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Inside Cabinet... it's no wayang

What goes on at pre-Cabinet meetings? Dr Vivian Balakrishnan described the sessions as "brutal" and "intense". -TNP

Mon, Apr 18, 2011
The New Paper

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'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.

He said the issue being discussed at the time was the detention of members of the Jemaah Islamiah terror group here.

"You very quickly wake up," said Dr Balakrishnan, who had joined politics the year before.

"There is serious stuff, there are real decisions and real tough things to be done. So it was a very good political tutorial for newcomers."

Mr Lim remembers the precab sessions where the casino issue was debated.

Speaking to The New Paper, he said the discussions went on for almost a year before a decision was made.

"When the time came to make the decision, we did not have consensus," he said.

PM made decision

"Some ministers said yes, some ministers said no. So PM made the decision because he had to decide. "PM takes both sides very seriously. All of us, at the end of the day, take both sides seriously. It's not a case of one camp wins and one camp loses. We don't see it that way."

Dr Balakrishnan said these examples illustrate that just because all the Ministers belong to the same political party, it doesn't mean that they will expedite and push through every new policy that is thrown up for discussion.

"Remember, the Cabinet does not consist of a bunch of cronies," said Dr Balakrishnan.

"We don't know each other. We don't socialise with each other. We don't go to each other's houses and have drinking sessions.

"All of our social time, if any, is spent with the grassroots, not with each other. So we're all there, individually and collectively with a sense of mission to do the right thing and to do the right thing for the long term for the future of Singapore."

Mr Lim agreed.

"If there is groupthink, then there is no need for precab," he said.

"We don't go to Cabinet to say, 'Yes, boss'. I think we each have something we feel strongly about. And because of that, we speak with conviction. We engage each other, sometimes, in an emotional manner."

But when the final decision is made, the final idea left standing is the one all the Ministers must be behind.

"It's because we've gone through that whole deep dive...and we've heard the pros and the cons," explained Dr Balakrishnan.

"So, to me, this allows us to exercise collective responsibility. Because I know, at the end of this, when we take a decision, I will have to defend your stand, so I better be sure that your stand is right.

"Or I convince you, or you convince me to change to a stand that I can (agree with).

"That's why you don't hear Ministers singing different tunes because we've sorted it out. But it doesn't mean we are all singing the same tune because we don't have any imagination. That's not the case."

'We use precab to throw ideas at one another'

NO TOPIC is too big or too small to be discussed at the pre-Cabinet lunch.

Mr Lim Swee Say said there are high-level issues that are debated at the “precab”, such as the casino issue.

But there are also others, such as whether to upgrade hawker centres and coffee shop toilets.

He said that one of the key purposes of precab is for Ministers to “throw ideas” at one another.

Mr Lim explained: “For example, if I were the Environment Minister and I wanted to upgrade the hawker what I can do is I put up this idea, together with its pros and cons, at precab, and the purpose of going to precab is to seek the view, the input from the other Ministers.

“Those who think it’s a good idea say so, those who don’t say so.

“Then finally, after getting all the input, we as Cabinet Ministers have to decide which relevant ideas to take in and then put everything in a Cabinet memo.

“Then the Cabinet memo will be put up for official approval.”

In the case of hawker centres, the debate led to the Hawker Centres Upgrading Programme (HUP), which was launched in 2001.

“We debated in the Cabinet whether we should or should not make it a policy to preserve our hawker centres as much as we can,” he said.

“Not only to keep them, but to upgrade them so that hawker centres will be a place where Singaporeans will feel comfortable when they sit down and have nice food at affordable prices.”

He said the Ministers debated over whether the upgrading should be done by the private sector before agreeing to put aside $420 million over 10 years for the HUP.

Mr Lim gave another example: The debate that led to the Toilet Upgrading Programme in 2002, which helped coffee shop owners to upgrade their washrooms.

“Many of us use the coffee shop toilet as a public toilet,” he said.

“The toilets were very run down, very dirty. So we said, look, we need to upgrade all these toilets.”

The issue the Ministers grappled with was this – who should pay?

On one hand, the toilets are not technically public toilets because they belong to the coffee shop owners. So it should be the owners who should pay for the upgrading.

On the other hand, it would be unfair for the coffee shop owners to be saddled with the cost because the toilets will be used not only by their customers, but also by members of the public.

Mr Lim said that after they debated the issue, they decided on a middle ground – the Government would pick up 50 per cent of the upgrading tab, subject to a maximum of $5,000 per coffee shop.

Mr Lim explained that “with Sars, we started to realise we do have an interest in public hygiene”. He said coffee shops are the private property of the owners. “But since the toilet is also used by the public, we finally agreed on the 50-50.”

This article was first published in The New Paper.

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