Dr Balakrishnan: 'I am energised by crises'

In a new Straits Times interview series Supper Club, Elgin Toh talks to Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan over fish head curry in his ward in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC.

Dr Balakrishnan, a former eye surgeon who entered politics 12 years ago in 2001, has been in the thick of things recently, having had to deal with two national crises - dengue and the haze - and a spat between his ministry and a Workers' Party-run town council in Aljunied GRC.

In Part 1, Dr Balakrishnan talks about the perfect storm of haze, dengue and hawker centre cleaning.

Why did you choose this place - Senja-Cashew Community Club - to meet for supper?

This place has special significance. Back in 2006, we decided to build a pool in Bukit Panjang. However, it was supposed to be in another location further south.

My first post-election block visit was to a block opposite here. At the end of the visit, the grassroots leaders went to the top, looked down, saw this pond (by the current location of Senja-Cashew CC), and said, "Actually, the pond is the centre of the town.

So, instead of building the pool in the original site, let's build it here." Immediately, there were several problems.

First, you've already announced building it at another place. You shift it. Some people are going to be unhappy. So I said, well, my next block visit then has to be to the other block, to explain to them: I know the pool is not at your doorstep, but, really, if you take the bigger picture, this is a better site because everyone will benefit.

So there is a political point there that sometimes, you have to make decisions where some people will be unhappy, though actually it is for the good of the majority.

You have supper here often?

I'm here every week, more than once a week. My Meet-The-People session is not far away, so I come here, hang out and meet people.

Does somebody cook at home?

Yes. A combination of my wife or the helper cooking. Probably one-third of our meals are actually from Ghim Moh Market and Hawker Centre.

You stay not far from there?

Yes, I live in my own constituency. The standard stuff which we get from there would be the mee pok, chicken rice, char kway teow. But char kway teow is hard to get, because always the long queue. And then the tao huay.

I suspect this is quite a common phenomenon in Singapore - eating takeaway local food regularly.

Which illustrates the importance of hawker food and hawker centres in the lives of Singaporeans. That is why one of the first things I did when I came to the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources was to revise the policy on building hawker centres. We had not built any for nearly 20 years.

I persuaded my colleagues that hawker centres are a unique identifying mark of Singaporean society. More families like mine are actually depending on it even for staple food.

It's part of the local community because, especially for hawkers who have been there for a long time, you know them, they know you, you've grown up with them, that sense of social bonding is there. More importantly, it's a place where all Singaporeans gather.

You go to Ghim Moh, literally, you meet all kinds of people - from those in shirts and ties to those in shorts and t-shirts and slippers. It is a place where social distances are erased.

So hawker centres are a key part of our social infrastructure. After we said we were going to build, we also removed the minimum rent. Because I want to bring rentals down and to put pressure even on coffee shops and kopitiams, to bring rentals down.

But there is still upward pressure on the price of hawker food. The latest survey shows prices are still going up.

That's because our new hawker centres haven't come on stream yet. And I announced 10. But you know where I actually want to go. So I'm basically putting people on notice that this is a service, and we're going to make it widely available.

It has been a fairly busy year for you so far, with your ministry having to deal with one crisis after another - dengue, haze and hawker centre cleaning. Some would call this a perfect storm.

Flooding hasn't occurred yet. Then we would have a perfect storm!

What does it feel like to be under pressure like this?

I must confess to being quite energised by crises. I enjoy the challenge of being under pressure. Maybe to some extent, it is due to my medical and surgical experience. There's no such thing as a routine operation. Every single operation, even if you have done it thousands of times, has a risk of failure. Every surgeon, mentally before he starts, has already considered all the complications.

So, to be honest with you even if I look at this year's events, dengue - we are overdue for an epidemic. Our last epidemic was in 2005 and 2007, and if you check my comments, over the last two years I've been saying, it's going to happen, it's going to happen. In fact, every year that we don't have a dengue epidemic, we are storing up the pressure for an epidemic the following year, especially if there is a switch of viral stereotype.

So did dengue surprise me?

No. Haze has been around for at least two decades. I knew full well that this was not an environmental problem, it was an economic problem. Because the economic incentives skew people's behaviour in the wrong direction. Of course, I cannot predict the wind. So did I expect it to be so bad? No I did not. But did I anticipate that haze will hit us? Yes.

Hawker centres - well, I did not expect the Workers' Party to treat the hawkers so shabbily. That one I admit I did not anticipate. But I guess what I'm trying to say is that, from a surgical perspective, you always mentally prepare, and when things go wrong, that is the difference.

I put things in perspective because this is not the worst that I have faced or the worst that I will face. The most harrowing period in my last 12 years in politics is not this year. It was those two months in 2003 when (as part of the Ministerial Sars Combat Unit) I was tasked to go to SGH (Singapore General Hospital), put on a mask and help restore confidence and resolve the problems there.

I spent two months at the hospital, attending Cabinet meetings through video conference, and having a colleague - Dr Alex Chao - die. Can you imagine every day we met in the morning, sitting around the table wearing masks, and if one of us has a fever, he was whisked off to Tan Tock Seng hospital?

So you're wondering, when's your turn? And during those two months, I slept in a separate room because I didn't want to risk infecting my wife or my children.

What do you make of the reaction of the public to the haze and dengue crises?

Frankly, each time we've gone through a crisis, I've emerged more confident about Singaporeans. Let me explain why. During SARS, I watched medical professionals put their lives on the line. We were dealing with a disease that we didn't understand. We didn't know the level of risk. Every doctor, every nurse showed up for work.

They walked into danger, not out of it. No panic. Just this deeply held sense of duty. You look even subsequently at dengue and at the haze. I've been impressed by how Singaporeans are calm, collected, looking out for each other and cohesive. And practical in a sensible way in the midst of challenges, which I think in many other societies would either have led to panic or rupture, and we haven't.

Of course there are things which we may not have done perfectly, and there will be people who complain. But actually you step back and look at it, there's good reason to be confident about Singaporeans. It has strengthened my belief in Singapore's and Singaporeans' ability to cope with the future.

What do you make of the reaction of the public to the hawker centre cleaning saga?

Just one point. Prime Minister (Lee Hsien Loong), in fact the entire Cabinet, including me, wanted to affirm that integrity is sacrosanct in our political system. That is the key point. Vivian: 'I am energised by crises'

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