It seems apparent from the reshuffle that the post-Lee generation of leaders will probably be spearheaded by several from the 2011 batch of freshmen MPs, who have been judged by the powers-that-be to possess more promise than their predecessors in the 2006 batch. Compared with the latter, more of the 2011 freshmen will now be helming their own ministries: Tan Chuan-Jin (Manpower Ministry) and Lawrence Wong (the new Culture, Community and Youth Ministry) will be joining Chan Chun Sing (the renamed Social and Family Development) and Heng Swee Keat (Education Ministry) as de facto full ministers, while of the 2006 batch only Lui Tuck Yew (Transport Ministry) and Grace Fu (Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office) have comparable stature. There is little surprise about this, given that Messrs Chan, Tan and Wong have been singled out by the powers-that-be for their potential for high office since they were introduced in last year’s polls.
But the emerging shape of the next generation leadership is disheartening in several ways. First, it seems likely to be dominated by ex-soldiers and bureaucrats, like the current leadership. Only two ministers in the present Cabinet – both of whom were from the 2001 batch of MPs – come from the private sector, with the rest having either served in the bureaucracy or in bodies closely associated with the state, such as state-owned companies or the state universities. Few of the 2011 batch of MPs from the private sector, and even fewer of those from the preceding batch, seem marked for high office. While there is little doubt that the next generation of leaders will be well-qualified technocrats, the worry is that the lack of diversity could promote groupthink and dull the leadership’s ability to adapt to a fast-changing and manifold nation.
The second questionable aspect is the perennially patriarchal tone of the Cabinet. Ms Fu, a two-term MP and only the second woman to be promoted to full ministerial rank in the nation’s history, is nevertheless yet to be given a ministry of her own, though she will play second fiddle in two different ministries. Like her predecessor Lim Hwee Hwa, who was vested with almost identical portfolios in 2009 before she lost her seat in the 2011 polls, Ms Fu’s elevation may inadvertently be read as a tepid attempt at ensuring a more representative Cabinet.
Surely Ms Fu, who performed her duties as a minister of state (and subsequently as a senior minister of state from 2008 onwards) in several key ministries with poise and confidence, has proven that she deserves the opportunity to take the helm of a ministry. Even if she does eventually get the chance, the leadership will continue to be overwhelmingly dominated by men – at this rate, promising female politicians such as Amy Khor and Sim Ann are unlikely to be in line for promotion to full ministerial rank for a long time yet. This seems out of place in a country that has the highest rate of female participation in the workforce in the region and which is supposedly more forward-thinking than most.
Leadership issues aside, the reorganisation of several ministries in the reshuffle is also a mixed bag. The breakup of the sprawling Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, that previously covered a disparate variety of issues, is overdue. Still, it is curious that no ministry will bear the word “Sports” in its name, despite the ostensible efforts of the government to encourage sports in the country. But while the new Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) will take charge of sports, the inclusion of culture and the arts in its portfolio seems incoherent. Arts and culture warrant a dedicated ministry of their own, as they do in most other countries, and lumping them with sports and youth is likely to be taken as another indication of the relative lack of priority accorded to them.
Ironically, while the government has emphasised the need to engage the young as the reason behind establishing the MCCY, the fact is that, given the country’s demographics, in the next decade or so youths are likely to become a shrinking constituency compared with the elderly. It may therefore be time to consider having a dedicated agency which is more ostensibly focused on elderly issues. Taking the helm of such an agency might be a good proving ground for one of the aspiring next generation leaders. After all, the forthcoming demographic reality will perhaps be one of the most important issues that the post-Lee leadership will have to deal with.