Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reshuffled his cabinet following an election win earlier this month that saw popular support for the ruling People’s Action Party fall near a record low.
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who is also finance minister, will retain his posts and take on an additional appointment as Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies — a role Lee said Heng already has been carrying out in practice. Lee also named new transport, national development and education ministers.
"I’m renewing the lineup and bringing in fresh blood,” Lee said during a news conference Saturday. "I’m also bringing in fresh faces from the newly elected MPs. They will reinforce my team and offer new ideas and perspectives.”
With a new Cabinet in place, the next government will now turn to key issues such as job stability at a time when the city-state is headed for its worst-ever recession amid the coronavirus pandemic. Gross domestic product plunged an annualized 41.2 percent in the second quarter from the first three months of the year, the biggest quarterly contraction on record, and is expected to shrink 4 percent to 7 percent this year. The government has pledged about 93 billion Singapore dollars ($67 billion) in stimulus, seeking to blunt the economic blow and limit retrenchments.
"One feature of Singapore governments and Cabinets has been the consistency of policy,” said Seng Wun Song, an economist at CIMB Private Banking in Singapore. "It’s always really all about ensuring continuity in polices, and political stability against that backdrop.”
Heng’s performance in the election was among the worst of senior officials who ran, winning 53.4 percent of votes in the group district that he represents with four other members of the legislature. Heng has been tipped to take over as prime minister when Lee steps down, something the premier had said he hoped would happen by the time he turns 70 in 2022.
That timeline could now change as Lee pledged to hand over a country that would have largely recovered from the effects of the pandemic.
"All I can say is I’ll see this through and I’ll hand over in a good shape as soon as possible to the next team and into good hands,” Lee said.
Trade Minister Chan Chun Sing, one of the so-called fourth generation of leaders, said there has been no discussion of changes in the next-generation leadership with the government focused on overcoming the economic challenges, while Lee stressed lingering uncertainties due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The latest Cabinet reshuffle affirms that Heng remains well-poised to take over from Lee as prime minister in due course,” said Eugene Tan, a political commentator and law professor at the Singapore Management University. "It is to enhance his expertise and showcase his leadership in economic policy matters, which any Singapore premier must possess and wield influence on.”
"It will allay concerns and put to rest speculation about Singapore’s leadership succession,” Tan said.
Lawrence Wong, one of the ministers spearheading Singapore’s COVID-19 response, will relinquish his national development ministerial role and be in charge of education. Ong Ye Kung was appointed as the new minister for transport and Desmond Lee will become the minister for national development. Grace Fu was named minister for sustainability and environment.
Six officials were promoted, while there were seven new political office holders. The number of female ministers remains the same — Lee has retained three women in the Cabinet, with two helming their own portfolios. But there are a record six female political office holders covering positions such as senior minister of state, minister of state and parliamentary secretary. That's up from four in the last Cabinet reshuffle in 2019.
"It’s good that he’s continuing to inject fresh blood, so I think it gives people reassurance about the whole process of renewal,” said Selena Ling, head of treasury research and strategy at Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp. in Singapore. "At the same time, because he has also promised that the prime minister, with some of the more senior ministers, will stay on for as long as the virus situation requires, that should lend some sort of comfort and security, at least for the near term.”
The new Cabinet will be sworn in on Monday. Parliament will sit on Aug. 24. Lee said he won’t hold his "traditional” National Day Rally annual policy address this year, and will instead make a "major speech” in parliament.
While the PAP secured more than enough seats to rule by supermajority, analysts say the election amounted to a watershed moment. The opposition Workers’ Party won a record 10 seats, while the PAP — which has ruled Singapore since it became an independent nation in 1965 — saw its share of the popular vote drop to 61.2 percent, lower than the nearly 70 percent it won in the 2015 elections and only slightly more than its all-time low in 2011.
Lee had already hinted at the changes ahead when he spoke after results were announced, saying government policies must reflect the younger generation’s "significantly different life aspirations and priorities” compared with older Singaporeans. He also promised that he and his most senior ministers would take Singapore "safely through the crisis and beyond” before handing over power to the next generation of leaders.