SINGAPORE – One measure of a minister is the toughness of the tasks handed to him by the prime minister, and on that score, few can match Mr Khaw Boon Wan.
The Transport Minister is retiring from politics after 19 years, in an election season that has also seen two other veterans announce their departure – former opposition leader Low Thia Khiang of the Workers’ Party and former prime minister Goh Chok Tong.
It was Mr Goh who persuaded Mr Khaw, his former principal private secretary, to stand as a People’s Action Party candidate back in 2001.
Since then, Mr Khaw, 67, has earned a reputation as Mr Fix-it due to his knack for solving hot-button issues that others struggled to come to grips with.
In 2011, he not only took on but volunteered for the high-stress job of fixing the nation’s housing woes, one of a handful of issues which cost the PAP to lose vote share in that year’s polls.
He moved to head the Ministry of National Development in May 2011 with “trepidation”, he wrote in a Facebook post, as it was then “red hot with widespread unhappiness”.
He did so just one year after undergoing open-heart surgery, yet he pledged to “work triply hard to shorten the learning curve”.
His resolve bore fruit. During his four years as National Development Minister, he cracked the twin problems of housing availability and affordability by ramping up the HDB’s building programme, boldly delinking the prices of new flats from those on the resale market, and raising subsidies and income ceilings so more young people could buy their first homes.
By the time he handed over the portfolio to Mr Lawrence Wong in 2015, the housing shortage was largely solved.
That year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong handed Mr Khaw another tough assignment – to fix transport at a time when train breakdowns were a major problem and the reliability of the entire rail network was in doubt.
Once again, Mr Khaw stepped up and got the job done.
He put in place “early closure, late opening” of the rail network so as to give rail engineers and technicians more time to safely complete repairs, maintenance and renewal work on MRT lines.
To raise morale on the ground, he visited depots, interchanges and tunnels to understand workers’ challenges and celebrate milestones. The engineers, technicians and maintenance crews who toiled day and night were the ministry’s “most precious” assets, more so than the billion-dollar rail networks, he wrote in his Moving News blog in 2015.
By setting high and clear targets for senior management at SMRT and SBS Transit, he also fostered a more unified approach between regulator and operators in undertaking tasks.
Sars combat chief
Besides housing and transport, Mr Khaw’s other major contributions were in health.
While a civil servant in the Health Ministry in the late 70s and early 80s, he helped formulate Medisave, which every Singaporean now uses if he needs to pay for hospitalisation. He also spent seven years restructuring government hospitals, during which time he was consecutively chief executive officer of the National University, KK and Singapore General hospitals.
In 2003, he was tapped to help Singapore battle Sars and served as Sars combat chief. In 2004, he was appointed Health Minister and learning from the painful lessons of Sars, he instituted new processes and extensive preparations to ready Singapore for the next novel disease outbreak. These have “served us well when Covid-19 came upon us”, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote in his thank-you letter to Mr Khaw.
Over the next seven years, Mr Khaw proceeded to reform Medisave and health insurance plan MediShield, launch long-term care insurance scheme ElderShield – all changes to ensure that healthcare costs remained affordable.
To expand Singapore’s healthcare capacity, he laid the groundwork for three new hospitals – Khoo Teck Puat, Sengkang General and Ng Teng Fong.
“In your quiet, unassuming way, you have made huge and lasting contributions, and strengthened Singaporeans’ faith that this Government can and will solve their problems and improve their lives,” PM Lee said in his letter.
Mr Khaw has been one of his “most reliable lieutenants”, and a role model and source of sage advice to the younger ministers, Mr Lee wrote, adding that he is happy that even post-retirement, Mr Khaw will be available to advise his successors and to share his experience and wisdom.
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