Inside Cabinet... it's no wayang

By Eugene Wee

ONCE a week, a little corner in the Istana becomes a battleground of sorts. Gladiators come fully charged to fight.

It is a no-holds barred session, with one combatant describing what goes on as "brutal". But when the dust settles, it is not people who live or die.

It is ideas.

Welcome to the pre-Cabinet lunch, an informal gathering of our Cabinet Ministers where they sit down to eat, debate and thrash out differences on important current issues before moving on to the formal Cabinet meeting later in the day.

No issue is taboo, and no opinion is too harsh at this meeting, where topics discussed can range from terrorism to coffee shop toilets.

Speaking to The New Paper earlier this week, Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Dr Vivian Balakrishnan described the sessions as "brutal" and "intense".

"There are no minutes, no records, no one is present except us," he said.

"So that allows us to openly and honestly share and argue and thrash things out among ourselves. And there's no audience, so you don't have to put on a 'wayang' (Malay for performance).

"If there were records and there was someone taking minutes there...then maybe the discussions may not be as freewheeling and as brutal and as open as they can be when you have the security of privacy."

The pre-Cabinet lunch has been a weekly tradition for over 20 years.

Held at the Istana, it was started in the late 1980s by Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who was then the First Deputy Prime Minister.

Robust debate

The robust debate that goes on at this lunch meeting was put in the spotlight earlier this week when Mr Lim Boon Heng became emotional when talking to the media about how the Cabinet was deeply split over whether to set up a casino here.

Mr Lim, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, was responding to a reporter's question on whether there was groupthink among PAP politicians when it came to policy-making.

Giving The New Paper a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on at these pre-Cabinet lunches, Dr Balakrishnan said that when it comes to debating issues, Ministers are very frank when they disagree with each other.

"If I think you are wrong, I will tell you you are wrong," he said.

"I'm not telling you you're wrong because I'm acting or I'm trying to score points. I will have to explain why I think you're wrong, and the others listening will also have to decide."

However, that doesn't mean that the debates become unruly.

"We don't yell at each other," he said.

"But strongly held views are expressed. We're not an excitable bunch.

"But as you can see, there are important issues that we feel passionately about, and sometimes there are emotional issues too.

"That's why the teamwork is so strong. We don't score points with each other, we don't undercut each other, we don't yell at each other, we don't form factions, we don't play favourites...it's a very unique culture."

Labour chief Lim Swee Say said the sessions start with a difference of views so that all the best ideas are thrown up.

"We start with diversity, then we try to build consensus," said Mr Lim, who is also a Minister in the Prime Minister's Office.

"And in the process of trying to build consensus, we try to maximise our common ground, and at the same time, recognise the concern in terms of the differing views."

Dr Balakrishnan remembers the first pre-Cabinet lunch, or precab as it is called, he attended in 2002.

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