Sunday 11 August 2013

Tan Chuan-Jin: Keeping it real with Singaporeans

Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin knows well what it takes to organise a National Day Parade. As a brigadier-general in the Singapore Armed Forces, he took charge of the parade in 2009. Elgin Toh met up with him over supper this week, in the second instalment of a new series called The Supper Club.
The Straits Times, 10 Aug 2013

We celebrate National Day this week. There's been criticism of the parade organisers this year, especially over the theme song.

It happens every year! Perhaps criticism is amplified, as more platforms become available.

Is this still a worthwhile task, with people throwing stones?

In 2009, we got (local band) Electrico to perform. People were complaining: Why a band, and why this type of song? People will question regardless of what you do.

What my team did in 2009 was to revisit the raison d'etre for organising the NDP. It changed our perspective; it wasn't just about organising the event but to really get Singaporeans to celebrate and reflect.

I realised my preoccupation wasn't the audience at the parade. They were converted - that's why they balloted for tickets.

It's actually the rest of Singaporeans who are thinking: "Ah, another propaganda event." Or: "Long weekend - let's go somewhere." How do you get them to reflect on the meaning of National Day?

So we had a lot of outreach to the public. The Pledge Moment - getting Singaporeans everywhere to recite the pledge at the same moment - was one simple but meaningful way to engage the larger population. You are not at the parade but, in that half a minute, you think about what it means.

The following month, (Nominated MP) Viswa Sadasivan tabled a motion calling on Parliament to reaffirm the principles of the Pledge. That was remarkable because it was exactly what we wanted: People talking about the Pledge and asking what it is.

What do you think of this debate over whether we need a theme song every year?

"Home" will continue to be a favourite for a lot of people and it will be hard for any new song to measure up to it. But having a new song allows Singaporeans to exercise their creativity. Sometimes it works well, sometimes it works less well.

You took over the Manpower Ministry a year ago. How does it feel to be ultimately responsible?

I don't feel that it is different. The way I convey to my team is: We have to leverage the collective strength and wisdom of everyone. It's not just one person deciding and that's it, everyone follows. I am responsible but it's with the team's support and backing.

What would you say were one or two of the more difficult decisions in this past one year?

The strike (by SMRT bus drivers in November last year) was something I had to deal with. It came to a head very quickly.

Crises will always happen from time to time. You can't be flustered. You just have to find out what the situation is, what the options are, determine the timeline of your actions, and resolve it.

Was it clear early on that it was not a legal strike?

It did appear so but you have to be sure. People said then: "Why didn't you declare it an illegal strike?" We could have declared earlier, but you want to be ready as it will set in motion a series of actions. You had to make sure the different agencies were ready.

You post on Facebook more than other ministers do. Your posts tend to be quite personal. Is this a conscious decision?

I was on Facebook even before I entered politics. Using social media in a more public way began in NDP 2009, as we tried to reach out to people through new media. We featured people in a very big way. For example, we did videos of people who wake up early in the morning to put up barricades. It was our way of recognising them. It's not very glam work, but this is how they contribute. So in many ways, that's how I continue to use Facebook. It's a useful tool for sharing stories and recognising work not seen or heard.

You recently called some online government critics "keyboard warriors". And they jumped...

Yes, so one of the things you begin to be aware of is that people will jump. Of course, sometimes when you're not paying as much attention, you're tired, you post something which you feel about, and you only realise later that it caused a certain reaction.

It did appear that some of them, who happily criticise others, can be remarkably sensitive. The comment was half in jest.

You don't have a maid at home. What went into that decision?

We just didn't really like the idea of having someone else in the house. I actually think as a society, we are a bit too dependent on maids. Every family has different needs, to be fair. But there's some merit also in managing your own household. Your children grow up not assuming that things automatically get cleaned.

What books or films have you read or watched recently?

I've always enjoyed films from young. All sorts of genres. Mindless movies are also fine. So recently I watched The Wolverine and Pacific Rim. Sometimes I read reviews on and I'm thinking: No need to analyse so much, lah. This film is just meant to be enjoyed and that's it.

What makes you proudest about Singapore or Singaporeans?

There's a lot of heart and a lot of soul among Singaporeans. We tend to say that people are very inward-looking or selfish. Yes, there will be an element of that. But I do see a lot of Singaporeans passionate about putting in time to help others in many ways.

What most disheartens you?

Sometimes you meet people with a sense of entitlement. Once I met a landed property resident who was quite established, working in an important institution. She said: "The Government does so much for HDB flat dwellers. What are you doing for us?" I was taken aback. She had benefited from opportunities created, stability and other broader measures. I expected her to understand that more would be done for the less privileged. Instead, she should contribute back to others. She is not the only one but, thankfully, I have not come across too many.

What's for supper
- Geylang Serai Market
- Chicken masala thosai for two: $5.60
- Beef rendang for two: $6
- Ice teh: $1.50
- Lime juice: $1.50
- Total (including GST): $14.60

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