Will Khaw Boon Wan be the next Transport Minister?

Will Khaw Boon Wan be the next Transport Minister?
PHOTO: The Straits Times

He has handled complex issues and difficult portfolios while helming the Health and National Development ministries.

And now, talk has intensified that Mr Khaw Boon Wan is set to take the hottest ministerial seat on offer when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announces his new Cabinet next week - that of Transport Minister.

The first hint of change came last Friday, when Mr Khaw, who has been National Development Minister since 2011, announced on his Facebook page that he was anticipating that the Cabinet reshuffle would "affect" him. He then suggested that his destination was one that the "bookies" were clear about.

Even before Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew left politics, Mr Khaw had been linked to the job, with many netizens seeing him as a "steady hand" who has done well in handling difficult issues in health and housing.

When Singapore had to deal with its worst health scare in recent times with the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) crisis, Mr Khaw was part of a Government team which tackled the crisis even though he was not with the Health Ministry (MOH) then.

He later took over MOH and has been responsible for reforming MediShield and restoring public confidence in the charity sector after public uproar over misuse of funds at the National Kidney Foundation.

He then volunteered to tackle the prickly issues facing the National Development Ministry after the 2011 General Election, where unhappiness over housing issues cost the PAP votes.

Since taking over, he has overseen measures to cool the runaway cost of private and public housing, fuelled the construction of more HDB flats and helped different groups, such as singles, buy flats.

His successes have led many to believe that Minister Fix-It, as he has been called, will be given the challenging transport portfolio, one that has seen three ministers in the last nine years deal with rising COE prices, unhappy commuters, overcrowded buses and trains, and service breakdowns.

Mr Khaw would be a good fit, said transport and political analysts The New Paper spoke to.

Not just because he is able to "fix things", but because the veteran minister has the experience and expertise to take on a very heavy portfolio, said former Public Transport Council chairman Gerard Ee.

"People tend to think that the Transport Minister handles only the land transportation - the trains and buses - but there are also the air and sea elements," Mr Ee said. "He is in charge of our airport and sea ports. These are huge as they have direct impact on our economy and are a direct source of income for us."

 
IN THE WORKS

Plans are underway for the Tanjong Pagar Port to be moved to Tuas and Changi Airport's Terminal 4 and Terminal 5 are in the works. Mr Ee said: "I would be worried if the new Transport Minister focuses all his attention only on the MRT and buses as these are just small components of his entire job scope.

"I understand that people's daily lives are affected by breakdowns, but our ports also contribute to our country and our lives."

Dr Lan Luh Luh, associate professor at National University of Singapore (NUS) business school and faculty of law, said Mr Khaw was a good choice as he did substantive work at MND within a short period. "While the industry isn't completely without problems now - there are still complaints and issues with the Design, Build and Sell Scheme projects - the major problems such as housing shortages and high prices have improved."

STABILISING EFFECT

Dr Lan also said it is unlikely that a younger, fourth-generation leader would be made Transport Minister ahead of an experienced hand like Mr Khaw.

"Of course, if a younger minister takes over and does well, it's good. But given that transport is an age-old problem, it's unlikely a younger minister would be thrown into the deep end."

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan said Mr Khaw would have a stabilising effect on the Transport Ministry, which has seen three different ministers (Mr Yeo Cheow Tong, Mr Raymond Lim and Mr Lui) since 2006.

"The new Transport Minister will have to rein­force confidence among all stakeholders. If a senior minister is appointed, there is assurance that the Government is not letting up on the Transport Ministry despite the setbacks."

Another option would be for Mr Khaw to helm the Ministry of Trade and Industry to raise productivity and innovation levels, said Prof Tan.

"But wherever he goes, he is certain to be bold and creative. It is also likely that we'll see a fourth-generation leader working closely with him and to be mentored by him."

ONLINE SUPPORT FOR KHAW

Should he be Transport Minister?

Yes, say netizens, joking that the man who paid only $8 for bypass surgery in 2010 could perhaps work similar "magic" with transport fares and the ERP.

"Monthly MRT pass for $8?" Facebook user Ignatius Wee asked hopefully.

On a more serious note, many of the netizens discussing the possibility of Mr Khaw Boon Wan taking over the tough transport portfolio brought up his leadership during the Sars emergency in 2003 and his efforts in cooling the property market here as proof of his "steady hand".

A netizen who started a Hardwarezone forum thread on this topic in March - four months before Mr Lui Tuck Yew announced he was stepping down - noted that Mr Khaw had done a "good job with health and housing".

MORE TRACTION

Speculation that Mr Khaw could take over have gained more traction online since the General Election.

Website Mothership.sg devoted an entire article to the cause, noting that Mr Khaw is an "online influencer" with his blog and highlighting his work with the Park Connector Network, which he has said he wants to grow "beyond cycling for recreation" as a "viable transport option".

While Singaporeans may differ on whether Mr Khaw will be able to solve transport issues here, they all agree on one thing: The transport portfolio is tough.

An SG Talk forum user had this advice: "This respectable minister had a heart operation recently and the new challenges as a Transport Minister may be detrimental to his health.

"Give the man a break. Let him have a happy and stress-free life, like most of us here."

Additional reporting by Juliana Rasul

 


This article was first published on Sept 28, 2015.
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