Josephine Teo: ‘I’d have had four kids if not for politics’

In Part 2 of this Supper Club interview, Senior Minister of State for Transport and Finance Josephine Teo talks about the annual Budget, her work as an MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC and personal life.

Josephine Main

Josephine Main

Q: You lead the committee for Changi Airport’s expansion. Is it expanding fast enough? Our aviation correspondent said given the projections, Changi Airport could be operating at more than 90 per cent capacity (in the few years before Terminal 5 opens).

We’re still building ahead of demand. When you plan airport handling capacity, you also plan with a service standard in mind. Can airports pack in more? The answer is almost certainly yes, because there are certain time slots of the day that are less popular. When airports become busier, more of those unpopular time slots get taken up. But that’s not the service level we’re aspiring to. We are nowhere near there.

We’ve to stretch capacity. The time lag between two take offs depends on the aircraft size. An A380 that’s taking off generates a lot of turbulence. If you put a small aircraft behind, you have to wait longer. But if in front of a smaller aircraft is also a smaller aircraft, the time can be shorter. This is one way you can improve runway productivity.

Q: Is Changi Airport’s $1.47 billion Project Jewel complex with nearly 70 per cent of retail space, a vanity showpiece?

The airport in (South) Korea has a prominent cultural centre and they have Louis Vuitton. Which one do you think is busier? We need the cultural showcases. But people do enjoy shopping. Changi Airport has to be responsive to what passengers want.

Q: What can people look forward to in the Budget?

Over the last couple of years, the themes are quite consistent – how we can help everybody progress together. There’re different emphases. We’ve done pre-school(and) a major piece on healthcare. But the healthcare piece is not done. Reasonable to expect more in that regard.

It’s a continuation of the work that has already started, whether it is on the economic front or the social front. In that sense, the Budget will not be surprising. When you eventually hear the Budget, I think there will be a high degree of familiarity because it will be a continuation of themes from the last few years.

Q: What’s changed after your promotion to Senior Minister of State in September last year?

Looking back, I was always involved in side projects. I spent 10 years in the Economic Development Board. I was in enterprise development and handling logistics services, (but) I was deeply involved in EDB’s organisation development. Completely unrelated to my core job, I was asked to handle China affairs. Then EDB set up an office in Suzhou, in 1997. They said: “Jo, will you like to go?” My work would have seen me being posted to an overseas centre in Europe or the US. The opportunity came for me to get involved in China work, so I did.

When I was in NTUC, I was asked to be on the founding board of Business China. Later on I became its CEO, concurrently with my role as assistant secretary-general (at NTUC). I enjoy variety. Today as Senior Minister of State, I’m still involved in the China piece. When Minister Zhao Leji (Member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee) came, I was involved in hosting him. I chaired the China-Singapore leadership forum. I don’t think so much about job title. Getting the breadth of involvement – that’s what I enjoy.

Q: How do you see the Shunfu Ville issue? (In a lengthy spat, the former public estate put up a boundary fence after it was privatised in March last year, which cut off a walkway that residents of Thomson Garden landed estate used to get to Shunfu Road. Both estates are in Mrs Teo’s ward)

I share Thomson Garden residents’ disappointment that Shunfu Ville MCST (Management Corporation Strata Title) was not prepared to consider the proposals because I think the effort required was not so much actually. I can only say that it’s disappointing. It didn’t have to turn out this way. It was not the best outcome, but we have to move on. They’re a private estate. They’ve to decide what’s reasonable. We’ve found another option. We’re building a covered linkway that goes all the way to Shunfu Market and Marymount Station. It doesn’t make up completely for the footpath, but it offers a different kind of convenience.

Q: The Land Transport Authority usually builds (covered walkways) within 400m of an MRT station, but this one (which is further away) was an exception?

LTA was very understanding. They appreciated that the residents did have a concern especially the elderly folk. I’m glad that LTA was prepared to be flexible.

Q: On leadership succession in the labour movement, one name thrown up for the next Secretary-General is yours. What do you think? (Mrs Teo was previously assistant secretary-general).

I had a very good five years in the labour movement. I hope I made some contributions. I will go wherever it is that I can be the best contributor.

Q: Any time for hobbies? (Her husband, Mr Teo Eng Cheong, is chief executive officer of IE Singapore, and they have three teenage children)

Every year, I make it a point to travel with my family. It’s my protected time with my kids. Twice a year, I need to remind them that they do have a mother. I enjoy being a mum. I’d have had four kids if not for politics.

Q: What’s your reflection on how Singapore society is going?

Whenever I come back to Singapore from abroad, I feel like I’m back in the domes in Gardens by the Bay. The conditions are perfectly set: humidity, temperature, fertiliser, the eco-system. But if we are perfectly honest about ourselves, this is actually an unreal environment, because nowhere else in the world is like that.

My concern for my children is that if you think the whole world is like the dome, you’ll not be able to adapt when the canopy is eventually lifted. The canopy has to be lifted because we’re an open country. The dome is never a sealed structure. It can at best be a net (which) can be blown about, even dismantled, if, for example, the bigger powers decide to go to war.

This December I brought my children to Nanjing, to the massacre museum. Nanjing Massacre happened in 1937, not so long ago. If you go to Phnom Penh, you’ll see where they imprisoned (people under the Khmer Rouge regime). At the time this happened, I was a kid. Not so long ago.

We talk about “here not so good, there not so good”. But don’t forget it’s still a dome. My message to my kids is that I know, even at home, not everything is perfect…We’ve to ready ourselves because we live in a very imperfect world. You can only continue to strive towards perfection but never get there.

Q: Some people would say it’s also because of the way Singapore has developed that’s why we have this dome – always forward thinking, plan everything?

That’s why our ability to respond when things don’t go as well as we would like them to, has been affected. Sometimes we also scratch our heads and say: “Why are people so angry?”

I had dinner with a well-regarded government leader from our region. This person comes to Singapore for private short breaks. I asked this person: “Why do you come?” (He said): “To be encouraged and to be inspired.” People always say you must appreciate your own home. There’s truth in that.

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