It is one of Singapore's unique features that in institutionalising the careful selection, grooming and mentoring of political leaders, its founding fathers sought to safeguard the nation from disruptive change at the top. Yet that process cannot be taken for granted as it is dependent on the available pool of the right people for the job, their ability to connect with people, and changing demands of the policy environment. While identifying strong ministers for key portfolios is a first-order concern as Singapore must continue to tick smartly as it's expected to, there is also the need to nurture a core group who can take the helm when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his deputies step down in the future. What's different now is a self-imposed deadline of 2020 - a single term to effect top leadership succession, which lends urgency to the People's Action Party's mission of preparing its fourth generation of leaders for key roles.
Against this backdrop, it makes good sense to appoint three coordinating ministers to oversee the critical fields of action: national security, economic and social matters, and infrastructure. This should not be seen as a diminution of the minister's role and an additional layer of bureaucracy that might impede executive agility. Rather, it's an acknowledgement of overlapping spheres of responsibility that come into play when the Government has to act strategically and execute mega projects that must all fit neatly in place if these are to be both effective and sustainable.
In bringing together different ministries and orchestrating efforts, Deputy Prime Ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam and veteran minister Khaw Boon Wan can help to ensure the goals and implications of different policies are well harmonised, and help to manage the dynamics among different agencies. Given the stature of the coordinating ministers, their involvement will give a fillip to the "whole-of-government" approach that has been espoused in recent years to deal with complex challenges.
The restructuring of the Cabinet can be a useful way for coordinating ministers to transfer knowledge, expertise and the benefit of experience to younger leaders. It can also help to signal to citizens, investors and the nation's partners that the steady-as-she-goes approach characteristic of political transition here will not be abandoned in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era. The strategy is to pair assured continuity with fresh thinking.
Importantly, fourth-generation leaders will be able to tap the political experience of their seniors when deliberating the impact of policies on stakeholders, especially the human dimension. As renowned psychologist Daniel Goleman noted, "great leadership works through the emotions" - whether the Cabinet is shaping a strategic vision or mobilising others into action.
This article was first published on October 1, 2015.
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