Taking over the hottest seat in town and what some analysts had described as a poisoned chalice, Transport Minister-designate Khaw Boon Wan today (Sept 28) was quick to make clear that he did not volunteer to take on the role this time — in contrast to how he had put himself forward for the national development portfolio in the aftermath of the 2011 General Election.
“I think you volunteer once, that’s enough. One should not keep on volunteering you know, people will misunderstand (and question) ‘what are you trying to prove?’” said Mr Khaw, who has been credited with turning the housing situation around during his four-year tenure as National Development Minister.
Speaking to reporters following a press conference by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to unveil his new Cabinet line-up, Mr Khaw said he was asked by Mr Lee to take over the transport ministry, which has been left vacant after Mr Lui Tuck Yew decided to leave politics before the polls earlier this month. Mr Khaw said: “But it’s an important job, obviously there’s a hole that has to be filled. So when PM asked me to do so, I readily said yes.”
From October, Mr Khaw will become the fourth minister to helm the transport ministry since 2006.
Today, he said that his first order of business is to improve rail reliability and encourage a “car-light lifestyle”. A major objective is to “further raise the quality of life for Singaporeans — make it easier for them to move about on feet, bicycle, bus, train and occasionally some driverless cars”, he said. “We are not there yet, so the question is how to move from here to that destination.”
Adding that he will be sharing some of his ideas in the coming weeks or months, he noted that the public has to be realistic about the MRT system. Even for Hong Kong, which has been touted as having the best rail operator, there were 12 major disruptions last year, he said.
Since his time as Health Minister, Mr Khaw has been blogging about his work. Writing in his first blog post as transport minister, Mr Khaw said that he was advised by “many friends” against taking on the new portfolio. But he agreed to Mr Lee’s request because of his “strong beliefs” in raising Singaporeans’ quality of life further, and making the MRT lines more reliable. He added: “I believe that a united Team Singapore can tackle any problem, daunting as it may seem. That was how we tackled SARS, and the 2011 housing crisis. That is what I will bring to the table.”
Seeking “understanding and patience” from the public, Mr Khaw said: “In housing you gave me four years. I hope that I will have some ‘honeymoon’ period too, as I dive into the details, know the people, learn from them, and especially those many unsung heroes, toiling away at night, over weekends, and behind the scene. You can be sure that I will be in the trenches with you.”
Mr Khaw will also be Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure — a role where he would need to “tie together closely the different aspects of urban planning and infrastructure provision — housing, commercial and industrial development, road and rail networks, even our IT infrastructure”, in Mr Lee’s words.
Analysts felt Mr Khaw’s success as National Development Minister possibly played a part in his new appointments, which they noted would enable him to ensure better coordination between traffic and land use planning.
Citing the property cooling measures, National University of Singapore (NUS) political science professor Reuben Wong noted that Mr Khaw has shown that he does not shy away from making tough decisions when necessary.
Pointing out that Mr Khaw is known as a “very good firefighter”, NUS professor Lan Luh Luh felt that he was the best person available to tackle the transport challenges ahead.
NUS transport researcher Lee Der Horng said Mr Khaw’s dual role means transport and land use planning will be “more synchronised and go hand-in-hand”. Over the longer term, Mr Khaw could look into better coordination between public transport operators and government agencies, Professor Lee said. He also suggested that Mr Khaw consider transport solutions such as pedestrian-only roads, public transport-only roads or having bus lanes in the middle of the roads.
Singapore Management University professor Terence Fan said that transport and infrastructure issues are inherently closely-intertwined. He added that he was glad the Government “recognises the need for a multidisciplinary approach to issues surrounding transport”.
SIM University senior lecturer Walter Theseira said Mr Khaw is likely to reap the fruits of Mr Lui’s efforts as “the tide has been turned” and public transport capacity issues have improved. Under Mr Lui’s watch, the Government rolled out the S$1.1 billion Bus Service Enhancement Programme, oversaw the building of new train lines and bought more trains. Nevertheless, Dr Theseira said that given that Mr Khaw had done a good job in his previous portfolio, “if anybody can pull together some sort of rescue package, it would be him”.