Sunday, 5 August 2012

Indranee Rajah: Tough climate? Not a reason to say 'no' to office

Belief in her own ability to contribute spurs senior counsel to take up political office
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 4 Aug 2012

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong approached Ms Indranee Rajah "barely a month ago" to move from backbench to frontbench.

She took a week to decide.

Come Nov 1, the senior counsel with Drew & Napier will leave a legal career that has spanned 25 years for political office. Her new appointment is as Senior Minister of State for Law and Education.

Ms Indranee, 49, said she will be sad to leave her litigator job because of the bonds forged with "comrades in arms" while fighting cases together. She will also miss practising. "There's nothing quite like going to court, doing cross-examinations and constructing a case from inception to finish."

The Tanjong Pagar GRC MP, who reads widely to unwind - from fantasy to detective fiction to biographies - thinks it is important to keep her ear close to the ground and will continue to meet and talk regularly with people of all backgrounds.

What finally made up your mind to leave legal practice and take up office?

It's difficult to explain but the sense is that the time is now. You get the feeling that Singapore as a whole has a need to move in a new direction. I don't think we can jettison or leave behind all the things in the past because we're built on a very strong foundation. But I don't think anybody would deny that there's a sense that Singapore is at a crossroads. Being at this crossroads, I think different perspectives and a variety of individuals are needed. I thought I had something to contribute at this particular point in time.

How will your private sector background help you after you join the Government?

Law is a service industry. Government serves people. So that sense of being in service is common to both.

In the private sector, you try to respond to people personally. In government I don't think it's possible to respond to everybody personally but as far as possible, I would try to do that because it makes a difference to people.

Coming from the private sector, you get to see some of the hardships that people face. Hopefully, I'll have the opportunity to address that at the various ministries.

For example, we see how bankruptcies actually operate on people's lives. If they go on for too long, if you've been a bankrupt for 10, 15 years, it's very wearing on you. So hopefully when one looks at it from a policy angle, one can think about how bankruptcies can be processed more efficiently so they can get back to their work and their normal lives more quickly.

How will your 11 years as a backbencher help you when you move to the frontbench?

The function of the frontbench is different from the backbench, which is to question, probe, ask. At the frontbench, you're supposed to provide the solutions.

What I think is very important is to be able to explain what the Government is doing and why, because the Government does an enormous amount but not all of it is appreciated, partly because not all of it is explained. I think the Government does itself a disservice when it does not explain clearly.

Many policies are very well-intentioned but sometimes, if they're not clearly explained, people misunderstand. Then when they misunderstand, the criticism follows.

In making policy, (you need) to do it with input from the people who are going to be impacted by it. It's a collaboration between government and people; we must have that sense of team.

The amendment of the mandatory death penalty was a milestone in Singapore's legal history. Can we expect more such changes in the future?

I think what we can expect is that the Ministry of Law will continue to look at the areas of law that need to be revised, to bring them in line with how society views various things. I don't want to pre-empt what the ministries are doing, but on a general level, the work on law reform is actually actively continuing.

What are your priorities in education?

After this appointment was announced, I got a few e-mail messages saying, please do something about the stress.

Overall our education system is a good one. We prepare our students well academically, but it will be wonderful if they could come through feeling that they have been stretched academically but not wrung out.

Learning should be a joyous process. It should not be a drudgery. Back in 2003, I accompanied then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong to Denmark. We visited a kindergarten where one of the teachers told us that if the children go back without any mud on them, the parents want to know why - because it means the children haven't been playing outside. So there's a sense of a need to work but also a need to play. I think we can do with a little bit of that sense of balance.

Finally, our education system must not just prepare our students to do well in school, but it must also prepare our students for life.

You're the first single woman office-holder. Your comments, and will you speak up for singles in Cabinet?

One thing it shows is that we've moved past the "you must be married and have two children" concept, which was the classic mould for many years. And when PM asked me to be Senior Minister of State for Law and Education, I don't think my marital status was one of the things he took into account. I'm happy to advocate for singles where there's a genuine need.

You will be taking a pay cut when you leave the private sector. Was that an issue for you?

It's okay because whatever it is, I think it's enough for me. If I can do something positive for people and for Singapore, the reward is there.

Given the political climate now where people tend to be more critical and demanding of ministers, why did you still choose to take up office?

Firstly, I don't think we should keep labelling them as demanding and critical. If people have a view, fair enough, that's fine. There's no denying that it's more challenging being a minister at the current time, but I think it's not restricted to Singapore. So I asked myself, well, if it's more difficult and more challenging, is that a reason to say no?

Then I asked myself, why do people have ministers and political leaders? I think the answer is people hope we will make things better for them. They put their hope and trust in you, and hope you can make a difference. I thought yes, my task is challenging, but if I can make a difference, I should.

How would you go about engaging people who may not agree with a certain policy?

The most important thing is to try and distil what people want and what the country as a whole can do, then meld the two and, at the end, have a consensus as to what we want to achieve and how we can achieve it.

How do you do this? One, genuinely listen to people. Two, don't talk down to them. Three, really try to see if we can find a way to address the concerns. You may not be able to find a way that addresses 100 per cent of everybody's concerns all of the time. But if you can find the way that addresses the majority of concerns and try to ameliorate the effects for those who are badly affected by a general policy, then I think that's something people can understand and are willing to live with.

How would you assess what this Government has been doing in that respect?

It's certainly done a lot more in the last year than it's done in the past. It's moving in the right direction but I think that there's certainly room to do more.

What people want from the ministers is a sense of empathy. They really want to feel that you feel for them. They also want to feel that you're one of them. There shouldn't be a huge gap between citizen and minister because a minister is a citizen and a Singaporean too.

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