Monday 5 August 2013

When not battling a national crisis, family comes first: Vivian Balakrishnan

Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan has been in the thick of the action over the last few months. His ministry has had to deal with two national crises - dengue and haze - and a hawker centre cleaning spat with the Workers' Party town council in Aljunied. Elgin Toh met up with him over supper this week, in the first instalment of a new series called The Supper Club. These interviews with political figures will take place at the end of a day's work, a time for them to reflect on changes in Singapore and their own lives.
The Straits Times, 3 Aug 2013

Do you have supper here often?

I'm here more than once a week. My Meet-The-People session is not far away, so I come to hang out and meet people.

Does someone cook at home?

Yes. But probably one-third of our meals come from Ghim Moh Market and Hawker Centre. I suspect this is quite a common phenomenon in Singapore - eating takeaway local food regularly.

That is why one of the first things I did when I came to the Ministry 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.

Some would call these past few months for you a perfect storm - dengue, haze, hawker centre cleaning.

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. Maybe to some extent, it is due to my medical and surgical experience. There's no such thing as a routine operation. Every surgeon, mentally before he starts, has already considered all the complications.

And 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 the Singapore General Hospital, put on a mask and help restore confidence and resolve the problems there.

I spent two months at the hospital, doing Cabinet meetings through video conference, and having a colleague - Dr Alex Chao - die. Can you imagine, every day we met in the morning, sat around the table wearing masks, and if one of us had a fever, he was whisked off to Tan Tock Seng Hospital. So you're wondering, when's your turn? 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. I've been impressed by how Singaporeans are calm, collected, looking out for each other, and cohesive. I think in many other societies, it would have led to either panic or rupture, and we haven't.

What do you make of public reaction to the hawker centre cleaning saga?

Just one point. PM (Lee Hsien Loong), in fact the entire Cabinet, including me, wanted to affirm that integrity is sacrosanct in our political system.

What do you do for fun?

For fun, I assemble computers. And because I don't get to operate on eyes any more, my latest thing is to assemble watches because I get to wear magnifiers and work with very fine tools.

You joined politics 12 years ago. Has anything about you changed?

I was recruited by 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."

He added: "You come in. It doesn't matter if your beliefs or views are different from ours. 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."

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.

In 2011, former minister Lim Boon Heng broke down talking about Cabinet deliberations on the casinos. It was a sign that such collective responsibility can bear very heavily on the individual.


Has there been such a point for you?

There are individual decisions which I would have made differently but I have not 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?

Failing which, if it is really such a fundamental point of conscience, then he should ask to step down from Cabinet. But a fundamental point, a difficult point, a controversial point and a divergent point are different points on the scale.

You recently posted a picture of you taking your son to school. Is that what you do every day?

Yes. 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.

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.

Everything else will pass: your job, politics, position. The only thing that you are forever is a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a grandfather.

What's for supper

Senja-Cashew Community Club 101 Bukit Panjang Road
- Fish head curry: $18
- Roasted Pearl Milk Tea, two cups: $5.40
- Total (including GST): $23.40

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