Tan Chuan-jin’s demotion – “from Cabinet to Speaker-Plus can be an upgrade”?

Tan Chuan-jin’s demotion – “from Cabinet to Speaker-Plus can be an upgrade”?
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Opinion Editor of the Straits Times, Chua Mui Hoong, has made a desperate attempt at salvaging some dignity for Tan Chuan-jin, newly demoted Cabinet Minister.

Mr Tan is being nominated by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for the Speaker of Parliament role. This comes after the last Speaker, Halimah Yacob, stepped down to contest the elected President position in September’s election.

Ms Chua, in a piece published in the newspaper on Saturday, argued – curiously – that Mr Tan’s removal from Cabinet could be seen “from the lens of a society in the throes of disruption.”

“As digital transformations turn old industries upside down and threaten most of our jobs, surely our politics too must change, and our assumptions alongside,” Ms Chua said.

Then she goes on to argue why Mr Tan’s demotion “can be viewed as an opportunity for Mr Tan, for the government, and for all of us to reframe our views of politics in Singapore.”

For example, she says “Cabinet should be seen as a flow-through position, not a one-way street.”

“It’s going to get tougher to persuade very capable, very successful career people to enter politics, and to take up a Cabinet post. The stakes are even higher if citizens all see becoming a Cabinet Minister as the acme of professional success. If we see things that way, then anyone who leaves Cabinet is viewed askance as a failure.”

She gives, as examples, George Yeo, Raymond Lim and Lui Tuck Yew, all Cabinet ministers who left government (for one reason or other) and has gone on to other things.

Ms Chua concludes:

“In this disrupted world of rapid change, Singapore needs a more fluid system of political leadership. It’s better for people to go into and out of Cabinet, then to be stuck with Cabinet ministers appointed in their 40s who then stay there for the next two to three decades.”

She added that “moving Mr Tan from Cabinet minister to Speaker… does not put him out of the core of the fourth-generation of new leaders.”

“On the contrary, it presents an opportunity for us all to redefine the kind of political leadership we need to take Singapore forward, into one where we stop seeing the Cabinet as the political acme and core of public life,” the Opinion Editor argued.

It is a good effort by Ms Chua to spin a demotion into something more face-saving for a Cabinet Minister who, as is obvious to anyone, is being demoted.

As many have said, you can’t move someone from one post to another, with a hefty 50% cut in salary, and not see this as a demotion.

For example, if Ms Chua is moved from her Opinion Editor post to another department in the Straits Times, with lesser responsiblities and with a 50% pay cut, would she be singing the same tune about “disruption”?

One suspects not.

And come on, being out of Cabinet is more than just an unfortunate thing. Being out of Cabinet, as any current or former Cabinet minister will tell you, means you are out of the loop on things, out of the very heart of what makes the nation tick.

For anyone who would be Prime Minister, the highest and most important executive position in the nation, to be out of the very nerve centre of the nation is to be completely out of touch. Period.

How does one lead then?

It is nonsense, and shows a complete lack of understanding of how government works, to say that Mr Tan – excised from the nerve centre – will still be considered for the role of Prime Minister by his party.

Mr Tan will not only be detached from the decision- and policy-making core of the Government, he will also not be able to build his network of political influence and control.

And to not be at the helm of a ministry is to also not be involved in the nuts and bolts of governance, which gives one the exclusive experience of governing.

Without being put through the rigour of such a system, how does Ms Chua expect Mr Tan to convince his party that he is their best choice to be the next Prime Minister, or to even be at the “core of the fourth-generation of new leaders”, as Ms Chua put it?

None of his Cabinet colleagues has even congratulated him on his appointment as Speaker!

So, let’s not spin this into something it is not.

Mr Tan, by all accounts, was a dedicated minister who has a heart for the less fortunate. It is unfortunate that he is being removed from the Ministry of Social and Family Development. Only the Prime Minister and those in Cabinet will know the real reason (if any) why he is being reassigned elsewhere, out of the nerve centre of government.

Having said that, Mr Tan does have an opportunity – as indeed he had as minister – to shine a spotlight on the less fortunate. Let’s hope that he will not next be shut up in continuing to do so.