Fiercely independent streak in Mr Charity

SINGAPORE - From public transport fares to ministerial salaries, no issue is too touchy for Mr Gerard Ee to handle.

The top accountant and former partner at Ernst and Young has often been asked to head high-profile committees and councils.

He oversaw the ministerial salary review in 2012, took over the National Kidney Foundation following its corruption scandal, and headed the National Council of Social Service, among others. At last count, he chairs at least five councils and schools, including the Public Transport Council (PTC).

Asked by MyPaper why he is always picked, and whether this indicates a dearth of leadership talent, Mr Ee said: "I don't think so. I think it's the path of convenience... Let's say my day is up and I'm gone, someone else would be picked for the job."

But it is also "possibly because I'm seen to be neutral and objective. I don't take sides," added the 65-year-old.

It is an independent streak that he has zealously guarded throughout much of his life in the public eye.

He has steadfastly remained out of party politics. An early attempt by the People's Action Party to woo him did not work out because "I wasn't interested".

Even when he was a Nominated Member of Parliament from 1997 to 2002, he made a point of showing he was not the "holier-than-thou, clean-living" political type.

Raising his hand with an imaginary cigarette tucked between his fingers, the lifelong smoker gleefully described how he would light up before every sitting and "very prominently, with cigarette in hand, walk up to the gate" of Old Parliament House.

He did this so he would be "clearly classified as undesirable... no one would ever think of me as a potential candidate", he said.

Even now he refuses to conform to the public's expectations. He takes public transport only once every two months as he feels it is often enough to "see what's going on".

Given his position with the PTC, should he not be seen taking buses and trains more often? No, he said. "That's putting on a show, I'm not like that."

He said the same thing to a high-society magazine which interviewed him recently and requested that he pose for a photo shoot wearing expensive brands. He refused, so they took pictures of him in what he calls "my baggy clothes".

"I look quite drab. But that's me," he said.

The clothes are baggy for a reason: Mr Ee has been striving to lead a healthier lifestyle since he recovered from colorectal cancer in 2008.

In the past year he has shed 20kg from controlling his eating habits - he now eats only one meal a day - and intends to shed even more weight through exercise. The caffeine addict who used to down a pot of coffee a day now has just two cups.

But what he cannot give up are his cigarettes. After years of puffing up to three packs a day - in the days when one could still smoke in offices - Mr Ee has cut back to about 12 sticks a day. He still smokes not because he needs the nicotine, but more out of "boredom and force of habit".

He said: "I'm just an ordinary Joe, like any other person at the hawker centre. No great saint."

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