Wednesday 7 October 2015

Singapore's Coordinating Ministers: What their role entails

For the first time in Singapore’s political history, there are three Coordinating Ministers in Government. We take a closer look at the role of a Coordinating Minister.
By Imelda Saad, Channel NewsAsia, 4 Oct 2015

For the first time in Singapore’s political history, there are three Coordinating Ministers in Government, which was announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong when he unveiled his new Cabinet on Monday.

In Singapore, the post of Coordinating Minister for Security and Defence was created in 2003, in a time when the world was reeling from the Sep 11 terror attacks in the U.S. The security landscape had changed dramatically, and governments around the world found themselves having to take a hard look at their countries' security.

The post was given to Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam, the current President.

Over the years, Singapore has had four Coordinating Ministers with a focus on the country’s security. The position was renamed as Coordinating Minister for National Security in 2005. All who have held the position are senior, trusted leaders in Government. All had served as Deputy Prime Ministers.

In 2005, the role was taken up by former DPM S Jayakumar. In 2010, former DPM and Home Affairs Minister, Wong Kan Seng, took over the position. Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean is the current Coordinating Minister for National Security.

We spoke to former Cabinet minister S Jayakumar, who shed some light on the work of a Coordinating Minister.

"As to how a Coordinating Minister's role actually works in practice, I think it depends on the individual Coordinating Minister, his style, his personality, his approach, his relationship with the other ministers,” he said.

“For myself, from time to time, I used to have meetings with other ministers. Just the ministers. And periodically meetings with the key officials of the various agencies. The issue is really not with the ministers, because the ministers attend Cabinet meetings. They are fully aware of Prime Minister's objectives and the national interest in the various subjects. The challenge really is to ensure how this translates and percolates down to the various levels of bureaucracy, Permanent Secretaries downwards, the different ministries, statutory boards,” he added.

Some political observers have said that having Coordinating Ministers may create an additional layer of bureaucracy in government. But Prof Jayakumar said it is all about ensuring a whole-of-government approach, when implementing policies.

"I don't see the Coordinating Minister's role as adding layers of bureaucracy,” he said. “It is not intended to micro-manage or look over the shoulder of the minister. Rather, it is to ensure that everybody pulls in the same direction. You see, ministries and agencies instinctively tend to look at matters from their individual mission. That's fine. But they must not lose sight of the overall national interest. That's the job of the Coordinating Minister, to ensure everybody pulls together and more importantly, to ensure there are no gaps that each agency thinks that somebody else is doing or attending to a particular matter.”

Twelve years since the concept of Coordinating Minister was introduced in Singapore politics, two new positions have been created.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has been appointed as Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies and Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan takes on the additional portfolio of Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure.


In announcing the new Cabinet, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said that the concept of Coordinating Minister is not unique to Singapore. Indonesia, for example, has a Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs. It was a position created in 1966 to manage the country's floundering economy back then.

Since then, three other Coordinating Minister positions have been created, covering areas such as Political, Legal and Security Affairs, Human Development and Cultural Affairs, as well as Maritime Affairs.

Said Dr Deasy Simandjuntak, Visiting Fellow, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute: “It actually helps the President quite substantially because when the President would like to see a bigger picture of the impact of a policy implementation, for example, of a certain policy area, he would not need to summon all of the involved ministries. Without the Coordinating Ministry it will be harder to have a synchronised policy and regulation making.”

In Singapore's case, creating the position of Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social policies reinforces the Government’s fundamental principle – that the country’s economic and social policies are very much intertwined.

“Looking at the economic policy, for example, (shows) the need to ensure that Singapore's economy continues to be vibrant; the need to ensure that economic restructuring goes up to speed , particularly in terms of productivity levels and improving the innovation ability of this nation,” said Associate Professor Eugene Tan, School of Law, Singapore Management University.

“So it is really in the end the need for Singapore to remain as a competitive economy. If you look at the social dimension, it is really about looking at the social landscape, whether it's demographics, in terms of the social changes affecting Singapore. How does that impact upon the economic landscape. So if the economy is growing, how do we ensure that we do have sufficient people for the different needs of the economy to be able to service the economy. But bringing in more manpower will also generate social consequences as well.”


With a bird’s eye view on policy, observers said the Coordinating Minister will also be tasked with ensuring that future problems are nipped in the bud.

“When members of the public look back at our performance over the last decade or so, I think they have seen some occasions where they feel that there were some policy missteps, perhaps because ministries or agencies did not communicate as effectively with each other as they could have,” said Dr Walter Theseira, Senior Lecturer at SIM University.

“The most prominent example people can think of is immigration in Singapore and how it seemed as if for a couple of years, our infrastructure hadn't caught up with our rapid increase in population. Our train system, our public transport infrastructure, our housing infrastructure hadn't quite caught up to that.”

“I think one of the reasons why the Prime Minister made this move, to appoint two senior, well trusted, well-recognised ministers in charge of coordination, I think is to assure the public that the ball will not be dropped again,” he added.

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan is seen as "Mr Fix-It", after clearing the backlog of long queues for public housing. He is also credited for stabilising the housing market.

“He is a minister with a vast amount of experience. His most recent position was as Minister of National Development. His role is really to try to make sure that our infrastructure is in place to handle our planned economic growth needs. To make sure that our infrastructure is future-ready. So besides looking at our public transport infrastructure, besides bringing in his MND experience in terms of looking at housing, our hospitals and so on are in place, I suspect he will also be looking a lot at whether Singapore is ready for the economy of the future,” said Dr Theseira.

As policy-making becomes more complex in an increasingly challenging environment, observers said the role of Coordinating Ministers may just become part of Singapore’s governance landscape in the years ahead.

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