SINGAPORE: It’s been about four months since Tan Chuan-Jin took on the role of Speaker of Parliament, but still, the word that is most often associated with him is “demoted”. When I meet him in Parliament House for our interview, he says with a wry smile that he thinks it’s unfortunate that many members of the public continue to fixate on this.
The 49-year-old, who spent nearly 24 years in the military before entering politics, has been “a good soldier” throughout this. If he is disappointed with his new role, he rarely shows it, often speaking about it with a smile on his face.
But beneath the veneer of the good soldier, there must be a man who wondered why he was moved from his position as a full minister to take on the largely procedural role of Speaker and a politician who might be worried about his future.
He admits to wondering about the reasons for his new appointment.
“I did think about why this happened. I thought about it in my own mind, but I don’t linger on these issues.
“There will be those who feel that you didn’t do well and that’s why. And there will be those that felt it might have been health issues. There were those who suggested I stepped on some other peoples’ toes,” he says.
“But actually, when the prospect of Mdm Halimah becoming President was raised with me, I felt that (being Speaker) is something that I could possibly do.”
Did he ask anyone in Cabinet why he was being nominated for the post?
“No, I just pretty much embraced it. That’s pretty much how I’ve approached every single transition to every job.”
(To listen to the full interview, click here.)
THINGS DON’T ALWAYS PAN OUT AS YOU WISH
“In life, things don’t always pan out exactly as you wish,” he says, as we continue to discuss his career.
“Perhaps you wish you could have been promoted. You wish you could have this job or that job and sometimes you don’t always have full control over it and I’ve come to realise that another perspective to look at is really to be just passionate about whatever you are doing.”
But what was his original “wish”?
“Frankly, when I first came into politics, if I had the choice, if I’d been asked, I would’ve asked to go to the then-Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, but I was asked to go the Ministry of National Development. I ended up enjoying it a great deal because we were dealing with environment and heritage issues which, to me, were related to us caring for something that’s beyond just the transactional.”
Mr Tan eventually moved to the Ministry of Social and Family Development and launched initiatives such at KidStart for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. He also launched SG Cares, an initiative to encourage volunteerism.
He speaks passionately several times during our interview about “tending to the softer aspects of society". He continues to oversee SG Cares and has been appointed adviser to the National Council of Social Service.
It was in 2009 as head of the organising committee for National Day that he saw the benefits of contributing.
“We brought the military police and some of our artillery guys to the Assisi Hospice. The performance that they put up there was probably more important than the one they put up on the actual day because for many of the residents in the hospice, they were not actually going to get to see this again.”
“I realised that the takeaway was not just for those whom we are reaching out to, but the impact on us. That’s when you realise that perhaps there is something that we can do in our society to build a society that’s more caring, that’s truly inclusive, compassionate.”
But I still wonder about his political ambitions and whether because some have said he was likely in the running to be Prime Minister, he desires the post.
“That has not been something that I think about. It’s something that others talk about.
“It doesn’t matter to me. I have the responsibility in whichever role to carry it out to the best of my abilities to make the difference I can,” he says.
“I take this approach to life and my career, not just in politics but even in the Singapore Armed Forces. I go where the openings are. If I’m told that there’s this job and I’m going to be posted there, basically I take it up and then move forward. I know that certain jobs can be seen as prestigious, but I think I have a duty and responsibility to just take up where the organisation or the team feels that I’m best suited to go and I’ve embraced every opportunity.”
ASSESSING HIS POLITICAL CAREER
Considering that his latest transition could spell the end of his political career, I wonder if he has considered the possibility.
“I don’t call the shots. If the party feels it’s time for a renewal, thanks you for your services and says it’s time to move on, then it’s time to move on and then you serve the public in a different capacity,” he says.
"We shouldn't be self-entitled to think that just because we enter politics, it remains in perpetuity. You serve only as long you have value-add and are needed."
There it is again – the veneer of the good soldier who doesn’t crack. He goes where he is needed and steps away quietly when he is not.
Is he worried that his career is in danger?
“No, I’m not,” he says as soon as the question is asked.
He pauses just for a second before he adds, almost circumspectly, “I’m only worried in so far as if I don’t have the stature and influence to shape the things that I feel are important to society.”
As he has said in previous interviews, helping the public understand parliamentary processes and procedures and democracy is one of these things.
But he also wants to use his role as Speaker to “begin to reach out to groups, to individuals, to different segments of society to look at the whole concept of giving and volunteering.”
He is currently working with schools and corporates and hopes his stature will enable him to get “face time” with decision-makers to raise Singaporeans’ desire to contribute to society.
He points out that his political career remains varied. After all, he continues to lead Marine Parade GRC.
What would he do if his political career does indeed end though?
“I’ve always been interested in the social realm. If I hadn’t joined politics that could be something I’d be doing. I can imagine that is something that I could do subsequently as well.”
STILL SEEN AS THE MINISTER “WITH NO SENSE OF REALITY”
While Mr Tan speaks of his passion to help the disadvantaged, some of his comments about this group have come under intense scrutiny in the past few years.
“I’m still seen as the minister with no sense about reality, stuck inside an ivory tower and who thinks that old people collect cardboard boxes for leisure or exercise,” he says.
It was in 2015 that he met cardboard collectors in Jalan Besar with members of the Youth Corps Singapore team. He subsequently posted on social media that not all cardboard collectors are people who are unable to take care of themselves financially.
This drew the wrath of many netizens, some of whom bring it up today when Mr Tan’s name is mentioned.
His boyish, light-heartedness dissipates as we discuss this.
“All I was saying was that there is a range. I have residents who collect cardboard. Some of them I know, because they are on public assistance. We are helping them, but they continue to want to do that. I also know one who has six figures in her bank account. My point really was to say that the key thing is to speak to them, find out. If in doubt, help them. Get the details, let us know and we will follow up. That was the context.
“But one of the sites zoomed in on one particular comment and took that as definitive and everything else didn’t matter. Unfortunately, I’m stuck with that.”
Has this made him more careful about how he communicates today?
“It’s not pleasant. I guess for some, making comments like that, tearing someone down, makes their day. For me, I guess that’s part and parcel of public life today," he tells me.
“I think we need to be circumspect but we can’t live in fear; because otherwise I’ll just end up making very sterile statements. Usually, that means saying pretty much nothing.”
THE OPPOSITION GETS OVER 30 PER CENT OF PARLIAMENTARY AIRTIME
We move on to discussing parliamentary issues.
As with most Speakers from the ruling party, people have raised concerns about his possible lack of impartiality.
“I’ve had people come up to me and say, now that you’re Speaker, you should be more impartial and let the opposition speak more. I ask them, 'What exactly do you mean? Are you basing it on perception, or are you basing it on fact?'”
He asked his parliamentary staff to research the last year’s proceedings.
“It’s shown that in terms of airtime, the opposition members speak up over 30 per cent of the time whether through responses or through questions. Just nine of them – six elected members and three Non-constituency Members of Parliament in a field of 101 members of parliament and they get over 30 per cent of airtime.”
“I know Mdm Halimah gave them time and I certainly do. I personally actively try to set aside opportunities for the opposition to speak up, especially in a PAP-dominated parliament. We do try to make sure that there is fair representation.”
I put it to him that while volume is one factor, some members of the public take issue with the texture of debate in that they perceive that PAP members "bully" the opposition members or don’t consider their views.
“These are the perceptions of certain members of the public, and we cannot control that.”
AGNOSTIC ABOUT “LIVE” STREAMING
We then discuss “live” streaming of parliamentary proceedings for the sake of full transparency for members of the public who are still sceptical.
“I’m quite agnostic. I don’t have a particular issue with that.”
He points to data that shows viewership of “live” broadcasts remains low. The number of people who watched the Budget “live” is fewer than 10 per cent of those who watched the parliamentary highlights on the news that evening. Fewer than one per cent of all viewers watched the Budget live using web-streaming.
In spite of that, Mr Tan is willing to consider raising the possibility of “live” broadcasts again.
“I would have to discuss this with government, whether this is something that we would seriously want to consider and perhaps do another trial.”
But he emphasises this is not a silver bullet.
“More important is actually understanding. I can watch, but I may not understand how that process is supposed to unfold or why this person speaks, why that.”
This is why he is determined to start a public education process to explain the various parliamentary procedures and processes. He intends to do so on social media and even through YouTube videos.
He hopes to also strengthen the Singapore Model Parliament initiative, a platform for Singaporean youths to learn about parliamentary processes and national issues through stimulation of parliamentary debates.
A NEUTRAL SPEAKER
I point out to him that perhaps one way to ensure impartiality is to have a Speaker who is not from any political party.
“That’s not up to me,” he says.
It isn’t, but I seek his opinion on the issue. He is non-committal.
“That’s one approach,” he suggests.
“In some other parliaments, you can remain under party; in some other parliaments, they resign and become neutral. But I think it’s useful to ask the opposition MPs whether I’m fair and impartial.”
In September last year, when Workers' Party (WP) MP Sylvia Lim did not get to speak on her adjournment motion on the Presidential Election till much later, members of the public had alleged that PAP MPs had filed motions of their own to block her.
“But people didn’t realised that adjournment motions had been tabled before by three other MPs. We balloted, we picked one and two of them were rolled over and then as it turns out, Sylvia tabled hers. Everybody thought that Vikram’s and Murali’s motions were tabled out of nowhere just to block Sylvia’s. If they had known the sequence, one could argue that she came up with a motion to block theirs,” he explains.
While the opposition has suggested greater citizen participation in policy-making through Select Committees and even more consultation exercises, Mr Tan believes the basics need to be explained first.
“People get very agitated when they don’t understand the process and feel that it is unfair. I think it’s important for them first to have confidence in the process.”
He also highlights the misconception that some parliamentary questions are not answered.
“The truth is, every parliamentary question is answered, whether orally or in written form. Sometimes in terms of sequencing, they may not get answered. But it’s rolled over, sometimes several times.”
LIFTING THE WHIP
Considering Mr Tan has also been talking about encouraging more free-flowing and robust parliamentary debates since his appointment, I ask if this should be reflected in parliamentary votes as well.
Former PAP MP Inderjit Singh had suggested lifting the party whip when Parliament votes on major policies such as the Population White Paper, not just on issues of conscience.
“In order for you to make good decisions, you do need the robust exchange of ideas, so you need to facilitate that but ultimately you need to be decisive,” says Mr Tan.
I put it to him that inevitably, they may not take into account perspectives considered important by some quarters.
“You elect a government who would then represent you in the course of the term of the government, whose duty is then take on board feedback, sense-make, and decide decisively. If you take it to the other extreme, it’s almost like referring most decisions to a referendum. I’m not sure whether that’s the path we want to take.”
LOOKING THROUGH EVERY IVORY TOWER
“We must also remember that the debate no longer resides in Parliament alone. We receive so many inputs from the members of the public who are involved in focus groups, who write to us with very in-depth perspectives.”
But how much does the Government actually listen?
He admits that people often raise that question.
“When I was in the Manpower Ministry for example, I had companies and individuals saying, 'You’re stuck in an ivory tower. What do you understand about my business?'
“But my issue is I need to look out through every ivory tower because your company feels that there’s this need but someone else’s company feels that there’s a different need.”
Another issue that comes up from time to time is how committed MPs really are.
Their attendance rate has been questioned. Some have even said they’ve noticed MPs doing non-parliamentary work during sessions.
“That’s where the whip and the leader needs to make sure that the members are fully aware of their responsibilities and carry that out.
“At times they are also clearing something that may be urgent. In the real world today, at work, many things are happening at the same time. We have developed abilities to also toggle - listen while clearing something.”
I again point out that surely for an MP, parliamentary proceedings should take priority.
“In different degrees. At this point, I wouldn’t insist and say that the MPs should just give undivided attention and nobody should be clearing any correspondence or any messages that come through. I think right now there’s a reasonable balance.
“But if it does become a chronic problem that’s something that I will have to speak to the respective leader and whip of the day about.”
To prevent distractions, I suggest encouraging more MPs to go full-time.
“I think we have a responsibility to our residents, but at the same time, as a Member of Parliament you need to be plugged in to the rest of the world, not just as an MP on the ground. When you are working, whether in the social sector, whether in the private sector, it also allows you to have a better perspective of the different issues that actually concern us.”
A FLAWED DEMOCRACY?
While Mr Tan has touched on building a strong parliamentary democracy, I wonder what the term actually means to him.
The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), in a report last year, rated Singapore a “flawed democracy”.
“I strongly believe in S Rajaratnam’s words that it’s not a democracy of words but it’s a democracy of deeds. It’s about what is able to improve the lives of our people,” Mr Tan says.
“Organisations like EIU can choose to label us in whatever way they so wish. That’s their prerogative and there are also other organisations that rate us well on different fronts. We are not answerable to them. We are answerable to our people.”
I remark that lately on several fronts including transport, many say the Government isn’t doing enough to improve people's lives.
“Understandably, the problems affect confidence. For some, it’s a definitive issue in an election. It is the right of individuals if they use that as a benchmark. Obviously things can be better. We can improve.
“When it comes to an election, our people will make their sentiments known. Certainly in 2011, we could sense it, we could feel it.”
THINKING ABOUT A LEGACY “IS ABSOLUTELY THE WRONG THING TO DO”
Towards the end of our conversation, we turn to issues of legacy.
What would a career soldier, a former minister and now, Speaker of Parliament want to be remembered for?
“I really don’t want to start thinking of building a legacy. I think that’s absolutely the wrong thing to do.
“I might become more concerned about how people will regard me and the work I do than actually doing the work. I think it might affect the way I approach things because I’d be more mindful about how it possibly could be seen badly.”
However, what he says next shows that he does want to leave his mark in some form.
“I would like to support efforts that would help Singapore become a better society, us becoming better people, truly look beyond self and care for others. I don’t know how far I’ll go but I think it’s something worth striving for.”