find that they now need doctors. For the next five years.
To say that I reserve judgement is being very kind. It may well be more optimistic than I ought to be.