Transport Minister Yeo Cheow Tong never expected to enter politics — and to stay in it for the past 22 years.
In an exit interview with reporters yesterday, Mr Yeo said: "When I was asked to stand for elections in 1984, the chairman of my company asked me how long I expected to stay in politics. I said maybe eight to 12 years."
So in 1996, after successfully organising the World Trade Organization ministerial conference as Minister of Trade and Industry, Mr Yeo first raised the issue of his political retirement to former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. "Mr Goh told me there was no way I was going to leave," recalled Mr Yeo with a laugh.
The 59-year-old father of three daughters — whom he said have practically "grown up without him" — had broached his political retirement a few times since then.
"I've always desired to return to the private sector so I'm happy that now, Prime Minister Lee (Hsien Loong) has agreed to let me go, even though he asked me to still stand as an MP. Coming from the PM, it's hard to say no," said Mr Yeo, who is the MP for Hong Kah GRC.
As for how active a backbencher he will be, Mr Yeo said: "I'll cross that bridge when it comes ... where the issues are relevant I'll definitely speak up."
While it would be "unfair" to make transport issues his pet topic, he added that he would be happy to support his successor — Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Raymond Lim — when he has to explain any policies that were implemented since he took office as Transport Minister in 2001.
Noting that transport fares have risen by one cent a year for the past 20 years on average, Mr Yeo said that such a situation was unique to Singapore.
"Our fares are very reasonable," he said. "We have to be fair to commuters and the public transport service providers. If they can't make a reasonable profit, they won't invest in upgrading and our transport system will degrade."
He also defended the public listing of the public transport companies: SMRT Corp and ComfortDelGro Corp.
"Allowing operations by private companies forces them to be more efficient. That's why we've been able to enjoy bus fares that increase by one cent a year without any Government subsidy," he said.
One thing that Mr Yeo cites as a "definite" regret in his stewardship of the transport industry is the failure to clinch an Open Skies Agreement with Australia that would allow Singapore Airlines to fly the lucrative Sydney-Los Angeles route.
He said that "expectations" were high that Singapore would finally be granted the air rights and a bilateral commitment to a "road map" towards open skies in 2004.
"I was disappointed when the decision was made and told through the (Australian) press," said Mr Yeo, adding that he has yet to receive an official response from the Australian government.
Still, Mr Yeo will be visiting Australia in the next few months — this time for pleasure, not business. A mechanical engineering graduate from the University of Western Australia in Perth, Mr Yeo plans to visit his friends there, as well as China and Europe with his wife.
"I'll be taking a few months off to travel. I've been working virtually non-stop since 1972!" he quipped.Mr Yeo's career began in the Economic Development Board from 1972 to 1975. He then joined LeBlond Makino Asia as a staff engineer and was managing director by the time he left in 1984 to enter politics.
"I hope people will remember me as someone who tried his best to work for his country," he said. -- CNA
It is indeed surprising that Mr Yeo Cheow Tong is being so flippant and irresponsible about his duties as an elected Member of Parliament. Although he is no longer a Minister, surely he is accountable to the residents of his constituency, those of whom he was elected to serve?
The PAP mentioned that the Opposition's idea of having full-time MPs is not necessarily a good thing, because their experiences in the private sector would lend them certain insights, and enable them to solve their constituents' problems more effectively. So, are we to take it that Mr Yeo's lengthy sojourn in Australia ("for pleasure", no less) will also similarly render him more insightful and more able to serve his constituents?
We certainly hope so!