Cabinet re-organisation hints at government confusion

Vincent Wijeysingha

In a fast-paced world with rapidly changing policy scenarios, Cabinet re-organisations and reshuffles are par for the course. However, yesterday’s announcement from the Prime Minister’s Office hints at incoherence and confusion at the heart of government.

The restructuring of the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) and the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA) into three new ministries to be named Social and Family Development (MSF); Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY); and Communications and Information (MCI) are intended, in the Press Statement released by the PMO yesterday, to strengthen families and enhance the social safety net; foster the arts and sports; build social capital through volunteerism and engage the youth; and improve public communications and engagement, in the age of social media and rapid technological progress.

Are not the current ministries to be abolished already charged with these objectives?

The role of MCYS, as stated on its website, is to build a cohesive and resilient society by fostering socially responsible individuals; inspired and committed youth; strong and stable families; a caring and active community; and a sporting people.

Not much different, it would appear from what is intended in the new MSF and MCCY: “building a cohesive and vibrant society, and deepening the sense of identity and belonging to the nation … strengthening community bonds, promoting volunteerism and philanthropy, engaging youth, and developing the sports. It will also assume MICA’s arts, heritage and national resilience functions.”

Similarly with MICA’s function, “to develop Singapore as a global city for information, communications and the arts, so as to build a creative economy, gracious community and connected society with a Singaporean identity rooted in our multicultural heritage.”

It is difficult to spot the differences in the PM’s statement which describes the new MCI as being responsible for “oversee[ing] the development of the infocomm technology, media and design sectors; the national and public libraries; as well as Government’s information and public communications policies. REACH will be transferred from the current MCYS to MCI. The re-organisation will enable the Government to focus more sharply on communication and information.”

These new developments may be ill-thought through but like all administrative re-organisations they incur a cost, sometimes excessive costs to create a whole new ministry; re-brand all three of the new departments; develop peripherals and collaterals; and set up administrative arrangements, not to mention the logistical details involved.

The re-organisation appears to have simply reshuffled the portfolios of the current ministries and reallocated them from two into three ministries.

Additionally, the reshuffle of ministers necessary for the newly-structured Cabinet also brings with it a cost. With the addition of Ms Grace Fu and Ms Indranee Rajah to the Cabinet, we now face the price of two additional ministerial salaries, not to mention raising the number of personnel in the PMO to seven.

Does the Prime Minister really need two DPMs, a Senior Minister of State and three Ministers without Portfolio to run his department? What exactly are the duties associated with his office that he finds so onerous as to require six subordinates?

And why, for that matter, since he carried on quite nicely for eighteen months does Mr Shanmugam suddenly require a Minister of State, and one appointed at Senior level at that, to support him?

If the Cabinet has found itself to be suddenly suffering under the strain of additional responsibilities, why has none of this been reported in the media? What specific responsibilities will Ms Rajah and Ms Fu be allocated that have suddenly arisen so soon after a General Election?

The Prime Minister has given no justification as to why he has seen fit to pack his own department with yet another Minister without Portfolio; add a Senior Minister of State to the Law department; and create a whole new ministry to do exactly what the previous ones were doing anyway.

The Press Statement goes on to say that the role of the three new ministries will also involve addressing community cohesion and national resilience. Reading between the lines, there appears to be a new-found urgency involved in promoting national cohesion, particularly given the serious concerns that the nation has identified with the rapid and apparently unstoppable inflow of migrants.

Lamentably, the re-organisation has chosen a multitude of warm words to commend the new structure to us. However, it has not identified at all how the re-organisation will serve the real problems facing the nation at present.

The population challenges facing us are not fundamentally a matter of community cohesion but of declining jobs for citizens and declining salaries at the lower wage levels. They are about the lack of sufficient school places at Primary One. And they are about rising house prices and galloping inflation.

The re-organisation of the new MSF does not indicate how it will tackle poverty, rising income inequality and the lack of quality of life caused by being unable to afford medical treatment. Would it not have been more sensible to allocate as much money as had been spent on the re-organisation to the actual social challenges that citizens are facing that to simply re-brand the activities of government in a largely cosmetic process?

The re-organisation, whether or not it has been caused by changing priorities or new pressures on government, belies a lack of coherence at the heart of government. It is, unfortunately, not a bold move designed to address the challenges of the day. It has come out of left field with little indication of how it intends to meet our problems.

Indeed, when the SDP proposed Cabinet re-organisations in both its Shadow Budgets this year and in 2011, the objectives were clear: to reduce government spending waste, eliminate duplication, and remove redundant portfolios. In Shadow Budget 2011, we proposed abolishing the information portfolio at MICA (since its only real function is the control of information) and restructuring all of communications into a Ministry of Communications and Transport.

That year’s Shadow Budget also recommended the formation of a Ministry of Community and Culture (so vastly similar to the name of the new Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth that one wonders if the Prime Minister might be so accused of being a copycat). Shadow Budget 2012 again reiterated the initiative to trim the Cabinet as a way of focusing resources.

What the Prime Minister has done instead is to enlarge his Ministry and extend an already bloated and exorbitantly-paid Cabinet. With little sense of why this is necessary or how it will contribute to a more efficient administration. Except to reiterate warm words about resilience and cohesion without actually identifying how the restructuring will achieve them.

If the Prime Minister does not rise up to the challenge to explain his reshuffle and its cost implications, he will be extremely vulnerable to the accusation of acting without a coherent plan and thus, showcasing a confusion at the heart of government.

Dr Vincent Wijeysingha is the Treasurer of the SDP and Head of the party’s Communications Unit.

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