News analysis

Mr Fix-It called on again

That Mr Khaw Boon Wan has been appointed the next Transport Minister is probably no big surprise.

He has earned himself a reputation of being Mr Fix-It, after having helmed two ministries during their most difficult periods - Health and National Development.

As events have clearly shown, Singapore's transport sector needs fixing. And Mr Khaw has been picked to do it.

What's a little surprising is his concurrent appointment as Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure, which is a newly created role.

But if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Land transport and urban planning are intimately linked.

 

In fact, many of the challenges faced by our transportation system today are urban planning issues too - how population and commercial centres are mapped out (which leads to two sharp travel peaks each weekday), connectivity between transport nodes and buildings, how walkable is our city, our parking policy for buildings, and so on.

So, by having Mr Khaw concurrently hold the two portfolios, we are paving the way for a more holistic approach to city planning. One which will result in better accessibility, so that people do not need to travel as much - and better connectivity when they do need to.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong put it succinctly: "We need to tie together the different aspects of urban planning and infrastructure provision - housing, commercial and industrial development, road and rail networks, IT infrastructure."

Perhaps this is the first step in fully merging land transport and national development.

Today, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Land Transport Authority do talk to each other.

But there are still silos that impede a higher level of cooperation - a level we need to attain if Singapore wants to stay vibrant and liveable, possibly for a larger population.

A number of other countries embrace this philosophy. Just cast an eye on Germany's Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development, Hong Kong's Secretary for Transport and Housing, and South Korea's Ministry of Land, Transportation and Maritime Affairs (they should move the latter out).

And in late-2008, the Maldives merged several ministries to form the Ministry of Housing, Transport and Environment.

But back to transport.

Mr Khaw is no stranger to this portfolio. When he first entered politics some 15 years ago, one of his first appointments was as Senior Minister of State for Transport.

That was during the term of former transport minister Yeo Cheow Tong. It was also during Mr Yeo's term that Mr Khaw held the post of Acting Transport Minister.

One of the headline-making statements he made in that role was in 2003. When commenting on the delayed opening of the North East Line, he referred to Disneyland's practice of overstating the waiting time in queues for rides, so visitors would not complain when the wait turned out to be shorter than stated.

On Monday, in his off-the-cuff interview with reporters, he could well have been managing expectations when he noted that even Hong Kong's MTR had 12 major disruptions last year.

Referring to the MRT in his new blog "Moving News" on Monday, he also said "things may even get worse before they get better". Even so, he declared in no uncertain terms that his top priority was to restore the rail network's reliability.

Mr Khaw also gave hints about other priorities - cycling, walking and public transport, and driverless cars. In his soon-to-be relinquished role as National Development Minister, he already did much to further these causes.

The fast-expanding park connector network and planned transformation of the civic district into a car-free, walkable precinct are just two examples.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2015, with the headline 'Mr Fix-It called on again'. Print Edition | Subscribe