By Howard Lee
The news of Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew ‘s decision not to contest in the next GE was apparently a shock to many, as the ruling People’s Action Party has basically sworn off sacking Ministers to maintain accountability.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had instead vouched for Ministers to stay and fix the problem, and in view of even more public transport breakdowns since the last General Elections, it would have better fitted the cool logic of the PAP to keep Lui.
But reality is not to be. As National University of Singapore political scientist Bilveer Singh said to media, “it is not a question of whether a member … decides where and when to contest (elections). It is decided by a party machinery”.
So the bluntest way to look at Lui’s exit is that he had to leave. Never mind the resignation letter he sent to the PM indicating his wish not to contest, which has its own separate purpose (more of that later). He would simply not be able to leave if the PM had not allowed it.
The same, too, can be said of the earlier exits of former National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan and former Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng, and potentially Lui’s predecessor, former Transport Minister Raymond Lim, who has decided to light his own exit sign early as well.
None of these politicians have any other reason to leave – all are in generally good health and by Singapore’s standards, in the prime of their political careers – other than then had made some major missteps in their earlier Ministerial positions. Mah has been credited with sky-rocketing public housing prices, Wong the escape of alleged terrorist Mas Selamat, and Lui and Lim the faltering public transport system.
There is reason to believe that they left due to these past transgressions, although some might argue that they should have left before GE2011. That, of course, would not have been the PAP way, and the current desire for former MPs to “step down in a dignified way” should be seen to be along that same veneer.
Surprisingly, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, clearly someone who would be expected to call it quits given his many years of service, has instead indicated that he is still in contention for a fight in Marine Parade GRC.
The retirement of some and the retention of Goh points to one uneasy suspicion about the PAP – that in spite of all its common refrain for fielding the best quality candidates for the work that they do, the party has strong inclinations to field candidates that would be popular.
Fielding the popular is not wrong, and MPs are expected to be able to connect well with their constituents and in so doing rally their support for national policies when the need arises. But it would be unfair to say that Mah, Lim and Lui have not connected with their residents. Rather, their lack of popularity resides with popular sentiments, which might not decide their popularity at the polls. Hence, they leaving is more synonymous with the PAP’s anxiety to avoid some controversial issues come campaigning period.
Lui’s exit is particularly worrying, because it signals the PAP’s intention not just to drop him as a hot potato, but to throw the even hotter potato of public transport management out the window.
With no Transport Minister in the firing line for the GE, voters have no one to direct their angst against, just as it becomes much more difficult for opposition parties to call for accountability from one individual. And until the PM reconstitutes his new Cabinet post-GE2015, the hot seat is effectively left hanging.
This much is apparent in the much revealed letters from Lui to PM Lee:
“”You reminded me that the responsibility of Government was a collective one, and no minister carried difficult problems like public transport alone,” wrote Mr Lui. “I deeply appreciate the reassurance and support. But having thought the matter over carefully, I have decided that I should stand by my original decision.”
In the letter, Mr Lui also thanked PM Lee for the “unstinting support” given to him and his ministry, and cited how spending on new buses and trains has started to ease congestion on public transport. The Downtown Line – to open within the next 24 to 30 months – will add capacity to the rail network, he added.”
The PM, in return, was also keen to praise Lui in his Facebook post for a job well done in the public transport portfolio, with the caveat that things will get better:
“He put his heart and soul into the task, and made many improvements to the public transport system. The benefits will be seen in the coming years. The job is not yet complete, but we are heading in the right direction.”
What, then, do we have going into GE2015? Public transport is a group effort, and there is not even a Minister now who can now take the rap for it. Things are improving based on the former Minister’s plan of action, so everything is on track, let’s move on. Vote in a PAP government, give us a strong mandate, and… we will decide what to do about transport when we appoint a new Minister.
Really? What will be the PAP’s policy proposal for a public transport system that is clearly still in sore need of improvement, if not a major overhaul? Would the party now even bother to come up with a plan, or will it be everyone’s (effectively, no one’s) responsibility? Perhaps the PM will identify a potential Transport Minister among the new faces that the party bigwigs are rolling out in a dignified manner? Dare we even hope?
To some, Lui’s exit might represent him taking personal responsibility for the public transport mess created by his government, and perhaps the same can be said for Lim, Mah and Wong. If so, it is surely to be applauded, even if we can disagree about whether he truly should. But it is still a far cry from making his political party fully accountable for a crippled public transport system that has suffered from poor planning and plain incompetence in oversight.
The worse case is that the exit of Lui and others might even point to a desire by the PAP to sweep things further under the carpet, and at the last straw, pull out their retirement as a token for making amends. Woe the day should that happen, for we would have been a few more notches up the accountability ladder if they had just stayed past GE2015 and met the hot potatoes in the face.