TWO new candidates of the People’s Action Party (PAP) have come under the microscope, with their new citizen status rousing a fair bit of Internet chatter.
But to Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan, 58, a person’s sincerity and level of commitment are more important than when he or she became a Singaporean.
Mr Khaw, who was born in Penang, said: “I think you have to look at the person as he or she is. One should not generalise.
“I will look at a citizen as a citizen – how committed he or she is, and if he or she likes this place. Then we try to work (issues) out together. I think that is more productive.”
He was responding to questions on Malaysia-born Janil Puthucheary, a 38-year-old paediatrician who came to Singapore in 2001 after 15 years in Britain, and Ipoh-born Foo Mee Har, a 45-year-old banker who became a Singapore citizen in 2008, during a recent interview with The New Paper.
Mr Khaw’s own love affair with Singapore began over 30 years ago.
He was a kampung boy whose parents sold paper bags made out of old newspapers and reared pigs and fowl to bring up their eight children.
After his A levels, Mr Khaw applied for scholarships with both the Singapore and Malaysian governments. He was rejected by Malaysia but was accepted by Singapore.
This changed the course of his life, paving the way for a 23-year career in the civil service before joining politics.
“For this, I’m forever indebted to Singapore. Singapore offered me a meaningful career in the civil service. Singapore took me in as a citizen and offered me a home,” said Mr Khaw when he was introduced as a candidate in the 2001 elections.
But even after decades of being in Singapore, opposition supporters still used the “ex-Malaysian” card on Mr Khaw during the last election in 2006. One of them was quoted as saying in a rally: “You know he’s from Penang, right? He will not have to go back to Penang and sell laksa (if he loses). He’ll just have a smaller post and earn a bit less.”
The ground sentiment against foreigners and immigrants in recent years has also risen together with overcrowding.
But Mr Khaw understands why the “temperature” has risen.
When asked if he would still feel welcome in Singapore if he had come today instead of decades ago, he said: “I don’t think Singaporeans are hostile.
“Singaporeans are not saying ‘all go home’.
“They are saying there are too many, which I think is a fair comment because the numbers did go up very significantly.
“When you go to a restaurant, the people serving you are (foreigners). And especially when they cannot communicate, that’s when you get frustrated.”
Mr Khaw feels that the people’s sentiments must be weighed carefully, even if it means sacrificing potential economic growth.
“We are at five million (people) and there’s already so much unhappiness about too many foreigners,” he said.
“Another constraint to talk about is the core group of citizens.
“For instance, we may be able to attract up to 10 million, but if they are all foreigners and your core group suddenly becomes three million, or 30 per cent, then obviously that’s not what we want this country to be...
“So the angst over the influx of immigrants over the last couple of years suggests that there’s a limit to how fast you can (grow).
“There may be opportunity to take in many more, but we may just have to accept that we have to forego some of the extra growth rate. That is how I see it.”
Immigration issues aside, Mr Khaw, who is an anchor minister for Sembawang GRC, said he’s looking forward to a contest.
“Because the voters want it – as a resident you want it – but more importantly, it’s also bonding with our own activists,” he explained.
“It’s a bit like the long march – you fight the battle together, you are comrades in arms. Otherwise, it’s just zi shang tan bing (all onpaper).”
But when asked if he is expecting a big fight, Mr Khaw, whose team won with a thumping 76.7 per cent in the last election, said he doubts it.
He said: “(The opposition) talks about competing in every seat. In practical terms, I doubt it. So I think we should still expect a fewwalkovers.
“Sembawang may be one of those because I’ve not seen anything so far.”
If there is a contest, Mr Khaw said a big part of the campaign as incumbents would be the team’s track record.
“What we promised at the last election, we delivered it. But that’s the past,” he said.
“For the future, what do we plan to do over the next five years?
“In the case of Sembawang, I’m quite happy with what we’ve done – the evidence is there and the residents know.
“We did quite a number of things, like the usual upgrading, of course.
“But going forward... the HDB’s Home Improvement Programme for older parts of Sembawang, like Marsiling, will be very important, and neighbourhood renewal... Those are things we will push for.”