By Ernie Bower
On July 31, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore restructured his government’s ministries and reshuffled his cabinet, revealing important trends to watch as the city-state seeks to evolve its political foundation. Lee made changes in two existing ministries, established a new ministry, and brought new faces into the cabinet, including Grace Fu – only the second woman promoted to the rank of full minister in Singapore’s history.
The moves are part of a process of adjustment following the general elections in May 2011, when the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) received a wake-up call from Singaporean voters who cast a record number of votes for opposition candidates. The changes show that the government is trying to find alignment with Singaporeans as the country strives to maintain its razor sharp competitiveness.
Singaporeans, like other Southeast Asians, are using the ballot box to tell their governments they want a greater voice in governance. In Singapore’s case, the younger generation was the core of the vote for the opposition. They want the government to recognize that its investment in education, technology and globalization has delivered a handsome return – Singaporeans who are very much capable of thinking and chewing gum at the same time.
The restructuring is timely and smart. While it will be criticized by some Singaporeans as too little, it demonstrates a core understanding that political renovation is necessary as Singapore, and indeed the rest of Southeast Asia, undergoes a reorganization of political power as voters assert themselves and the strongly autocratic regimes that dominated the Cold War era cede ground to new polities.
The reorganization of two ministries and the launch of a third address Singapore’s urgent need to reprioritize and focus on increasingly significant issues of society building, youth engagement, and enhancement of the social safety net. Not all Singaporeans have benefited from the incredible growth and globalization of the country, and there are significant calls for re-balancing growth and development. Prime Minister Lee has said these improvements are integral to Singapore’s success in its “new phase of development.”
The new batch of young ministers represents Singapore’s fourth generation of leaders. Their distinguished political acumen and diversified portfolios should empower them to offer fresh approaches and help the PAP connect with a more politically active electorate that wants the government to give it more room to think and contribute to the country’s governance. Through its investment in education, technology, and engagement, Singapore should now be able to harvest solid returns from its young leaders, who could bring innovation and alignment to the strong foundation built by former leaders Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong.
Ernest Z. Bower is senior adviser & director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.
Ernest Bower is senior adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies & codirector of the Pacific Partners Initiative at CSIS.