April 18, 2006

All Eyes on Sembawang

The stage is set, I believe, for a keen battle in Sembawang GRC in this coming GE.

The impending retirement of Dr Tony Tan may have captured the interest of the Opposition before the GE, with the Workers’ Party (WP) indicating that they may contest in this GRC during the well-publicised meeting between the various Opposition parties some weeks ago.

But it was the announcement of Mr Khaw Boon Wan’s transfer from his seat in Tanjong Pagar GRC to Sembawang GRC that truly triggered the promise of a heated contest. And all because Mr Khaw is the Health Minister in PM Lee’s Cabinet. Not that Singaporeans are plagued by diseases; the standard of healthcare in Singapore is something every citizen can be proud of. But the Opposition somehow wants to pin the blame on him for a recent scandal at the National Kidney Foundation (NKF), which was found to have poor corporate governance practices and key management personnel are being charged for corruption.

The Singapore Democratic Party, proclaiming themselves to be most vocal about NKF’s malpractice in the past, made a beeline for the GRC. This decision was apparently made unilaterally and Ms Sylvia Lim, WP’s Chairperson, expressed surprise when interviewed by the local press. Despite the fact that the party has been doing some groundwork in the GRC, WP has since chosen to give way to the SDP to avoid a three-corner fight. A generous gesture, no doubt. But the SDP has yet to shown any gratitude by reciprocating that gesture and renouncing Nee Soon Central in return.

SDP has made no secrets that they will use the NKF issue as a platform to launch their attacks on the ruling party. Mr Khaw is perceived by the SDP to be the person to blame for the issue. Possibly, they will question how the Health Ministry has allowed the NKF scandal to happen right under its nose. Other critics supporting the Opposition cause have also been quick to point out the so-called parallels between NKF and the prevailing political climate in Singapore, by alleging that power should not be vested in the hands of a few without any checks and balances.

The usual internet forums on local politics saw heated discussion, but much of what was discussed could not be reproduced here given the vulgarity and immaturity of the comments from some Opposition sympathisers. One accusation, for instance, attacked Mr Khaw on the basis that he was born in Malaysia and did not serve National Service. It overlooked the fact that meritocracy is broad-based and Mr Khaw’s contributions in the political and community landscape is of a far larger magnitude.

Remember the SARS crisis? The Health Ministry, led by Mr Khaw, acted quickly and decisively to bring the situation under control rapidly, earning acclaims from overseas. There is no doubt that there are many heroes in the battle against SARS to save the many lives and jobs which could be lost, had the epidemic spiralled out of control and resulted in a long drawn out economic recession. But there was only one man at the helm of the Health Ministry and undeniably, his calmness throughout the period of uncertainty provided the focus for everyone to get the job done. Recall his cheerful disposition with Sarsi softdrink for good effect during one of the press conference?

Amidst the sound and the fury over the NKF issue which the Opposition is trying to create, Mr Khaw was calm. He said he welcomed a debate on this issue. He is demonstrating once again a necessary trait of a good leader --- not joining in the frenzy of panic. In fact, he was calm enough to point out the fact that the Opposition had been quick to seize on the NKF issue, because they have no other issues.

What then, his opponents? We still do not know who they are. For sure, Dr Chee Soon Juan, leader of the SDP, will not be contesting as he is still an undischarged bankrupt. With so many defections of candidates from the SDP to the other Opposition parties, it will certainly be interesting to see what kind of team will be contesting against the PAP in Sembawang. A WP team contesting in Sembawag would have allowed a better choice than the SDP, but that would not materialise now.

In all their enthusiastic efforts to capitalise on the NKF issue, the Opposition may have overlooked Mr Khaw’s quiet charisma. He is seen by many as humble and down-to-earth, quite similar to the charm of Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong. It will be a terrible mistake to try shouting at him with a loud hailer at the marketplace. The SDP should know better, based on their electoral feedback in 2001.

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