Chan Chun Sing: 'I do my best at the task I'm given'
In the third of our four-part series on Singapore's '4th Generation' leaders, Minister Chan Chun Sing tells Koh Hui Theng (email@example.com) that he is unfazed by online criticism because his conscience is clear
The former Chief of Army experienced a baptism of fire when he left the military to run for public office.
Then 41, Mr Chan Chun Sing was one of the youngest among the Cabinet members when he was appointed Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) after the 2011 General Election.
He went on to helm the newly created Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) in 2012 before taking over as a full Minister a year later.
His rise was among the swiftest among the 2011 batch of new politicians, and whispers of him being a future prime minister followed.
But his informal speech and mannerisms rubbed some people the wrong way.
Brickbats and derisive comments came, fast and furious, especially on the Internet.
The 45-year-old said: "Of course, (nobody) would want to have such unpleasant experience(s) but it's almost inevitable (when you take) this road; you will get your fair share of such nasty incidents.
"You just hope that it doesn't affect you personally and your family." (See report, below.)
During the hour-long interview at his Marina Bay office last week - before the General Election date was made known - Mr Chan often peppered his answers with Chinese sayings.
Asked if the vitriol stings him, he answered: Be in this for the correct reasons, do things conscientiously and wen xing wu kui (Mandarin for clear conscience).
His latest move to the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) this year also set tongues wagging once more: Was it a prelude to the top post or a step down?
"I've never been the type to choose what I want to do or where I want to go," Mr Chan said.
"I never thought that the PM will send me to MCYS and then MSF, but I'm given a task and I try my best to do what I can, make a contribution to take care of the people whose lives I am charged to take care of.
"It's (not) about what you do individually that's important. It's about what we do as a team that's important."
Hence his joking promise to put his ex-MSF colleagues out of a job: "The better that I take care of the workers, the less busy MSF will be."
When it comes to sharing his thoughts online, the father of three said: "I don't spend every moment thinking how to boost the number of 'likes'.
"Because very early on in my career, I have come to the conclusion that the number of (Facebook) likes has no correlation to the English word 'like'."
People have this romantic illusion that ministers get chauffeured around, have servants waiting on them. the reality is that the minister also has to buy toilet paper, buy vegetables, buy food, buy eggs...
— Mr Chan Chun Sing
WHO: Chan Chun Sing
WHAT: Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and secretary-general of National Trades Union Congress
FAMILY: Married with a daughter, 14, and two sons, six and three
CAREER SO FAR
2011: Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports and Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts
2012: Acting Minister for Social and Family Development and Senior Minister of State for Defence
2013: Minister for Social and Family Development and Second Minister for Defence
2015: Secretary-general of National Trades Union Congress
Mr Chan Chun Sing on...
DEALING WITH DETRACTORS
When his children read nasty comments about him, they often question why he has to be a public servant.
For example, when people make fun of ministerial pay, Mr Chan said his kids' likely response would be: "Why don't I return you the million dollars and you return us our father?"
It is tough facing such scrutiny, he said.
But his family has matured and knows there's a purpose behind what he does.
He said: "There must be some things that keep us going (like) this country. You can't be in this because of money. As much as people like to think that ministers earn a lot of money, my mother would say: You qian dou mei ming hua. (Translation: You have money but no life to spend it.)"
MR LEE KUAN YEW
As they were MPs for Tanjong Pagar GRC, Mr Chan was often seen physically helping Mr Lee during grassroots events.
Among the topics Mr Lee would bring up: How residents were doing, if something could be done better, what's the situation in Singapore, around the region and in the world.
Seeing the residents' tremendous respect for the frail Mr Lee was very touching, Mr Chan recalled.
"They would say he's old, (we shouldn't) trouble him. (That's why) as the younger generation, it made us very determined to do our best so he wouldn't worry about the constituency or the country... (But) Mr Lee being Mr Lee, (he) would always think about the country and the residents without rest."
The contrast can be surreal, said Mr Chan.
For example, at one table, there would be an uncle who is down and out, asking for help to supplement his income.
Then there would be a newly married couple at the next table, asking why they couldn't get the housing grant they wanted as their combined monthly income breaches the limit.
He said: "Their needs are so different, their expectations are so different... You dig deep and ask: How to help them given the finite resources?'"
THE VOTER'S CHOICE
Every election is about choosing leaders for the country for the next lap and having people focus on that.
And Mr Chan doesn't think it's a conflict, in terms of having to choose the best talent versus having to choose someone you like.
He said: "We always hope that the majority will be able to take the perspective that elections are about the future of the country, (the) choice of leadership, (who's best) to take the country forward and not just about who may seem more likable and popular.
"You cannot just be likable and popular without having the correct values, right? Leaders need to be everything, but you cannot be everything to everyone and (have) no substance."
'They'll do well as long as their hearts are true'
How would you sum up the four years that you've been in office?
I think can write a book (about the experiences) already.
Looking back at the four years in office, were there any highlights or best moments that you can pinpoint?
I think too many people are too anxious to judge their accomplishments. I hope I don't belong to that category.
You never know. You try your best, you do your best, you work and you go by what you believe in. How you turn out, you never know.
Were there any adjustments your family made now that you're in the public eye?
The pressure on my daughter, 14, is tremendous.
She faces the usual pressure that ministers' children face: If she does well, people will say that she's a minister's daughter so she's expected to do well.
If she gets a special assignment, people will think that the teachers favour her because she's the minister's daughter.
On the other hand, if she doesn't do well, people will laugh at her and go "minister's daughter also like that".
She shares her views but people say "Ai, you're just pro-Government" to whatever she says... So she's also very cham (Hokkien for poor thing). She has to deal with this at a young age.
Has she spoken to you about the pressures she faces? What do you tell her?
Stay strong. We all have to learn to handle this together.
Sometimes she will get angry when she reads about things that people write about her father.
It's been tough on her, to not only handle the pressure but also the comments (that) other people make about her father.
As a young girl, she will ask "Why does my father have to go through this? Why do we have to go through this?"
In 2011, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said you were one of the five potential office-holders who were pretty much thrown into the deep end. Now you see new faces who will go through perhaps what you went through. Any advice for these candidates, including those in your Tanjong Pagar team?
I think they'll be alright because their hearts are in the correct place.
They're not in this for fame or for glory. I've known both (assistant manager) Joan (Pereira) and (former Assistant Police Commissioner) Melvin (Yong) for quite long and I'm very proud to have them on the team.
First and foremost, they care about the residents, they care about the country. I think that will put them in good stead.
There will be difficult moments - as we all will have. I think they will do well because their hearts are true and they have been consistent in their deeds.
You've been flamed and called many names. As cyberspace evolves, how do you ensure your voice is heard online?
I think "ensure" is too strong a word.
No matter how you try, there will be people who interpret what you do differently so it goes back to your core values again: If you do it with a real heart, sooner or later, time will be the best judge.
During hustings, some candidates may criticise unpopular government policies without offering alternatives or solutions. How do you reconcile the likelihood that voters may only see what's presented then and not the work (you or your team do) behind the scenes?
That will always be a challenge, whether it's in Singapore or overseas.
Especially now in the current political and media environment, it will always be such a challenge.
That's why I always tell people that I'm not ideologically weathered to any form of government: One-party system, two-party system, multi-party system. All of them have their own strengths and weaknesses.
Common to all of them, the challenge is the issue of how do you bring forth good leaders? Leaders whose hearts are in the correct place, leaders who are competent, committed and willing to work as a cohesive team.
What do you do when people recognise you?
I don't think that ministers are very recognisable. When I go on trains with my son, no one comes up and asks: "Eh, are you the minister?"
When I'm on the bus, 90 per cent of people will be too busy playing with their iPhones or iPads.
Half of those who look up probably won't recognise (me), the other half will be convinced that they saw wrongly. So nobody bothers and life goes on.
People have this romantic illusion that ministers get chauffeured around, have servants waiting on them. The reality is that the minister also has to buy toilet paper, buy vegetables, buy food, buy eggs... But people choose what they want to believe.
So those who see me eat at a hawker stall and (who) probably don't eat at hawker stalls themselves would say: "See la, wayang, elections coming, go hawker stall."
If I eat at a restaurant, they'll say: "Atas (Malay for posh) ah, go restaurant and eat."
So (I say) just be yourself.