“[The] bookies were clear where I would be going,” Khaw Boon Wan said on his Facebook page last Friday.
His remarks, an apparent reference to the upcoming Cabinet reshuffle, have stoked rumours that Mr Khaw would be taking over the hot seat at the Transport Ministry from Mr Lui Tuck Yew.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is expected to announce the new Cabinet line-up next week, a move which Mr Lee had said would give younger Cabinet ministers more exposure.
However, none of the younger ones are expected to be given the Transport portfolio which has seen three ministers in nine years in charge.
The latest, Mr Lui, has stepped down from politics altogether, after helming the ministry for four years, in which he was severely criticised for breakdowns and disruptions of the MRT system. His predecessor, Raymond Lim, was also similarly put to the sword, as it were.
Given how the problems of the public transport system have been a thorn in the government’s side, even as it ploughs in billions of dollars into the public transport operators over the last few years, the talk is that Mr Lee would want to have someone with a proven record of managing the toughest issues.
And in the eye of some members of the public, that person would be Mr Khaw, the Minister of National Development (MND).
He is widely seen to have taken the bull by the horn and tamed the runaway prices of public housing flats, and had also earlier – as Health Minister – helped control the spread of the SARs epidemic in 2003 and the introduction of Medishield. He has also been credited with reinstating public confidence in the charity sector after the scandal at the National Kidney Foundation in 2005.
In his Facebook post last Friday, Mr Khaw said:
“Anticipating that the Cabinet reshuffle would affect me, Gardens by the Baycolleagues asked me to plant a tree, after launching the mid-autumn lanterns just now. I was of course honoured to oblige as I had not planted any tree at GB before. I asked what they had heard from the trees, they said the bookies were clear where I would be going.”
But Mr Khaw’s political career so far has not been without controversies.
He heads the People’s Action Party’s team in Sembawang GRC. In the recent elections, it got off to a controversial start when it held its press conference to introduce its candidates in an old folks’ home. The home’s constitution forbids its premises from being used for political purposes.
Mr Khaw’s team later explained that it had not looked into the constitution and thus did not know that it had breached the rules.
Mr Khaw’s MND was also in the news earlier this year for having awarded a plot of land in Fernvale to a developer who wanted to build a privately-run columbarium. Mr Khaw himself had to later rescind the contract after residents there complained about it.
Perhaps the most controversial incident involving Mr Khaw is the one in 2009, where he said that elderly Singaporeans could be sent to old folks’ homes in Johor Baru, Malaysia, and Batam, Indonesia. (See here.)
His remarks ignited widespread criticism and Mr Khaw had to later explain that he had been misunderstood.
“My comment on retirement was completely incidental. Now it has blown up into a big story and there is so much misunderstanding and accusation (that) Khaw Boon Wan is proposing that we dump our parents
in Batam,” said Mr Khaw.
“The question (from the reporter) was that there were developers who said that land here is rather expensive,” he clarified. “And that’s why I notice that Minister Mah Bow Tan has now shortened the lease, so hopefully land price (in Singapore) will become cheaper. But then they (the developers) said all right, Batam is even cheaper. So I said well, if Batam is even cheaper, then it’s up to you.”
Will Mr Khaw’s tenure as the new Transport Minister, if indeed the rumours are confirmed to be true next week, be without controversy? Hardly. But that should not be the benchmark of whether he would have done a good job, given how public transport will always be a controversial issue until and unless the basic problems of overcrowding, waiting time and fares are satisfactorily resolved.
And if Mr Khaw does take up the portfolio, he deserves to be given time to get things right.