Yet as the people in charge of the country, PAP ministers have to find a way to stand up to all this and lead effectively.
“Do negative comments hurt me?” asks Acting MCYS Minister Chan Chun Sing, who entered politics at the last General Election. “Of course. I am human, I have emotions.”
“But comments don’t affect the decisions I make,” Mr Chan continues. “I always try to do what is right and what is good.” He accepts that some may not like him or what he does but he doesn’t “go around antagonizing people.”
Still, being in charge of a ministry which looks out for the vulnerable, the young, and the elderly is a job that easily attracts criticisms. One or two stories of neglect or insensitivities, like with the ads promoting social work which used taglines that many found patronizing, are all it takes to spark off a torrent of accusations. And these do not just affect him but also those around him, especially his family.
“The people I always try to protect from the criticisms and the personal attacks are my family,” Mr Chan, who has 3 children, says. “I shield my daughter from Facebook and even the Internet as a whole.”
Perhaps Mr Chan’s concerns stem from how some online practitioners have targeted the children of public figures in their attacks and criticisms, especially in recent times. An example is the son of 2011 presidential candidate, Dr Tony Tan, during the elections. Dr Tan’s son, Patrick Tan, was assailed by online critics for his stint during National Service and the alleged privileged treatment he received.
“My family asks me why I am going through with what I do and what I have done to deserve all this,” Mr Chan says, referring to the criticisms he has received. “My wife has said: why can’t the children just get their father back? My family doesn’t need a lot of this.”
In fact, entering politics was a difficult personal decision Mr Chan made, partly because his children are still so young. “My youngest is only four months old,” he says. “Won’t I want to spend more time with them? I have asked myself why don’t I wait till my kids are grown up, don’t need me so much and can protect themselves from all these attacks a bit better [before going into politics], and come out 10-15 years later.”
After a year in politics, he has realized that building trust with the people takes many years and that entering politics now gives him the long lead time he needs. This is also why Mr Chan feels that more people should step forward sooner rather than later. This is “so that maybe in 10-20 years’ time we have enough politicians, who are not just clever or committed—as we will always have those—but who can connect with the people because they have spent enough time with them.”
Politics did not come naturally to him. As a member of the Singapore Army for 20 years, culminating in his appointment as Chief of Army in 2010, with the rank of Major General, one senses that he is more at home in camouflage green than in all white. At least for the moment.
We ask him if he sees himself as a politician. “I have thought long and hard about this,” he replies. “It depends on how you define ‘politician.’ If you define it negatively, as it is in some countries, then we hope not to be politicians.”
He explains that if however a politician is defined as someone who is able to communicate and mobilize, which is part of leadership, then his wish is that we have more of those types of politicians, rather than politicians in the conventional sense of the word.
“These are skills that must be honed over time,” he says, referring to the 20 years it took him to earn the trust of the men and women in the army. “And I got their trust not because I was the smartest, or ran the fastest, or shot the sharpest,” the minister says. Instead, it was because he bonded with them through those 2 decades he spent with them.
In Mr Chan’s eyes, leaders are not people who just tell you nice things. “Leaders are those who are also prepared to say things that people don’t want to hear, but are able to say it in a way that people still want to listen,” he says. “The Prime Minister and I can say the same thing, and people won’t listen to me because I have not established a bond with them. People will, however, give the Prime Minister the respect because he has over 20 years of connection with the people.”
The Acting Minister admits that the long political lifespan [of the ruling party] and stable succession planning is quite unique to Singapore. “No one else is able to do this, except maybe the Chinese Communist Party,” he says. “And we are able to do this because we are a small country.”
Mr Chan describes this “unique” succession process as “unnatural.”
“In any political system by design, besides monarchies and communist systems, free and fair elections are a common mechanism to address the here and now, the emotions, rather than where we might be in the future. For most countries this works quite well. For smaller countries, like us, this is difficult though. We don’t have a hinterland; we don’t have enough ballast to run that system.”
With our political system, Mr Chan perhaps has the luxury of taking a longer-term view of having a role to play in government. And with his level of commitment and dedication to public service, it looks like he will choose to stay, taking criticisms in his stride.
Edited by Andrew Loh
With contributions by Biddy Low and Chan Ngai Meng.
In Part 2 of our interview, Mr Chan speaks of the challenges in helming the MCYS.
Join publichouse.sg on Facebook: