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Tan Chuan-Jin telling it like it is

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In the second of our four-part series on Singapore's '4th Generation' of leaders, Minister Tan Chuan-Jin tells FOO JIE YING he will always speak passionately about what he feels strongly about

He may have been one of the last few among his peers to be confirmed as a full minister.

But Mr Tan Chuan-Jin is by no means a slowcoach when it comes to politics.

The 46-year-old started out at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) shortly after the 2011 General Election as a Minister of State.

A year later, he moved up the ladder to become Acting Minister, and finally, a full minister in May 2014.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said then that Mr Tan had performed well, mastered his portfolio and also worked hard on the ground to win the respect and trust of Singaporeans.

In May, he moved on to the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).

When he spoke to this reporter, Mr Tan referred to an A3-sized document mapping initiatives like the Fair Consideration Framework and WorkRight - measures that came to fruition under his watch at MOM.

He said that map was a farewell gift from his former colleagues and it remains prominently displayed in his MSF office.

His former colleagues also made him a work permit replica as a joke and a memento, a hint of how well liked he was in his time at MOM.

Maybe it was his insistence to speak passionately about what he feels strongly for, to be true to himself, that endeared him to those around him.

He said that back in 2011, when he was a new candidate, he made a conscious effort to say what he felt, instead of what people expected him to say, which felt "a little stiff, a little awkward".

"I decided that I should really just continue with the kind of perspective I've always had. That is, if I feel strongly about something, say it, do it.

"You've got to be wise about it, but you really need to be comfortable to be yourself. Otherwise, you will be inconsistent. And I think it'll be very tiring, lah, to just be this, that or the other," he said.

WATCH: Is an MP a social worker or a lawmaker?

WATCH: Mr Tan on effecting change through social media?

For the Mr Tan's full answers, go here

Minister Tan on:

FAREWELL GIFT: The map from Mr Tan Chuan- Jin’s former colleagues at MOM. TNP PHOTO: CHOO CHWEE HUA


He was only 18 and busy with National Service but a young Tan Chuan-Jin already felt strongly about looking out for people and defending the nation.

He said he still cannot quite figure out why he felt that way, but that feeling has amplified over the years.

In 2011, he left the army to join politics, a transition he saw as a continuation of his work - interacting and engaging people.

"The reason I joined the army in the first place was really about giving back to society in some ways..."

Did the military hierarchy make it easier to become a leader?

"(Being a leader) is really about inspiring (people) to believe in something. That's not something you can order," he said.

The only big difference is the loss of privacy.

"You're pretty much in the public eye. Previously, I was a lot more anonymous in some sense.

"But the reasons for serving are no less different. The cause is really about looking out for people, looking out for society.

"So that's one thing that I found that has reinforced over the years."


He is no stranger to epithets and stinging comments hurled at him on the Internet.

Most recently, the Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin was called "delusional", "out of touch" and "living in denial" for his post about some old folks collecting cardboard as a "form of exercise".

It has been a sobering journey, he said.

"Even with the best intentions, (there are) different perspectives and you get burned in the process. And you just got to learn to deal with it," he said.

"It's not just happening to me, it's happening to others as well... But you can't live in fear. I think you're here for a reason. Your purpose is to do something that's good."

Mr Tan had been active on Facebook even before it was popular among government agencies and he runs his own public Facebook account.

"I don't analyse the strategic times to post... I never understand the algorithms. I just suka-suka (Malay for as you wish) post something when I feel like it," said the minister, breaking into laughter before he became serious again.

"But it's me. It's things I'm interested in. I've a wide range of interests and am inquisitive about issues. So to me, social media allows me to interact and engage...

"You have to accept that there will be people who are critics. There will be people who will distort everything you say.

"But that's okay," said Mr Tan.


Once in a while, he comes across a piece of news that makes him furrow his brow in annoyance.

He did just that when he read about a woman who was caught running a curry puff factory out of a two-room rental flat here to feed herself and her two children.

The law caught up with her and the Indonesian was fined $3,000 for selling curry puffs without a licence. She served a five-day default sentence instead as she could not afford the fine.

Even as a minister used to doing his checks and verifying every case, Mr Tan's first reaction, like many, was: "Tsk! Why are our agencies so inflexible?"

After some checks, he realised that she was "not quite the poor lady struggling to make ends meet". Details of her receiving help did not emerge in the story, he pointed out.

With such cases, things are not always what they seem, Mr Tan said.

It becomes important to strike a balance between being circumspect and flagging up concerns.

"So the main thing is be involved, highlight, flag up all your concerns, but let's find out. You cannot have a trial and jury (online).

"I can't come forward and clarify many of these things because a lot of the information is confidential. It goes on, and then people come and weigh in. We appreciate the public concern, and that's really gratifying, but where's that balance?

"So the reality is we need to find out more and unfortunately, sometimes there are complex reasons (behind) these problems," he said.


Is a Member of Parliament a social worker or a lawmaker?

Mr Tan is certain that the answer is both.

Calling it a fallacy to see MPs as just lawmakers, he said: "I am very particular about our roles on the ground.

"We sometimes discuss about whether you are electing an MP to be your chief social worker rather than a parliamentarian, as if that this is really not your job, and that being a parliamentarian is about making laws.

"I find that may sometimes trivialise the issue. Yes, I'm not a chief social worker. In fact, I'll be hesitant to call myself a social worker, because it really does my social workers injustice... because they are far better qualified and able.

"But there are things that I can do.

"And being involved with families who need help allows me (to have) a very intimate perspective about the issues, and that actually instructs me in my role as Minister for Social and Family Development."


As a Member of Parliament for Kembangan-Chai Chee, Mr Tan has been racking his brains over how best to help the disadvantaged.

Some rental flats come under his ward.

This pet cause was sparked in his later years in the army. As the organising chairman of the 2009 National Day Parade, he came up with outreach programmes to make the event more inclusive and brought in the less privileged to help with the fun packs.

"I also wanted to tag the fun pack so that when people receive it, (they would realise) this was packed by someone. So you remember the people who are sometimes very anonymous and faceless in our society," he said.

What he did not expect was the impact the outreach had on him and the soldiers involved.

Said Mr Tan: "You begin to care in a much more intimate way, you also feel that you change in the process...

"I think it made (those who were involved in the outreach) more human in terms of reconnecting our sense of compassion."

The NDP outreach made him ponder over how to replicate the same experience in his political career.

"I can't change society at large, but in my own small, little way, can I begin to involve residents, volunteers to actively play a part, to actually make a difference?"


Some jog or hit the gym as quick ways to beat stress.

Minister Tan said he does it a little differently and more efficiently: He sometimes runs up and down the stairs of the blocks at Kembangan and Telok Kurau.

He explained this habit: "You can de-stress, get some exercise and also meet residents, although it's sometimes a bit bizarre. Sometimes I walk by and then if the doors are open, I talk to residents, they're a bit perplexed (and probably wondering) 'Who is this chap talking to me?'"

Another hobby he indulges in, when time permits, is photography. More specifically, Mr Tan finds processing photos therapeutic.

He started off doing it the old-school way - in the darkroom - until Photoshop came along.

"It's really quite exciting, but it (developing in the darkroom) takes too long!" he said.

“I don’t analyse the strategic times to post... I just suka-suka (Malay for as you wish) post something when I feel like it.”


WHO: Tan Chuan-Jin

WHAT: Minister for Social and Family Development

FAMILY: Married with a son, 13, and a daughter, 17.


2011: Minister of State for National Development and Manpower

2012: Senior Minister of State for National Development and Acting Minister for Manpower

2014: Minister for Manpower

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