Transparency 'should not compromise S'pore': Lim Hwee Hua

Since quitting politics after losing her seat in 2011's Aljunied GRC battle, former Second Minister for Finance and Transport Lim Hwee Hua, 54, has immersed herself in the corporate world and put out a book on government in business. She talks to Robin Chan about government transparency and the country's reserves, and the challenge of meeting rising aspirations.

Do you think there is room to share more information on our national reserves than we do now?

People are rightly curious about what is the size of the reserves. But the question doesn't end just by telling you a number. There will be the follow-on question of how investments are made. That number might shrink, because our motives are now known to everyone.

What they (Temasek Holdings and the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation) should continue doing, is to consider if they can release any more information, at least in qualitative terms, as much as they can. So it's towards building confidence.

Temasek now tells you these are the areas of focus, these are the allocations by geography, this is what we have done. A sizeable part of the portfolio is listed companies where information is available. GIC has been releasing more and more (information) as well.

And this is probably as much as we can expect these two organisations to do, without compromising our own position. Singaporeans are not the only ones interested in the size of our reserves.

So it seems it is a question that will never go away.

The more relevant question to ask is, is there sufficient trust in Temasek and GIC to do the investment on the nation's behalf? That, to me, is the more fundamental question.

Do you think the trust is there now?

It is still intact. There is a bit more curiosity about size and methods, and that is linked to the fact that people sometimes think the Government can afford to spend more in certain areas.

Therefore, when the Government says: "No, we have to balance the budget", they say: "Hang on a second, you do have a lot of money right?" It is not a question asked in isolation. It is always linked to: "Tell us why you can't spend more?"

I think people understand the need to balance the budget but at what point do they accept that that is all you can tell me?

So when you were in Cabinet, did you know how large our reserves were?

I can't answer that question.

What is your assessment of how the Workers' Party team that beat you in Aljunied GRC has done so far?

To be fair, I have not really tracked the work they do on the ground. What I have read about their contributions in Parliament comes from what is reported in the media. The residents and their supporters are probably in a better position to answer that.

Do you think the opposition will continue to get stronger and have a bigger presence in Parliament?

A lot of it would be driven by how much (the voters) feel they have improved in their own personal lives. Do they still get to enjoy their lives as Singaporeans? Are they enjoying their work, and do their jobs allow them to maximise their potential? Or do they feel like they are being held back from progressing?

Translating that into political support, they will assess whether life with this certain Opposition presence in Parliament has been better. Were improvements driven by the Opposition presence, or by a Government that has been more responsive? Some may argue that a more responsive Government is the result of having more Opposition presence. It could go round and round.

There is the real consideration of the living condition around my flat. Is it of acceptable standards? If it is fine, and my MP happens to be from the Opposition, then I'd support Opposition presence in Parliament.

There is a real possibility that when you have enough people who are prepared to accept different standards to ensure Opposition presence, then the Opposition might form Government. Then what happens? Will it be a competent government that is formed?

Singaporeans will have to decide if that is the outcome they want. Is that the Singapore they want? My wish is that more people will dwell on this.

Singaporeans are actually one of the most adaptable people in the world, because of our history where we had nothing. A lot of us would instinctively be longer-term thinking, or at least that is my hope. So would the outcome for the next election, or next two elections, be an outcome that we can conceive of?

There are of course people who will say this is just scare tactics, I am frightening people into thinking the PAP will not be in power and the Opposition will make a mess of it. But no, I think it is a real possibility if you look at the results of the last election, contrary to what the Opposition might be saying about not wanting to form the Government.

So as a citizen, would you personally prefer the status quo of a one-party democracy, or a two-party system?

So long as we have a competent, long-term thinking and caring Government, objectively, if the Opposition can form that, I would rest my case as that's for the good of Singaporeans.

You wear many hats now and advise many companies (and have put out a book, Government In Business - Friend Or Foe?). Has getting out of politics for you, in a way, been a blessing in disguise?

I wouldn't really say so. I have always enjoyed policy formulation and execution. I often get asked: 'Do you miss politics'? That is the part that I miss most, because there's nothing in the private sector that gives you that degree of satisfaction, particularly with the challenges for us as a small country becoming more and more intense because of competition.

I always feel that it is a great privilege, because you try to think ahead and plan for Singapore and Singaporeans, in the hope that you can see Singaporeans succeed in a fast-changing world, and succeed well.

So what don't you miss about politics?

I suppose the long hours. The hours have (become) longer! It can really wear you out. But it is a package, it comes with the territory. As a politician, you don't just formulate, you have to explain and engage.

You talk about the difficulty for the Government in meeting changing aspirations. What do you think of the shifts it has made since the National Day Rally in housing, health care and education?

It is almost like you have two escalators moving upwards in the same direction but at different speeds. One is Government, the other is made up of different groups of people and their expectations. On the Government side, it is how quickly they are able to respond to this.

You have these two escalators going in the same direction, but they are not moving at the same speed. The speed varies at certain points. At certain points, or for certain policies, Government may have caught up or is trying to keep pace. However, different groups of people with different needs could move up to take their place. At points where they meet, there is satisfaction, perhaps a good feeling, but very soon, the escalators move apart again and the Government will have to try to understand what are the new needs.

How did your children (she has two daughters and a son with husband Andy Lim) react when you decided to quit politics?

We didn't really discuss it. But I know they wanted me to retire and have time for myself, because it has been a real juggle, and they felt that, to some extent, it is quite thankless too. And since people wanted a change for whatever reasons, it was timely to take time off and do what I like to do.

So now that you have more time outside of politics, what do you spend your time doing that you couldn't then?

Oh, I got back all my sleep! You can feel it because if you don't get enough rest, you don't function as well.

chanckr@sph.com.sg


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