Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Tan Chuan-Jin: A labour of purpose

Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin believes in having the right purpose and values in his work and personal life.
By Wong Wei Kong, The Business Times, 27 Apr 2013

HE WRITES about the model plane that he would never finish, about the anxiety of sending a child away on a school trip for the first time, and of joining the army instead of reading law. He worries about the erosion of values, fears for how Singapore society would evolve and reminisces fondly about his childhood days on his Chopper bicycle in Ghim Moh. And at Easter, he wrote about death.

The posting on his Facebook page read: "Of the many things in life, nothing quite focuses one's mind than the thought of our impending death. What would you do if this was the last day of your life? Or your last month? Or year? Perhaps these are the moments when we remember again what really matters. And who really matters. And pause to think about the way we live and the way we treat others."

There's clearly another side to the man who has the unenviable task of reforming Singapore's labour force and weaning the country from its dependence on foreign workers. Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin finds himself in the hot seat - critics charge the government with raising business costs and risking growth by curbing the use of foreign labour; others say it is not moving aggressively enough to give jobs back to Singaporeans.

It calls for strong persuasion and sometimes tough action, but the man behind this is highly contemplative about what he has been called to do. It's evident - from reading what he writes and talking to him - that he believes that getting the job done is more than just crafting policies and implementing them. It's also about finding purpose and meaning, and trying to get the balance right, in policy making, in dealing with people and in one's own personal life.

For him, that purpose to serve arrived early in life when he joined the army, where he eventually rose to the rank of Brigadier-General before entering politics. He trained to be an officer at Sandhurst in the UK where he excelled, before being awarded the prestigious overseas scholarship by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

"I think, to me, that purpose is very important," Mr Tan, 44, says in an interview with BT.

"You have to really remind yourself why you want to do what you want to do. And you've got to reconcile that with your own personal aspirations because I think that's the thing that gets in the way. It's how big a factor the self is in the overall scheme of things. And how that distorts the other reasons for doing what you do. And you got to find that balance because it will shape everything that you do."

"And I think you will only want to do it because it is meaningful. Otherwise, why would you do it?"

The commander of Singapore's tsunami relief efforts in 2004 served in the SAF for nearly 24 years before retiring in 2011 to enter politics. The way his career in the army took shape, he says, helped him to focus on doing things for the right reasons.

"When I had to decide to go to Sandhurst, I went on an overseas training award and not the SAF scholarship. I knew that I would also be a year behind my cohort as well. But I decided that it didn't matter because what I really wanted to do was to serve and to join our army. They upgraded the scholarship later when I got back. But I guess these early decisions mattered in a different way. Maybe it was because of the decision I had to make right at the start (that) gave me much clarity about the reasons for joining and serving. It helped me stay focused. And because you got used to being somewhat behind others very early on, you learnt to deal with that and not be overly concerned."

"I actually found that very liberating. In a sense, I did not 'care' too much and just did what I believed to be meaningful and right. It wasn't about being reckless - just that you tried to stay true to your beliefs. I'd also gone for the Administrative Service interview in the early 90s after I graduated. I failed the interview. I was not asked back for another interview until 2005. This was after the tsunami operations. By then, I'd also gotten used to the fact of not being considered and it was just fine. So it was surprising to be invited back for another interview."

"So, in a way - which is advice for all your careers - sometimes, just take a much more open approach and do something because you believe in it and to enjoy it. When you miss out on promotions when compared to your peers, or juniors even, it brings you back down to earth. So you come to terms with 'self' very early on; you learn to enjoy your responsibilities and do what you believe in. That was a great experience."

"And when you end up being less preoccupied about the advancement bit - not that it did not matter - you end up pursuing things you feel passionately about. Push boundaries, get scolded, but it's incredibly satisfying when you make things happen. You gain the trust of your peers and your subordinates and that makes it tremendously meaningful. And fun. It is meaningful, because it is really about people and relationships. People go the extra mile for you. And you establish friendships with the people around you. I feel that this is actually a great way to approach things."

He went on to hold various key appointments in the SAF, including Commander of the Singapore 3rd Division and Commander of Training and Doctrine Command. He was also responsible for organising the National Day Parade in 2009 and introduced the Pledge Moment, when Singaporeans everywhere reaffirmed their allegiance to the country at the same time.

In May 2011, he entered politics and was elected as a Member of Parliament (MP) for the Marine Parade Group Representation Constituency (GRC). He was then appointed Minister of State for National Development and Manpower. Last August, he was appointed Acting Minister for Manpower, while concurrently holding the title of Senior Minister of State for National Development.

To him, entering politics and taking public office continued the journey he started as a young army officer. "It's a continuation. There were times towards the end of my career in the SAF when you're looking at what's going to happen next. There were some options that cropped up but I really couldn't see myself at that stage - and I suppose, at the moment still - outside the public sector. To me, it's important to have a larger reason than the bottom line. I somehow couldn't find myself relating to it, I suppose, not that it's wrong to enter the private sector. I think I've only become more reinforced and clearer that actually it is quite important to play a part in serving society."

Contrary to what some might think, the army provided a good training ground for politics, he says. "I think in many ways, there were actually a lot of similarities."

"The reason for being in public service, whether as an army officer, as a civil servant or in the capacity of a political leader, is actually very similar. It actually boils down to how you look out for our people and how you look out for our society and country. That actually remains the same. You're fighting for the same cause. And that actually hasn't changed. You're just doing things at a slightly different level and capacity but the reason for existence is actually the same. And I think that's really quite important. I mean it might seem quite obvious and quite straightforward, but I think it's really quite important because it's a very real impact that you can have in big and small ways. In our respective capacities, there's always a difference you can make."

"I was already very mindful of that in the army when I was doing force development, when we restructured the army and when we looked at the capabilities we brought in - the Leopard tanks and a lot of the capabilities (we have) today. I was very mindful of the fact that, if one day, we actually have to use it for real, there are lives on the line in the battlefield. You want to make sure ... it works, and actually be able to protect your sovereignty and make sure that as many of your soldiers come back alive, to win and be successful and not to just lose your life because you had an inadequate system."

"And (it's) the same way with all policies. People's lives are affected by your Employment Act coverage, the changes that you make. It cannot be an intellectual exercise. It cannot be a policy that you do to score points and then move on. It's very real because it impacts real lives. And when you do it well, it helps our people, it helps our nation. You do it badly and it will actually affect someone."

"The intellectual part of trying to address the issues, being in the SAF, is very different, but the sense-making that you need to bring to bear as a leader doesn't change. You're trying to deal with different scenarios, different possibilities in a very dynamic situation, and in a structured way, trying to unfold different problems. I think that's very helpful. I guess every job has its own unique dynamics and I'm sure they all add up to your ability to sense-make."

"You tend to think that being in the military, you just give orders and people will follow. But not really, especially being a national service army, it's very much people-centred."

"And I think that in this present capacity, that is very important. You need to be able to bring people on board, you need to be able to understand."

The highlight of Mr Tan's army career and what was to become a valuable experience for the then-future minister came in December 2004, when he took part in Singapore's largest-ever deployment of men and machines to deliver aid to countries hit by tsunamis. Singapore's relief efforts spanned missions in four locations in two countries - Medan, Banda Aceh and Meulaboh in Indonesia and Phuket in Thailand. As a colonel, he commanded the task force at Meulaboh.

"I remember arriving in the place, I think it was New Year's Day, and you're just dwarfed by the devastation all around you. You fly down there, you don't see people and when you land, it's just destruction, dead people, the smell, and the whole town has just collapsed. Then it's like, 'Where do you start?' But you know that there are people's lives which are at stake still. And there are things you need to do so that it doesn't become a full-blown crisis. So at the end of it, you need to learn to be dispassionate. You need to be able to take a step back, quickly try to make sense of the chaotic situation with incomplete information."

"When I flew out there, I didn't have a complete idea of what's happening. There were a lot of gaps so you have to very quickly stay focused on what you are there to do. I think your value-add is to be able to see where you are, what capabilities you have, what other people are bringing to the table and where your value-add is. I can spend my time digging, I can spend time scraping, burying people, clearing the paths, I can go on for the next couple of months and it wouldn't be done. But what's our value-add to our friends in Indonesia? And based on the capabilities that I have, how do I apply that in that context?"

"What you bring to bear is to provide clarity and you can only provide clarity when you are able to sense-make. And you are only able to sense-make when you leverage on the strengths of everybody around you."

Still, a balance needs to be struck even in engaging people, especially in politics. "Singaporeans also don't want to feel that 'It doesn't matter, right? Whatever I say, I think nobody's going to hear me'. Of course, the difference today is with technology, everybody can be heard. So, how do you also then try to bring them on board, for citizens to be able to play a part, to have their voices heard, to respect that space as best as you can, and, in a way, extrapolate that at a macro level and as a whole nation? That's something that you got to figure out . . . but you also have to strike that balance. At some point, you have to make a decision and make a call, which is what leaders have to do."

And with increasing public pressure, it is even more important for leaders to focus on doing the right thing, he says. "And that's the challenge, I think, of today's environment. You have a lot of these pressures being built up publicly through social media, sometimes the mainstream media also echoes some of these. You face it (but you have) to be able to discern and be still dispassionate when you need to be dispassionate."

As an MP who is also a minister, he comes face-to-face with the consequences of the government's policies, such as struggling business owners who cannot find labour with the tightening in foreign worker quotas. It's a tension he finds himself grappling with constantly.

"I see the people who come to see me, and these are not your big businesses. These are your heartland Singaporeans who had built up their own little shops and businesses, and who have done fairly well over the years. But they are now suddenly struggling because they can't find Singaporeans who want to do the job, or their (local-foreign worker) ratios don't allow them to hire foreigners to supplement their workforce. And they are actually on the verge of closing down. They have contracts, so their business is there but they don't have the manpower."

"At a very personal level, as an MP, I feel for them because they are trying to make ends meet. It is not just about finances. It is (about) years of building up something which means a lot to them. It's their whole life. It has given them dignity and put food on the table for their families. And these are not the big businessmen, but really normal Singaporeans, and there are many of them. And the challenge is when you step back as a minister and administer it at a macro level, you feel the tensions. Because if you begin to adjust and provide leeway for a particular sector, and every sector faces different challenges, it begins to unravel. We cannot deviate just because someone sees their MP or minister."

He is aware that the government's effort to engage Singaporeans and gather feedback may have made policy making appear "messier" now than in the past, but it's important to place this in the right context, he points out.

"So I would say 'messiness' doesn't mean your policies are lousy. I think it just means that in the evolution of your policies, you accept that there would be more to-ing and fro-ing in the early stage.

"Usually we take the inputs, we derive the policy, then you translate that, legislate, implement. So what I mean by 'messiness' is that you have to give more time and space for that dialogue and for that exchange. You know, by being slow, sometimes you end up fast. By investing time and allowing people to air their views, people may actually begin to understand the issue better. They feel perhaps a bit more ownership in that and feel, 'Fair enough, it may not be the outcome I desire, but I played a part. I understood where different people are coming from'.

"And might this help the acceptability level when it comes out? Maybe. So what I mean really is that there is this upstream where we accept that there will be this process (when) we have to engage and that after that, we have to pull it all together."

But even in a more consultative environment, he says he believes firmly in strong, decisive leadership.

"Well, first I think, we also have to ask ourselves, what do we really expect of policy makers or policy making? Would Singaporeans feel more confident that we have absolutely no idea, no pre-conceived notion, nothing, and we say 'Let's pull and poll and gather from people who have come forward and then let's aggregate the ideas'? And I'd say that well, we need to engage, listen, but at the same time, you need to then sense-make and then make those calls."

"Some things you might have to cook it a bit more, some things less so ... but I think, on our part, the responsibility is we definitely need to tap the broader wisdom that is out there and the views, and then distil and sense-make that into something that meets the end objective of making sure that this is indeed ultimately good for our people. And I don't think we should shy away from carrying that responsibility because I think that is what is expected of us - the easy thing to do is just say 'Oh, let's do a referendum, let's poll'.

"I think governments still need to remain clear and decisive. I think that's where the leadership needs to be important. Especially for countries like Singapore where you're small and you do need to be agile, you need to ride the waves, you need to deal with the issues that crop up and you need to have the confidence to decisively make decisions which you believe are right for the people. But to help clarify that, you need to factor in as much as is feasible."

In an era of social media, Mr Tan speaks with some passion of the need to engage with dignity. "Obviously, the whole landscape has changed with social media, and we're in this mode where I guess people are sometimes hostile, online certainly, though in person less so." Yet, even in the face of this, office bearers have to respond in the right way, and leaders have to uphold their authority to lead.

"It's not just you as an individual, it's also your office. You need to maintain the dignity of your office. And in the presence of your colleagues, at the grassroots and in the ministry, you need to be able to stand up and maintain your dignity. Much as it is important for us to engage, much as it is important for us to converse, have dialogue, you should not have to lose your dignity in the process."

"Do we want leaders who just go with the flow, where the wind blows? If people shout at you and you just 'kowtow', is that what it means to be an engaging leadership? Does that mean that's the leadership that listens?"

"And the way I look at it, you know, is that all of us are in some kind of leadership position, in our own jobs, at home. Do we go around just summing up everybody's views and then decide that that's the way to go?"

He receives a lot of e-mail, including a number that are hostile and rude, and finds himself sometimes on the receiving end of abusive comments online; being in the public eye is one aspect of the job that has been more difficult to get used to.

"It doesn't matter what you say, there will always be a different perspective. You just have to accept that that's how it is."

"And it doesn't just affect you. It affects the people around you. Your family. People just sometimes forget that you are the same person (you were) two years ago. The only difference is the title and a slightly different role, but there are people who care for you who will read these things as well."

"You accept that this is part and parcel of that landscape. And you just got to figure out how to deal with it. But believing in something makes it worthwhile. Believing that it's worth it, I think, keeps you going. Otherwise it doesn't really make a lot of sense."

Mr Tan read Economics and graduated with a BSc (Econs) from the London School of Economics (1992). He also holds a Masters of Arts in Defence Studies from King's College London (1999), and a Masters in Public Management from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore (2008).

Born in 1969, he is married with two children. He is an avid photographer and enjoys reading, watching movies and soccer and is a fervent supporter of Liverpool Football Club. He attended Anglo-Chinese School and Raffles Junior College.

He maintains the privacy of his family because it is important to be just normal, he says. His wife and children are very supportive of what he does. It had been that way while in the army and continues today. They see it as the same cause and purpose.

He tries to keep life as ordinary as possible for his children. "We do the same things as we used to, eat at the same places, and our friends are the same." He does not have a domestic helper. And like everyone at home, he chips in and sometimes irons his own clothes, do the dishes, washes the car and brings out the rubbish.

"We lead very normal lives so we do the usual stuff at home like everyone else. You want to keep it as normal as possible and I think that is really important because you are in reality the same as anyone else. Just because you are in politics, people tend to treat you differently. But the moment you leave, it's back to normal so you better jolly well handle your own transition by not getting too caught up with all the trappings of it. Even in the SAF, it is the same. After a while, you can get too used to it."

"So now I remind my kids - keep things as normal as possible. When I go to school, I just sit there with the parents. There should be no fuss. I don't think the schools are aware and we should just keep it that way. If things get too elevated, your children will also have a wrong sense of reality, which is not very good. So how do you keep that rootedness? I think that is very challenging. Just got to keep focused and remind yourself all the time."

"I would say that we went in with our eyes open. And I would say that I always enjoy what I do. I have never held an appointment where I never found a meaning to it ... It is always great working with people on the ground, and I think that has made it special. I think it is very disastrous if you do not believe in what you do and enjoy your own work."

And it is this belief in the purpose and meaning of what he's doing, he says, that helps him take a deep breath and carry on.

Career highlights

1989: Awarded the SAF Overseas Scholarship to read Economics and graduated with a BSc (Econs) from the London School of Economics (1992). Also holds a Masters of Arts in Defence Studies from King's College London (1999) and a Masters in Public Management from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore (2008)

2004: Led the SAF's tsunami relief effort to Meulaboh, Aceh, Indonesia

2009: Chairman of the Executive Committee, National Day Parade

May 2011: Left the SAF, elected MP for Marine Parade GRC. Appointed Minister of State for National Development and Manpower

August 2012: Appointed Minister for Manpower, while concurrently holding the appointment of Senior Minister of State for National Development

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