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Is the new Cabinet too inexperienced?

Publication Date : 03-08-2012


Is the new Cabinet going to be too inexperienced?

That was my first response to Tuesday's announcement of Singapore's Cabinet changes, which saw two ministries up for a thorough overhaul, a new one created, and two new ministers minted.

Tan Chuan-Jin, the new Acting Minister for Manpower from Aug 1, is 43 years old. Lawrence Wong, the Acting Minister for the new Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) from November, is 39.

Chan Chun Sing, the Acting Minister for Social and Family Development (MSF), a reorganised ministry, is 43.

But some quick work with a calculator shows that, in fact, the average age of the new Cabinet, at 52.1 years, is down only marginally from 53.8 years. The big change took place in May last year, when Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong left the Cabinet, lowering the average age from 59 to 53.

In November 1992, the average age of the Cabinet was 50.3 years.

In age, the new line-up is not appreciably younger.

Of greater concern is the lack of depth of experience in politics and policy-making in relevant domains. The high-flying trio mentioned above have been Members of Parliament for just 14 months.

Political leaders need intellect, integrity and an instinct for the common man (and woman).

The People's Action Party's (PAP's) technocratic leadership is strong on intellect; it has been strong on integrity in the past but cannot be assured of that forever; and as for political instinct, that indefinable grasp of the common man, even party leaders acknowledge that it takes long years of grinding work to hone, and some never quite manage to do so.

New ministers can take a leaf from Lee who, despite coming from a fairly privileged family background, managed to develop an instinct for the common man, through disciplined, constant engagement with ordinary Singaporeans.

He mixed analysis with anecdote - augmenting his voracious reading of reports by personally quizzing everyone he met on their lives, even opening their fridge doors on home visits to see what they were eating.

At a time when so much public angst is expressed over rising income inequality and slowing social mobility, politicians have to work doubly hard to engage and connect with ordinary workers.

Here, it is worth noting that Facebook and social media engagement can help a politician develop an instinct for how netizens might respond to policy. But it does nothing to help a young minister gain insight into what really matters to the average worker in Jurong. That comes from engagement with the working class, and political experience.

Of the 17 men and one woman in the new Cabinet, six or one- third have under two years' experience in Cabinet: Heng Swee Keat, S. Iswaran and Ms Grace Fu, in addition to the three above.

Half or nine have been in Cabinet for under five years: Lui Tuck Yew became Acting Minister in April 2009, Gan Kim Yong in April 2008, and K. Shanmugam was made minister in May 2008.

Consider too that in the Cabinet changes in May last year, 11 out of 14 ministries had new ministers.

There are advantages in fresh brooms sweeping clean of course; and renewal is the essence of any successful political party - the Prime Minister last May said he had set himself the goal of handing over to a new leadership by 2020.

But experience matters. Strong domain knowledge of complex issues like infocommunications or finance or trade or social policy helps keep a ministry and its regulators ahead of industry and social trends. Experience and well- honed political judgment give a politician a sense of how a policy will be received.

So while there might be an imperative to induct fresh blood into the Cabinet, the effect of having a relatively inexperienced Cabinet requires the new team to find ways to work together to minimise potential weaknesses and blind spots. A balance has to be struck between letting new ministers have a free hand and providing guidance for continuity.

Smart ministers will thus turn to more seasoned Cabinet and parliamentary colleagues, permanent secretaries and long-serving staff for advice and counsel.

In addition, ministers and ministries have to break out of vertical silos and forge more horizontal collaboration, either in an oversight or cooperative capacity.

Ministers should be encouraged to routinely cross turf, overstep boundaries and challenge each other's viewpoints. The Cabinet has to become both more collegial and competitive: collegial in working together and competitive in argument and challenges to existing paradigms.

Without such a cut-and-thrust process and the discipline of peer review of policies, there is a significant risk that a Cabinet with so many newbies will stumble badly.

There is an object lesson from arguably the most serious policy and political misstep of the last decade: which was to let the foreign population rise at a pace faster than the nation's infrastructure and its citizens can cope with.

An outsider can only speculate that the failure arose in part because of a silo mindset, with the different arms of government not talking enough to each other. The dots were not connected.

To be fair to the PAP government, it has worked hard since to slow down the flow of foreigners, and tackle the shortages in housing and public transport.

Many issues facing Singapore today are of a cross-sectoral nature that will require much discussion, sharing of information and connecting of the dots. The new Cabinet needs to develop strong networks within and across ministries to work on these.

Two issues confronting Singapore bear highlighting.

The first is the anxiety among a growing group of Singaporeans over an opportunity gap, the sense that the rich and well-connected have a better chance of success in school and at work than the poor with no connections.

Is this just perception or is there some basis for such a view? The issue requires careful, honest analysis. If the problem goes beyond perception, then reviews of policies are called for, in education, community development, housing, finance and manpower, among others.

The second big challenge is the need to improve social safety nets. The existing system premised on individual and family responsibility is under strain when the dependency ratio is shrinking; and when stagnating wages and rising asset prices make it harder for the young to fend for themselves, let alone care for their elderly.

Chan's new MSF has been given the explicit objective of "strengthening families and social safety nets". But it cannot just be MSF's task, since a thorough review requires changes covering manpower, education, health and MCCY, to begin with.

Some have dismissed the Cabinet changes as a public relations exercise. On the opposite end, others think the new Cabinet with younger men from the digital era heralds a new phase of engagement between government and people. All that may be so, but communication and engagement matter only up to a certain extent. Beyond emotional engagement, the substance of policies matters.

On this, it has to be all hands - veteran and newbie - on deck. You can't sell a policy successfully unless it has been properly cooked. And on this, to borrow from that old phrase, more cooks may make for better recipes.


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