Edited excerpts of an interview by Elgin Toh of the Straits Times that was published at http://www.singapolitics.sg/supperclub
(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.
(But at home? Somebody cooks?)
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 probably 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.
And even more important than that, 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, or should have considered, all the complications and the failures.
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 serotype. 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 have led to either 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.
(What do you do for fun, or to relax?)
For fun, I assemble computers, I programme, I learn new languages to programme. And because I don’t get to operate on eyes anymore, my latest thing is to assemble watches because I get to wear magnifiers and work with very fine tools. So I can take a watch and fix it for you.
(When did this watch hobby start?)
About a year and a half ago.
(How did you learn to do it?)
On the Internet, you can learn all that and then you go and buy all the equipment, buy the pieces. So, I can quite literally fix an automatic or even a quartz watch for you, including fitting the hands and painting the luminous parts.
That’s decades ago. I was one of the early adopters in computers – since the 1980s. So I assemble it, I fix it, I even crimp network cables. I used to do some programming while I was working at a hospital. So in a way, now, I do so just to stretch the mind intellectually in a non-political direction. And for watches it is to keep my hand-eye coordination, because I don’t get to operate anymore. But again, the problem is time.
(What books are you reading?
The current books I’m reading – Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who also wrote The Black Swan. This is his latest book, and it is relevant to Singapore. Another good author whom I’ve been following is Michael Sandel, the philosopher who wrote Justice. The more recent book which I thought was interesting is What Money Can’t Buy, which is relevant for us in Singapore as well. So that’s politics. Science – I’m still trying to wrap my head around relativity and Albert Einstein. Then there is some economics. And I have a whole host of other books on programming. From C to Python to Lisp. So I’m quite indiscriminate.
(You entered politics in 2001. Can you tell us about the journey that you’ve taken over the past 12 years. Has anything about you changed?)
I was recruited by the former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. And I never forgot his key message to me when he was encouraging me to come in. He said: “You must hold fast to your values. If you have to compromise your values in order to join us, you lose your value to us.” Over the years, I have never forgotten that. And I think it’s the best advice you can give to any politician coming in.
He added: “You come in. It doesn’t matter if your beliefs or views are different from us. If you can convince us, we will make changes. But on the other hand, if we show you that this is the right thing to do, you must be intellectually honest enough to admit it.”
And looking back, these have been some of the most dramatic 12 years in terms of the assortment of crises, ups and downs, and social and political changes that have occurred in Singapore. So it’s been a fascinating journey.
(So how much was there of you convincing them, and how much was it them convincing you?)
I don’t think I can quantify. You must appreciate how seriously we take collective responsibility in the Cabinet. Collective responsibility doesn’t mean all Ministers agree on everything. But it requires us, after we have argued it and arrived at a decision, to collectively bind ourselves to that decision, to defend it, implement it and to make it happen. That is what Cabinet government means. Because, whether it’s transport or housing or environment or education, you can’t just let the minister go out there on his own. All of us have to stand by the policies.
So the discipline of collective responsibility forces us to think and argue far more intensely before the decision is made than after that. It causes a very detailed deliberative process. The discussions are rigorous and intellectually challenging.
The other point is that we’re not a bunch of chums. We are all brought in as part of a team that is focused on the country and the long term interests of Singaporeans. So there is no “I told you so”, no one-upmanship, no cliques or factions in Cabinet. Anyone that we felt was playing games would not survive Cabinet. So it leads to a very intense, but also a very objective decision-making process. I think that is one of the secrets of the government’s success over these decades.
(In 2011, former minister Lim Boon Heng broke down when he was talking about Cabinet deliberations on the casinos. It was a sign that such collective responsibility can bear very heavily on the individual, isn’t it?)
(Does it come to a point where it could weigh on your conscience? Has there been such a point for you?)
There are individual decisions which I would have made differently, but I have never been put in a position where my conscience was on the line.
(And if that point comes?)
If that point comes, the Minister has to, first, do his best to persuade his colleagues.
Failing which, if it is really such a fundamental point of conscience, then he should ask to step down from Cabinet. That too is part of Cabinet government. But a fundamental point, a difficult point, a controversial point and a divergent point are different points on the scale.
You pointed out how former minister Lim Boon Heng broke down in 2011 when he was talking about Cabinet deliberations on the casinos. You have seen emotional anguish showing through. But you will not see a minister step out of line. At least not the ministers I know, past and present.
(You said former PM Goh told you to hold fast to your values. What were these values for you?)
For me, it’s really about the family. On both my father’s and mother’s side, I’m a fourth generation Singaporean. My great grandparents came from China and India to Singapore. And I believe in a multiracial society. This is a deeply held belief, because my existence depends on a multiracial society.
Secondly – and this may not be a popular word right now – meritocracy is a very deeply held belief. 85 years ago, my mother’s father passed away on a business trip to China, leaving my grandmother one month away from delivering my mum. So my mum never met her father. And immediately, from what was actually a reasonably comfortable living as a motor car spare parts dealer, her world collapsed. And they became dependent on the generosity of my grandfather’s brothers.
Later on, both my parents became teachers. And we’ve seen social mobility – each generation having a fair chance to move up. That’s what I define meritocracy as. That also is a very deeply held belief.
The third thing is probably is a hangover from my mother. Because she had a deprived childhood, I’ve inherited her sense of austerity.
And I suppose the other element which I’ve come to appreciate even more over the past 12 years is that absolute necessity for honest government grounded in integrity. I’ve now travelled to so many countries. What we’ve done in Singapore – it’s not as if we have a copyright of the ideas. But the ability to execute so many things in Singapore is because we had an honest government which has enjoyed the trust of the people.
(Right. But when you entered politics, you also said you had been sceptical of the PAP. So which were your points of disagreement?)
In 1984, I published my first letter to the Forum Page. I was against the graduate mothers’ scheme. I felt it was elitist and it didn’t show respect. After all, my mum was not a graduate. There were other issues. I remember once barging into Mr S Rajaratnam’s house. He stayed on Chancery Lane, not far from where I stayed. He may have retired from politics then. I knocked on his gate, he let me in, spent an hour, I was nobody, I was just a medical student. I remember that I was not happy with something about race, language and religion, that we were accentuating it. Later on, I had also voiced public opposition to linking votes and upgrading. That was probably in the 1990s.
So there were specific issues which I had disagreements with. But during the discussions with (then) PM Goh and subsequently in interviews with (former prime minister) Lee Kuan Yew and (then Deputy PM) Lee Hsien Loong, I was impressed that the PAP does not screen your views. What they want to find out is whether you have values. And that you can marshall the arguments in support of a view that is honest, genuine, and sincerely held. The PAP is not afraid of differences of opinion. What the PAP does not want are charlatans. We want people who are grounded.
(What would you say to a young person today who, like you in the past, may be sceptical of the PAP?)
I’ll say the same thing that (then) PM Goh said to me. Hold fast to your values and express your views, sincerely, honestly. And think deeply, don’t just posture, don’t just play to the gallery, don’t just think short-term. If you can go beyond all that, I hope you make yourself available and be part of a party or a movement that has focused entirely on the long-term interests of the nation.
(Why the PAP and not the opposition?)
Because I would say that this is an honest party. This is a party which is also a broad church, meaning we will never tell you what to say, but we will ask you to be honest. Secondly, this is a party that has made things happen, can make things happen. So be a part of it. Change is inevitable, but we want change that is principled, change that will make this fragile, beautiful flower called Singapore continue to thrive in a very dangerous uncertain world.
Many people have said the PAP is just concerned about money. But I’ve often told people who say that that, let’s take a step back in time. Let’s look back. The PAP fought for Merdeka – independence – because it was about our right to determine our future. That led us to Malaysia. Then in Malaysia, we championed a Malaysian Malaysia. This is actually a code word for equality regardless of race, language or religion. And we got kicked out of Malaysia because of our insistence on that ideal. We didn’t get kicked out of Malaysia because we thought it was good for the economy. In fact it was bad for the economy. But having got kicked out of Malaysia because of this obstinate adherence to an ideal, we then had our backs against the wall. And we had to survive and thrive in order to feed ourselves.
So yes, we were then focused on economic growth but it was done because we had no choice. It was done because of our obstinate belief in this ideal that we could create a fair and just society, where we would all be equal regardless of race, language or religion.
Over four, five decades, this has actually been an idealistic quest by the PAP. So if I can come back to why I would want someone to join: this is a party rooted in ideals, rooted in history, and with a proven track record and consisting of honest people, not bound by ties of cronyism, but purely by a passionate desire to make this country continue to grow and thrive in an uncertain, sometimes unfriendly world. So be a part of it.
That doesn’t mean the opposition has no role. Mr Lee (Kuan Yew) used to tell us that the years that the PAP had a monopoly, which is I think from 1968 to 1981, were not pre-ordained. It was basically due to a strategic mistake of the Barisan Sosialis to walk out of Parliament. There has and there will always be a significant body of opinion that is different from the PAP. We are a democracy and there should be a legitimate expression of that divergence.
(Although, some people would say, yes, it was a strategic mistake by the Barisan Sosialis, but many from the opposition were also put behind bars.)
(Former Barisan Sosialis leader) Lee Siew-Choh never went behind bars. The guy whom I knew who went behind bars, whom I knew personally, was Dr Lim Hock Siew. He’s passed away now. But I’ve known him for a very long time, spoken to him in depth. He was, I believe, a patriot. And I have said that he was a good and honourable man. I still stand by those comments. In fact before I came into politics, I called him to ask him what he thought about me joining the PAP. He told me: “Do what you believe is right.” The sense he gave me was not to fight yesterday’s battles. Singapore has changed, Singapore has moved on. He bore no bitterness to the second and third generation leaders. At the same time it was also a salutary lesson of the price of politics. Politics is not just a game. It’s not just cricket. There are real lives at stake. He paid a very heavy price.
(You knew him very well. You knew his story. Do you believe he was unjustly put behind bars?)
He could have got out earlier if he renounced communism. Till this day, I do not know whether he was a member of the communist party. He’s never told me categorically. But I’ve interacted and discussed and argued with him enough to know that he’s on the hard left. When I was interviewed (as a candidate) by Mr Lee (Kuan Yew), and in the interview I told him I’d known Dr Lim for a long time, he just had one sentence to say: “Singapore would be very different if his group had been in charge.” And honestly, I think we all have to admit that it would have been very different if the extreme left wing of the PAP had been in charge instead of Mr Lee’s group.
(You recently posted a picture of you sending your son to school. Is that what you do every day?)
Yes. So last night I had a Meet-The-People session. By the time I got home it was past 1am. So I slept at about 2.30am. At 6am, he woke up demanding his drink, I had to give him. And at 7am I sent him to school. For 25 years, I’ve done all the night feeds, I’ve done all the nappy changes, and I’ve sent all four children to school. I did it partly because I don’t need so much sleep. As a doctor, I can cope with interrupted sleep, I can cope with short sleep. So I told my wife, all the night duties are mine. And sending them to school. Why do I do that? Because it meant, the last thing and the first thing my children saw each day was me. So no matter how busy I have been, all my four children know how much they mean to me. So when I talk about family, it’s not an idle boast. I will tell you quite honestly, I’m a very happy person. I’m very happy not because I’m easily entertained or easily satisfied. I’m very happy because of my family. And we should realise that everything else will pass: your job, politics, position – everything is temporary. The only thing that you are forever, is a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a grandfather.
(How old are your children?)
My eldest is 24, a daughter. I have a son who’s 23, another son who’s 20, doing National Service, and I’ve got this 7-year-old.
(That’s quite a gap, between the youngest and the other three.)
They are an enormous source of happiness. Waking up at night, cleaning, changing and sending them to school are merely expressions of that profound part of my life that they represent.
(What do your children think of your job as a minister?)
The 7-year-old, I’m not sure if he fully understands. But for the other three, they’re all grown up. They have paid a price. So I would say politics imposes a heavy burden not only on the individual but on the entire family.
(What kind of price?)
The loss of privacy, the loss of family time and the pressure to always behave correctly. And that’s why we all understand that when someone says yes to politics, actually it’s his or her family that’s going to carry the burden too.
(How do your children deal with the nastiness on the Internet directed at you?)
They’ve grown up. They understand that this is the way it is. It is an unfortunate coarsening of discourse on the Internet, to a large extent because it is either anonymous or it is faceless. If people met face to face, eyeball to eyeball, certain human courtesies apply. But for some reason, behind the keyboard, people lose the safety circuits of decent human interactions.
(So you don’t think this is a phase?)
I think it can only get worse. In the old days, we were limited by the number of people we could physically meet within a geographical area. With the Internet, no matter how extreme your idea is, you can always find someone equally or more extreme than you to affirm you. You can be egged on, whichever way.
It’s unfortunate because it will make governance and leadership far more challenging in the future. So I think the politicians of the future will just have to learn to cope with it. For the current Cabinet, we do not look for gratitude or affirmation. We want to do the right thing and do it for the right reasons and for the long term. That’s the only thing worthwhile doing. We are confident we will carry the ground if we did right and served honourably. So that’s the attitude that we have and how we operate.