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The more successful Singapore is, the harder it is to attract political talent: Chan Chun Sing


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SINGAPORE: He has been in politics for just six years, but Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and NTUC Secretary-General Chan Chun Sing has already held several key roles, and his name invariably comes up in discussions on the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) fourth generation of leaders and potential prime ministers.

Since entering politics in 2011, he was promoted to a full minister in 2013, helming the Social and Family Development Ministry, with his rise being among the swiftest among those who entered politics in the landmark 2011 hustings. Even before his political career, Mr Chan was a high flier in Government, rising through the ranks in the military before making it to Chief of Army.

He went “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish about just this – the criticism that too many political leaders in Singapore have come from the ranks of the civil service and military, and whether it was time for greater diversity in political leadership. They first talked about how he thinks the Government can deliver after the mandate it received in the 2015 General Election.

Bharati: Some have remarked, and this is a criticism that has been levelled at, not just you, but several others in Cabinet: “What would a man from the army know about policy-making, about serving the people in everyday civilian life? Why have these people been parachuted into the Cabinet?”

What do you have to say to that?

Chan: Actually if you look at the background of the Cabinet team, they all come from very different backgrounds, some from the business side, some from the military, some from the civil service, and even within those from the military or the civil service, they do have quite different backgrounds, but I think what unites us all is this sense of mission that we want to pass on – a Singapore that is stronger and better for the next generation of Singaporeans.

And if you look at the kinds of experiences that they bring to the table regardless of (their) background, they would have dealt with a diverse spectrum of people in their previous assignment. I can’t speak for all of them but if you look at the military, the very unique thing about the Singapore Armed Forces is that we have a conscription system. Many foreigners may think that the conscription system is a weakness. But actually, we have turned the constraint into an opportunity.

Bharati: How so?

Chan: Because of conscription we are able to enlist people from all walks of life into the military. And if you look at the quality of our NS (National Service) commanders and NSF commanders, they are very confident and they do very well, even compared to many of the regular armed forces. And when they interact with the regular armed forces, the regular armed forces are pleasantly surprised by the quality and drive that they have. The other thing I have learnt very early on in the military is that when we interact with civilians from all walks of life as NSmen and NSFs, they also bring with them the very best ideas from the civilian world, which allows the SAF to progress much faster than it would otherwise.

I’ll give you a very tangible example. Back in the 1990s when computers were not so common yet, one of the first NSmen who come back from ICT, he introduced to us a 5.25-inch diskette. He said: “Why are you guys still typing orders in the old traditional way? Why don’t you use the computers, have a template, and you can teach the people to do things much faster, better, and you can standardise the processes much more effectively?”

Those were very early days of the computers. I always reflected on that episode because it reminded me that if we had only depended on ideas within the regular cohort in the military, perhaps we would not have moved as fast as we would have been able to do over the many years the SAF existed. So we depended a lot on the good ideas from people from all walks of life.

I can give you another example – when we design our systems, whether it’s the rifle or tanks or armoured vehicles used in SAF today, we look at the next generation of youngsters who are not in the military to come in, and give us those ideas, because the design philosophy is this: We need the next generation to design the vehicles and weapons systems for the next generation, and not this generation designing for the next generation. Because of this, my background in the military gave me a wide opportunity for me to be exposed to everybody across the entire spectrum of Singapore and I thought that was a good way for me to acquaint myself with the fears, concerns, and aspirations of people from all walks of life.

Bharati: However, while you pointed out earlier that there is diversity within the Cabinet, commentators too have said that there is too much of a tilt towards those from the civil service and those from the military. To what extent do you think it’s time to diversify even more, in spite of the fact that you said being in the military is itself a varied experience that puts you in touch with people from all walks of life. Why not diversify even more so that a fresh perspective can be injected into policy-making?

Chan: I don’t think we don’t diversify. I think actually in every stage of our development we try to bring in people from as diverse a background as possible. It is not always possible. When it is not possible, you have to have other mechanisms to make sure that you have a diversity of views beyond the diversity of personnel. There are two aspects to this.

One, how do you structure the system to get the diversity of views even if the particular person or particular area of expertise may not be present within the Cabinet or in the core team? That requires us to have an active process to go out, solicit views, hear peoples’ fears, concerns, aspirations, to understand how we can do things better. That is one set of things we have to do.

The other set of things we have to do is to constantly search and widen our search. This is not so easy. There is an observation that many people from the civil service and military can cross over into public service in terms of political service because many of them, like me, would see it as a continuation of public service. That crossover is actually a bit easier.

If you talk to people in the private sector, it’s a different lifestyle, it’s a different upbringing, there will be challenges, and it is sometimes also structural.

I will be very specific. If you ask someone in the private sector (at) the age of late 30s or early 40s and say: “Would you like to join the political service?” It’s not so easy for many of them, because they are in a phase of their career where their trajectory is probably rising the fastest.

File photo of Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing. (Photo: Ngau Kai Yan)

Bharati: Is it more about the money than anything else?

Chan: I don’t think it’s about money per se, but when you are in the late 30s and early 40s, in the private sector, that is the stage whereby you hope to achieve your personal aspirations, not so much about money but the contributions that you can make. But you’d like to prove yourself at that stage. By the time you reach the late 40s and early 50s, and you have been a very successful private sector personnel, it is also not often easy for people to just cross over to the public service sector because you would have a certain lifestyle, a certain social circle of friends, and so forth. So it’s not so easy. The way of working may need to be adjusted, and there will be some challenges.

But having said that, I think we are constantly on the lookout for people who have done well, and at the same time, would be prepared to come forth to serve the country. Even if it’s not in the early 40s or late 30s, or even in the late 40s and early 50s, we are on the constant lookout for it. You can never be satisfied with your diversity, and every day we challenge ourselves to see whether we have any blind spots and that is something we have to do on a continuous basis.

Bharati: We’ll talk more about how the Government can attract more capable people to join politics a little bit later, but all this is also related to my next point which is there has been criticism over the years, off and on, about politicians not being very in touch with the ground, despite having consultation sessions and having feedback from the people. Your own humble background has been talked about a lot over the years. However, the criticism about politicians in general is that once you become ministers, once you earn million-dollar salaries, you forget what it is really like for the common Singaporean.

Chan: I don’t think that is necessarily a valid criticism for all politicians. I can speak for many of my colleagues, whether they are ministers or MPs. I think they work very hard to try to understand the different fears, concerns and aspirations of our people.

We must understand that different groups of Singaporeans would have different fears, concerns and aspirations. The fact that sometimes when we make policies that do not make everybody happy because there are trade-offs, there is give and take within different groups of society, doesn’t mean that particular person has not (been) listened (to); but it is also part of the leadership’s responsibilities to find a balance across the diversity of perspectives that you hear.

Having said that, it’s incumbent on every political leader to make sure that you work hard to connect with every sector of society as much as possible. That requires us to walk the ground. That requires us to move around and constantly look out for groups that we might not have engaged prior. That is partly to check our blind spots; that is partly to enrich the perspectives that we have, on the fears, concerns, and aspirations of fellow Singaporeans.  


Bharati: Related to this is the fact that in the last election, the PAP achieved a very good mandate – 70 per cent (of the vote). But since then, we have seen a lot of policies implemented and several developments that have led people, at least on social media, to ask: Did we do the right thing in voting for the PAP? Some of the things that spark off these types of comments include MRT breakdowns, disruptions, the rise in water prices, the possibility of GST going up in the near future. How do you feel about this?

Chan: Whether it’s post-2015, and post-2011, you will always have such comments from certain segments of society. The question for us as Singaporeans, the question for us as a leadership team is whenever we do something, does it serve the good of Singapore and Singaporeans, not just in the short-term but also in the long-term?

Bharati: But train disruptions don’t serve anyone.

Chan: Yes, so why are the train disruptions continuing? What are we doing to solve it? These are the important questions. Are our agencies on top of the issue? Are they trying their level best? I always tell people that circumstances don’t define us. Our responses to circumstances define us. None of us would like trains to be disrupted. All of us would like trains to work very smoothly.

So what is the Ministry of Transport doing to try their level best? If you look at the current situation we are facing – the re-signalling programme. Now that would cause short-term disruptions and we try to minimise that as much as we can, and if we don’t do that and pretend that the problem doesn’t exist, that won’t put us on a better footing in the years to come.

And we have many examples now across different parts of the world where they have neglected the maintenance, the upgrading of the system over too long a time, and by the time they realised it, the situation almost became irreparable. We don’t want to end up in that kind of situation.

File photo of an elderly man in Singapore. (Photo: Francine Lim)


Bharati: Of course, some would say if you had planned these things better and done a better job in the first place, we wouldn’t be facing these problems.

Chan: If we look back, we can always say that we could have done some things better and we learn from it. But I think the yardstick of whether this Government has done well to justify the faith of the Singaporeans will be this – have we brought Singapore to a better plane? Have the lives of Singaporeans improved over the long term? Even if there are short-term pains that we have to go through together, how can we go through it best?

The other example you raised – nobody likes to increase prices, but there are pressures on the cost side, there are pressures on the salary side, so on and so forth. How do we find a balance, but most importantly, how do we build a system that is sustainable for the future generation, where we don’t have one generation cross-subsidising another generation, where we don’t end up in a situation whereby we become irresponsible over the long term.

Many of the things the Government has to do on the budget and financial side have to take a long-term perspective. I’ll just share some of the challenges that might not be so obvious to the average Singaporean.

Today when we look at the Budget, we are not only trying to meet the needs of Singaporeans today, but we are trying to meet the needs of Singaporeans tomorrow. We all know that in 10 to 15 years’ time we’ll have an ageing population where the number of people working and supporting the elderly will decrease proportionately. The question is, just like an individual family, how do we save up in time to take care of ourselves when we are much older? These are not pressures that will go away. These are not things that will be resolved in the short term but it requires a long-term plan.

So be it the MRT, be it the Budget, we have to take things in our stride, find a balance between the short-term interests of people in our country and also the long-term needs, so that we don’t burden the next generation with the problems that we create inadvertently today because we fail to think long-term.

Bharati: But when it comes to water price increases for instance, many still ask why it wasn’t done more gradually over the years.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing. (Photo: Mediacorp)

Chan: Then you have to get into the details. How do we stagger this out so that it will not burden the average Singaporean? How do we target the help measures particularly for the lower-income group? And ultimately you have to translate it into what does it mean for the individual? Different individuals have different concerns. Now that’s only the second phase. After we have addressed those issues, then there will be a third phase which goes on to ask – will there be more price increases in the future? What will determine those price increases? And people get into those conversations. And they ask themselves, what can we do to make sure that we don’t get into this situation whereby we either waste water or we don’t judiciously harness water resources? How can we make sure that we can, one day, truly become less dependent on external water sources?

So you see that the conversation has gone from an initial conversation about “why now” to “how do we explain the increase to different groups of people”, to a more national concern about how do we, as a country, come to address this very existential challenge that we had ever since 1965, since our independence.

Bharati: What would you say to people who still disagree with you, who are unsatisfied with the way some of these issues are being handled, who might even say that with high costs of living, even what you said earlier about Singaporeans’ lives improving has not materialised?

Chan: This is why we go round day-to-day, group-by-group, to explain to people the challenges that we have, the options that we have. From my own experience, when you sit down and have a heart-to-heart talk with people, we can all have our own unhappiness and dissatisfaction with certain policies, certain measures. But when we put all these pieces together and let our people have a better understanding of all the pressure points we are facing, I think people will have a better appreciation of the challenges. And I think even though emotionally, in the short term, it might be difficult for them to accept some of these policies and measures, they would be better able to appreciate it over the longer term.

And if you look back on some of the things that we have done in the past 10, 20 years – take one example, the most obvious one, in the 1980s, when we put our CPF system on a new footing, I think there was a huge uproar because not many people could appreciate why we needed to change, why the changes were necessary and were those changes good for the country.

Today, with the experience of the last 20 to 30 years, we can say that while we may not have solved every problem, we have put ourselves on a more sustainable social security system. We have a stronger footing compared to many other countries that have essentially bankrupted their system because they weren’t prepared to take the long-term measures to put the country on a more sustainable footing.

That’s where the challenge of governance comes in. Every government, regardless of whether it’s Singapore or elsewhere, will have to find a balance between the short-term interests and the long-term interests of the country.

Bharati: But while you talk about the long-term concerns, the here and now is important. You can’t always expect those who are struggling now to consider the long term.

Chan: Definitely you have to do both. All I’m saying is, while we help the people here and now, never forget to help people for the long term to stand tall and independent. If we can do that, we might have a better and stronger Singapore in time to come. It’s never easy.  

File photo of Chan Chun Sing. (Photo: Lam Shushan)


Bharati: Maybe there’s something wrong with the way things are being communicated. Perhaps the effectiveness of Government communication needs to be fine-tuned further, considering the type of anger we sometimes see online or at the coffee shops.

Chan: It’s not a one-size-fits-all communication. Sometimes you do it face-to-face, sometimes you do it over cyberspace. And as a practitioner in this, frankly I would say that you never go home any day and say: “Ah, I’ve done my job because I’ve done my communication.”

It is a continuous process. We always ask ourselves whether we have left out some other groups whom we still need to communicate with. And even if we convince ourselves that we’ve reached out to the bulk, we still ask ourselves whether there are fresh concerns that we may still have to address.

It’s never about one policy, one announcement, because after you address one set of questions, there will be another set of questions that come out. Till today, there will be people who ask fresh questions from fresh perspectives. So I think from the Government’s perspective and all the agencies’ perspectives, they will always be reminded that communication is an ongoing challenge, not a one-size-fits-all. And it takes a lot of hard work.

It is also one thing to talk to people over radio or television. It is another thing to meet people face-to-face. Because very often, whether you can carry the policy on the ground, whether people believe you, depends on whether they trust you. If you cannot convince him intellectually or if you cannot connect with him emotionally, no matter how good your policy is, he will not support or follow you.

Bharati: I’m glad you brought up the issue of trust. In spite of the fact that on some level they might understand that there is a reason for some of these developments or some of these policy changes, they might feel: You (the Government) were so nice to me before the election, but after I gave you my vote, you started introducing the bitter pills that we have to swallow as a nation. To what extent do you feel some of those moves might have eroded trust in the PAP?

Chan: I don’t think we are so cynical to time such things as people make it out to be.

Bharati: But you’ve heard this, right?

Chan: I’ve heard it and I’ve addressed it in Parliament. Because the Government always has to think long-term for the country, there will be differences in expectations on when we need to take the tough measures. And it’s never easy if you’re the Government. It’s never easy to take tough measures. If we are giving out subsidies, if we are giving out goodies to people, I think those are always easy to accept and welcome.

But a responsible government also has to take tough decisions for the long term. It is never an easy time to come out and say that this is what we need to do. But you cannot time it such that you think it plays on people’s emotions. You have to come out very frankly, very upfront why you did certain things.

We have instituted a very disciplined system in our financial processes, which is (that) every government has to earn its keep. You cannot spend money from the previous government. Nor can you promise to spend money on behalf of the future government. This is a very disciplined and tight process.

I would say that not many countries have the equivalent of this process, and because of this process, today, we are able to achieve two things. One, we are able to build up our savings very prudently. The other thing is that we have a government that is very disciplined to not promise on things that cannot be delivered.

Now within a term of Government, you have to first find ways to earn your keep, before you make any promises. But it will be quite wrong to do it the other way round, like some other countries, where you have elected me and I raid the bank and I give you all the goodies I have. I don’t very much care about whether the money is going to come in subsequently. That is not the way the Government does things and that is not the way we have institutionalised the process.

So it might seem the way you described, but it’s not to win votes. It’s merely the process that we need in order to run the country well long-term. But over time I think Singaporeans see the benefits of how we do this judiciously and over time.

When I talk to the grassroots leaders, when I engage a diverse group of people, they always reflect to me that they are bothered by the short-term pains. And I think I share what they feel. All of us would be bothered by some of the short-term pains and outcomes. But when they step back and see a broader perspective of five to 10 years, they see how we put in place policies to help Singaporeans, to make sure the lives of Singaporeans are better in the long term, and I think they begin to appreciate many of these things.

Bharati: But I’m sure you’ve experienced the cynicism and the anger, not just remarks from understanding Singaporeans.

Chan: There will be cynicism. There will be anger. But I think Singaporeans by-and-large are rational. The most important thing is your broad middle, do they understand what’s in it for them. Do they understand why this is necessary? Take the current economic restructuring programme that we are in. Of course we can pretend that nothing needs to be done and if the Government is entirely political and cynical, we’d say why do all the difficult things, and why is all this restructuring necessary?

But we have never taken that position. For us, it has always been: what do we need to do so that in five to 10 years’ time, Singaporeans will have a better life and Singapore will be a better and stronger country? If you look at the series of the National Day Rallies, the leaders have never shied away from sharing with the people the challenges that we face. And the hard decisions we need to make.

I think people have expectations and people sometimes – those whom you call more cynical – may want to frame it that way. But if you look at how the Government has provided for the people, it is a consistent strategy. I think Singaporeans will see through it if the Government gives things before and takes after; Singaporeans are discerning people. They will know what kind of government we have. If you look at the schemes we have, to help our people, our businesses, there’s a certain consistency in our trajectory. We make adjustments time-to-time according to the needs of the situation. But I don’t think we do sharp corrections and we definitely don’t do such cynical moves.

Everything that we have to tax our people, we make sure that we explain it well, why it is necessary to put ourselves on sustainable footing, so that paradoxically, we can do more for our people in time to come. But if we are entirely cynical, I think the record will speak for itself and I think people will punish us. And we will be doing a disservice to the people and businesses that we are trying to help.


Bharati: Considering the rhetoric we see online and the anecdotes we hear from people on the streets, to what extent are you concerned about people losing faith in the PAP?

Chan: Well, we are obviously keeping a close watch on the pulse on the ground. The art of political leadership is you must understand the ground well to see what are the things that people can accept, to what extent can they accept the tough measures, and to what extent do we need to pace out the tough measures. And that is the art of political leadership. Keep ourselves close to the ground, understand their concerns, fears and aspirations and address them. 

They know this Government, if anything, they err on the side of taking a longer-term perspective on what the country needs and what is best for our people.

I’ll give you some examples. I was talking to some of my counterparts from overseas. When we shared with them about how we are talking about the next-generation transport system in say 15 to 20 years’ time, how we are trying to plan out the city to relocate our airports to free up the eastern part of the island, the airspace control in the eastern part of the island, how we are trying to reclaim land that is 1.2m above sea level because of potential global warming, how we are trying to build the deep tunnel sewerage system, the electrical grid for the next 100 years, my counterparts look at me in amazement. They say: “What makes you spend such time? What makes you so sure that you or even your government will even be around then?” Because their instinct is that anything that is longer than 10 or 20 years will not happen under my watch.

Bharati: Because governments change.

Chan: Governments change and they think let someone else worry about this. Some of them are so cynical that they don’t even see what happens in the next five years as their problem. But we don’t take that stand. We are stewards of our country. For us to be good stewards, we take a long-term perspective.

Bharati: Do you take the long-term perspective only because you are confident that you will be re-elected, that you will, for the long term, be the dominant party in Singapore? One could also say that by saying all this, you are merely making a case for your longevity? Is it really because you feel you are “stewards of your country”? I’m sure you can appreciate that some people would be sceptical, Minister.

Chan: The perspective is that we must always take the long-term perspective from Singapore and Singaporeans’ perspective. It is not about our longevity as a party. It’s about Singapore’s longevity. If we don’t do the correct things for Singaporeans and Singapore, we will definitely be out. But we must do the correct things regardless of the short-term political interests. In fact, you can say that if we are entirely short-term and just concerned about the party’s popularity, there are many things that we shouldn’t do or wouldn’t need to do. For example, would we need to plan to build our electrical distribution system for the next 100 years? No, if that were our mindset, we would say that’s someone else’s problem.


Bharati: You are the secretary-general of the NTUC. The economy and manpower issues often take centre stage today. We’ve seen the number of redundancies go up in Singapore and businesses are facing challenging times. As you talk to workers and to businesses, what do you think is needed at this point to make restructuring efforts more effective?

Chan: In Singapore, unlike many other countries, our concern is not the number of jobs. It is the quality of jobs. The simple statistic is that at any one point of time, there are about 3.5 million jobs in Singapore for our domestic population of about 2.3 or 2.4 million workers and in the age of rapid economic transformation, business transformation, technological transformation, it is again not about not having enough jobs, but it is about having enough jobs of the correct kind for Singaporeans. Jobs to let Singaporeans best make use of their abilities to fulfill their dreams and aspirations. Now this is where the challenge comes in because we are not alone in facing this challenge.

A view of high-rise buildings in Singapore’s financial district. (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

In fact every country in the world is facing such disruptions. The question for us and many others in the world is, how can we re-tool, re-skill our people for the new jobs that are rapidly emerging? How do we help the workers in the industries, in the jobs being displaced by new business models, new technologies, to get into the new jobs that are being created? So it is a very rapid state of flux. And I would say that whoever can get their training and education system right, they will do best for their people. And this is the challenge we face as well. And this is the reason why the labour movement, NTUC, is investing so heavily in trying to strengthen our ability to place people into new jobs and strengthen our ability to help people progress into their new jobs.

We have a very strong foundational education system. We have done very well by most measures. But we need to complement that with a new continuing training education system so that even after leaving school, we have programmes that allow our workers to be continuously upgraded. So that they are in tune with the market needs and market demands. And this system will be quite different from the foundational education system where it is full-time and very structured. It will be a much more fluid system. It will be much more able to allow workers to do it at their own time, according to their life cycle needs and yet provide the timely knowledge that they need.

So I’ll give you an example. In the IT industry, the previous model was taking three to six months to figure out the market demand, taking another three to six months to organise the syllabus, taking yet another three to six months to train somebody. It’s too slow for the economy of tomorrow. In fact, some will argue that it is too slow for the economy of today. That entire cycle would have taken one year to do. One to two years. The new cycle will require people to have a refresh of their skill set within months if not weeks.

What’s the latest thing out there that someone in this industry would need to know? How can we have bite-sized information sent to our workers for them to keep pace with this? So it’s not so much about getting a diploma or degree or a certificate. It’s about currency of knowledge. And in the labour movement, we have an urgency to establish this system, to help our workers be ready for the jobs of tomorrow, to be ready with the skill sets to meet the demands of tomorrow. So this is why we are raising S$200 million for the second tranche of our NTUC Education and Training Fund, to kickstart programmes like these, looking for partners that can help us shorten this learning cycle.

Bharati: The major issue that my listeners tend to bring up whenever we talk about jobs and re-skilling is ageism when it comes to hiring. Older workers tend to have a harder time – figures show that once they get retrenched it takes them longer to get a job and sometimes they don’t at all for years. What do you think needs to be done here in order to help this group of workers? I’m not just talking about those eligible for re-employment in their 60s. I’m talking about the middle-aged group.

Chan: I learnt this from the Swiss when I visited them two years ago. When they talk about re-employment and re-training, and you’re right, they don’t talk about re-employment and re-training at the age of 60. In fact their philosophy is simply, every five to 10 years after I leave school, I need to recharge myself, to upgrade myself. So it requires two hands to clap. On the part of the employee, the Swiss embrace this mindset that it is my responsibility to ensure that every now and then I will recharge myself, upgrade myself because the technological cycles are so fast, so rapid today that my skills might be obsolete in five to 10 years. So they have a very progressive employee mindset.

Bharati: But what I’m talking about is not so much people being unwilling to learn. Some of them have the skills but employers just don’t want to give them a chance because of their age.

Chan: Which is the second part. The employers in the Swiss system also change their mindset just like our employers need to. In the past, anybody at the age of say, 50, people would tend to think they have a very short runway because they have only another 10 years of working life. Now there are two fallacies in this argument that we need to understand.

The first is that the working life of the average Singaporean has been extended. If people in their 50s can well contribute another 10, 15 years, that’s quite a long runway. The other thing is that employers must increasingly appreciate is this: the technological cycle has become shorter so 10 to 15 years can well be one to two cycles. So it’s not like in the past where you can learn a skill and for the next 20 and 30 years, the skill is still relevant. Even in 10 to 15 years it could be one to two new cycles of skill sets required.

So what is wrong with taking on someone at the age of 50 who is prepared to learn new skills, and he might contribute. Even before he retires at 65 or 70, he might actually pick up another skill along the way. So that’s why learning from the Swiss system, we can take a leaf from them.

Someone at the age of 50 or 60 can be a valuable employee. And this is why NTUC is working so hard behind the scenes to encourage employers to not only try to find a good fit, but also, look into how we redesign the jobs to help some of the elderly employees fit in. Because we are all short of talent in the world. We are all short of skills in the world. To constantly look for people to fit the job, that’s one thing.

But to try and redesign the job to fit the skills of our people and yet at the same time to help them move along and move up is another skill set that our employers and HR managers need to acquire. And when I talk to many of our employers and managers, I’m beginning to see this shift.

I feel they are getting more receptive. But as NTUC, if you ask me, are we there yet? Obviously no. Would I like to be there faster? Definitely, yes.

Bharati: Any ideas on how you can get there faster? Of course, over the years, some people have suggested anti-discrimination laws.

Chan: I actually to prefer to work with companies one at a time to actually help them redesign the jobs because that’s the most tangible thing. Passing a law is one thing, but I think we must also understand why the employers may be also hesitant to do this.

Is it because they are not receptive or is it because they don’t have the skill set to help them redesign the jobs? And I think it’s a bit of both, but increasingly the bigger challenge is how to help the employers to redesign the jobs and match the people correctly to those new jobs.

It’s a very intensive process. It goes beyond passing a law. It’s not as if we wave a magic wand and tomorrow all the jobs would be redesigned. But if you look at what the industrial relations officers are doing in NTUC, we go down, company by company urging them to embrace the new philosophy, helping them to design the job in a new way.

It’s a lot of hard work. It’s not just about passing a law. Even if we passed the law, and everybody pledged their support for this, it would still require the hard work to get things done. I’ve seen many countries in the West where people take the easy way out. Because they thought that passing the law was the be-all and end-all. But after they passed the law, they realised that not many things were moving as quickly as they wish, because they didn’t have the enabling mechanism to support the people who have supported their law. And I think we need to work very hard on that.


Bharati: You are said to be in the running to be the next Prime Minister of Singapore. How does that influence the way you operate today?

Chan: It doesn’t influence the way I operate today. I did not come into politics to serve because someone promised me a certain position. I’ll be frank that when I left the military, when the Prime Minister asked me to join the political service, he didn’t even tell me that I would be going to a certain ministry.

He asked me to try to contribute in this sphere and my promise to him was simply this: If you think that I can be of help to the team, you let me know.

And I think that has not changed. All of us play different roles in the team, and within the team all of us have our strengths and weaknesses. And the nice thing about the team is that we all know how to help each other overcome our weaknesses so that it doesn’t become a collective weakness. How do we play to the strengths of the team, and in different circumstances and in different situations, we will all have to play different roles.

But the most important thing is that we play as a team. Not for ourselves, not for any individual pride, but more for the country.

I know many people who would like to speculate – like it’s a football team – who will be the striker, who will be the midfielder and who will be the defender. If I may be frank, that is not the uppermost concern for this team. Our greater concern is not who plays what role. We all know our strengths and weaknesses. The most important thing on our minds is whether we will be able to continue to attract yet another generation of people with the correct values to come forth and serve.

Bharati: The current Prime Minister, too, has said that this is a challenge.

Chan: It is a challenge for every generation. It will be a bigger challenge, the more successful we are.

Bharati: How so?

Chan: The more successful we are, the more common will be the perception that, in Singapore, we are okay. There is no need for us to sacrifice our personal privacy, our careers and so forth, to come forth and take the country to the next lap.

The more successful we are, the harder it is for us to share with our people the challenges that we are still facing and have to overcome. Someone said that in 1965, there was that sense of urgency, that sense of mission. The question is will subsequent generations of Singaporeans continue to have that sense of mission to understand that for us to survive as an independent country has been an anomaly. How do we keep going forward?

In history, not many small countries have survived for very long. But this generation, given the changes in technology, given the changes in business model, we have as good a chance, if not a better chance than the previous generation to transcend our geographical size, our resource limitations by connecting to the rest of the world.

But having said that, we have more opportunities, a more educated population to do more things. Will we still have that sense of mission to be able to attract yet another generation of leaders who will be able to come forward? Perhaps putting aside their personal preferences, aspirations, lifestyles, to mobilise Singaporeans.

Bharati: Many of you have highlighted this problem. But what’s the solution? What’s your thinking about how to do this more effectively?

Chan: It’s a long journey. I would say that we have to start young, to let every generation of Singaporeans know how unique we are, how special our country is and what efforts we need to make to continue to make our country extraordinary; that we are not satisfied just being an average country, a run-of-the mill country that is no different from the rest. But that we must distinguish ourselves by being able to value-add to the rest of the world, to chart our course, to have a kind of value system and the kind of institutions that we have – honest, meritocratic, multiracial and so forth. This requires tremendous effort. And I’ll just end off with a real story.

When I joined politics, not many of my friends expected it and they jokingly told me: “Thank you for serving the country. Please don’t call me unless you’re in trouble.”

And my rejoinder for them was, “I hope to call you before we are in trouble because by the time we are in trouble, it’ll be too late for you to come and join me.”

I hope that it is really like that, that many more Singaporeans would step forward to serve the country, not just in the political field, but to always understand how unique we are and how much effort we need to put in to keep this place extraordinary. And only when we are extraordinary will we have the chance to distinguish ourselves among the league of nations, to stand tall, to stand independent and chart our way of life.

The very moment we become pedestrian, ordinary, there is very little reason for others to treat us seriously or give us the space to chart our way of life. So these are really the concerns of this current team, not so much as who is going to be prime minister or take on any other role, but more importantly to be able to share with fellow Singaporeans this dream of ours – to keep the country going as a successful and independent country for many, many more generations to come.

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