Inside Cabinet... it's no wayang

'We use precab to throw ideas at one another'

NO TOPIC is too big or too small to be discussed at the pre-Cabinet lunch.

Mr Lim Swee Say said there are high-level issues that are debated at the “precab”, such as the casino issue.

But there are also others, such as whether to upgrade hawker centres and coffee shop toilets.

He said that one of the key purposes of precab is for Ministers to “throw ideas” at one another.

Mr Lim explained: “For example, if I were the Environment Minister and I wanted to upgrade the hawker what I can do is I put up this idea, together with its pros and cons, at precab, and the purpose of going to precab is to seek the view, the input from the other Ministers.

“Those who think it’s a good idea say so, those who don’t say so.

“Then finally, after getting all the input, we as Cabinet Ministers have to decide which relevant ideas to take in and then put everything in a Cabinet memo.

“Then the Cabinet memo will be put up for official approval.”

In the case of hawker centres, the debate led to the Hawker Centres Upgrading Programme (HUP), which was launched in 2001.

“We debated in the Cabinet whether we should or should not make it a policy to preserve our hawker centres as much as we can,” he said.

“Not only to keep them, but to upgrade them so that hawker centres will be a place where Singaporeans will feel comfortable when they sit down and have nice food at affordable prices.”

He said the Ministers debated over whether the upgrading should be done by the private sector before agreeing to put aside $420 million over 10 years for the HUP.

Mr Lim gave another example: The debate that led to the Toilet Upgrading Programme in 2002, which helped coffee shop owners to upgrade their washrooms.

“Many of us use the coffee shop toilet as a public toilet,” he said.

“The toilets were very run down, very dirty. So we said, look, we need to upgrade all these toilets.”

The issue the Ministers grappled with was this – who should pay?

On one hand, the toilets are not technically public toilets because they belong to the coffee shop owners. So it should be the owners who should pay for the upgrading.

On the other hand, it would be unfair for the coffee shop owners to be saddled with the cost because the toilets will be used not only by their customers, but also by members of the public.

Mr Lim said that after they debated the issue, they decided on a middle ground – the Government would pick up 50 per cent of the upgrading tab, subject to a maximum of $5,000 per coffee shop.

Mr Lim explained that “with Sars, we started to realise we do have an interest in public hygiene”. He said coffee shops are the private property of the owners. “But since the toilet is also used by the public, we finally agreed on the 50-50.”

This article was first published in The New Paper.

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