SINGAPORE – Singapore is testament to the power of transformative leadership of strongman Lee Kuan Yew. What’s next for the city-state now that the torch has been passed on?
Rappler talked to Singapore’s Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin about life in post-Lee Kuan Yew Singapore.
MARIA RESSA: Hello and welcome, I’m Maria Ressa. Let us talk about leadership in Singapore, the city-state that went from third-world to first in less than three decades. Joining us today is a former general, he became the head of the ministry of manpower and now heads family and social development. Minister Tan Chuan-Jin. How do you describe Singapore today?
MINISTER TAN CHUAN-JIN: Singapore continues to be, in many ways, a miracle that continues to unfold. I am not sure whether all Singaporeans look at it that way because we live here and we see it growing and we often take it for granted.
MARIA RESSA: In a sentence to say what makes Singapore work, what would it be?
TAN CHUAN-JIN: I think leadership in many ways. Why did I say that? Obviously there are many factors. People play a big part, people are our only resource and it’s really about people, because people are the ones that create the solutions. They come up with the processes, they come up with the structures. But what is the key to unlocking the potential of people? Competency is one. But in some ways, the low hanging fruit, it’s not easy but it’s something that can be done but people wanting to go the extra mile, push boundaries, take risks, to really work hard and to really try to achieve something beyond what they as individuals can achieve. And the key to unlocking the potential I think are leaders and leadership.
We were very blessed with our first generation of leaders recently departed LKY and his generation of leaders, I don’t know of any other parallels but when you have a group of people who shared such common perspectives and values and building up a Singapore’s that clean and corruption-free, and where the focus is really about doing what’s right for the people and the nation. So I think the leadership plays a tremendous part in how Singapore has transformed from third world to first, and I think the same way leadership will matter as we go forward in a different era where societies are moving on and evolving.
MARIA RESSA: What are Singaporeans looking for in their leaders today, you’re talking about a generational change, Lee Kuan Yew to this generation of leaders?
TAN CHUAN-JIN: One of the fundamentals about leadership I think is about trust. You lead because people are following you. If no one’s following you you’re not really a leader. You call yourself a leader but … or you have a particular appointment, you may be the president, you may be the CEO, you may be the manager but that is just an appointment, just like in the military you are a commander, by the statutes and the laws you are given a rank, given an appointment, it doesn’t make you a leader. You’re a leader because people are prepared to follow you. People may do the things they need to do because it’s their job, they are required to by law, but again to go the extra mile, to genuinely want to follow, that’s where leadership comes in. So the question is the key thing about leadership is all about values. It’s about who you are and what you stand for that makes someone prepared to follow you. And people may not always agree with you. They may not even necessarily like what you are proposing but because there’s that element of trust, they are prepared to follow. So the question of course is how do you then engender that trust?
So I would say that a big part of it continues to be able to inspire that level of trust with our people. There are a lot more expectations today as well. What people looking for, I think, is to be inspired, and to have leaders that they can trust and follow. But they’re also looking to be engaged. That’s where I think it’s a bit different.
It’s more pronounced now because in the past, when we were very much a developing nation, there were preoccupation about needs, really existential needs: jobs, security, basic welfare. So much as these things are important, let’s sort out the fundamental things first. When we look at leadership and government, there are expectations but quite different. Today, some of these aspirational concerns come to the fore a lot more. Rightfully so because we have actually moved.
MARIA RESSA: You’re a victim of your success.
TAN CHUAN-JIN: In a sense, right? I mean you’ve become more successful so those basic things which preoccupied our parents’ generation no longer quite preoccupies in the same way. We’re now looking at self-actualization.
So while fundamentals of leadership remain, the nature of interaction between leaders and people is also evolving in quite significant ways.
MARIA RESSA: Lee Kuan Yew and the first generation leaders were very top down. Lee Kuan Yew had a vision. He was a visionary. This generation – your generation – what is different and what drives you as a leader now?
TAN CHUAN-JIN: Well, I do actually think the fundamentals remain important which has something to do with yourself. You have to be quite clear about your own values. Why you are doing what you are doing, because you need to be consistent, you do get swept along by expectations, what you should be, what you should say. Both from yourself, from the public, people around you. And you have the struggle with who you are as a person.
That’s something I learned very early on in the military. Some would think because you’re from the military it’s very hierarchical – what’s all this about engagement. But the funny thing is army in our context focuses a lot on engagement because we are a national service military. We have a lot of conscripts – a lot of people come in because they’re required to come in.
MARIA RESSA: Yeah, every Singaporean male has to join the military.
TAN CHUAN-JIN: At age 18, right? How do you then inspire them to believe? Now they will do what they need to do, they will make sure they don’t get into trouble. But to believe in the cause, to apply your heart and soul into training because you believe that this place is actually worth defending should anything happen – that’s where leadership comes in.
And leadership is about, again, your values. While you may be popular, doing things they would like you to do, but I think you can erode confidence as well because they know that you’re just being populist. When it comes to the crunch, can I count on you to hold on to what is important?
So that part is important, and of course engagement. How do your soldiers feel engaged? Do they feel looked after? Do they feel like you genuinely care for them? How do you connect with them in a way where you don’t have that barrier or stuck in your ivory tower and people see you for who you are. Because that’s where, in Chinese, you talk about guanxi and the connections. That’s very real in any form of relationship.
MARIA RESSA: You talked about purpose and meaning – that’s what you alluded to when you were talking about the military. Jemaah Islamiyah, when it was here, there were leaders of Jemaah Islamiyah who were Singaporeans, they were looking for purpose and meaning. In the 90s into the 2000s there was a resurgence of religious groups. Singaporeans are wealthy. They don’t have to worry about housing, they don’t have to worry about their salary. So, purpose and meaning is a key driver here. What is that, what are they looking for?
TAN CHUAN-JIN: I think it’s very individual. I don’t think it’s a state [of mind] you can mandate that this is therefore our purpose and meaning as a nation. Individuals do need to reflect, and they do need to consider what it is for them.
Religion, of course, is at a very different level. You have individuals who get swayed or who genuinely believe in a cause because of what they read, whether true or untrue or half-true. And it happens, and we see that happening all over the world. But I suspect sometimes, it’s also filling up a void. So I think for us it’s really about filling up that void. At a basic existential level, I think you do need to provide jobs, opportunities, education, health care.
MARIA RESSA: The things that Singapore has already done …
TAN CHUAN-JIN: … yes, but no … but they’re things we should not take for granted either. It seems like it’s there, and we all assume that it will just continue to work. But it doesn’t. You do need to work at it, and you do need to keep it sustainable.
Health care, for example, with the demographics that we are facing and which every country will face – to keep it sustainable for the long term. Not easy at all. So those things remain, and I don’t want to say that it’s no longer important. I think it remains still incredibly important.
MARIA RESSA: It’s a challenge …
TAN CHUAN-JIN: … and you still have to work at it. But the other part of it – the aspirational part. How do you fill up that void? How do you provide that sense of purpose.
Because again, it comes back to people, right? You talk about leadership and unleashing the potential. Now when people begin to care for others, when you begin to believe that perhaps there’s something more than me and myself, you begin to work for others. You begin to work for the broader community, and collectively it all adds up to caring about something much larger than yourself.
And when you care for others, you’re motivated to push the boundaries. I think that’s where you figure out the solutions. Do we know what the future’s going to be like? We can project. You do your scenario planning. You have your programs, processes in place, but it’s the people again that will make it happen. The people who will adapt. The people who will change when trends change. But they are doing that because they actually care about something. So how do you bring about that sense of care so that it’s no longer just a selfish nation.
MARIA RESSA: How do you do it?
TAN CHUAN-JIN: How do you do it? Well, in schools, we have a program we call today – Values in Action where kids are supposed to do some of the community work, outreach work and they’re required to clock up a certain number of hours for points, which is kind of horrific if you think about it that way. Surely, it should be completely voluntary, but I’ve come to accept that …
MARIA RESSA: This is part of where Singapore sometimes becomes the butt of jokes, but …
TAN CHUAN-JIN: But you know, I was a bit horrified when I came across this as a parent, but I very quickly realized that if you didn’t have this, parents may not actually support the notion of their children doing this work. Now it all starts at home, but I have no levers in the families. But if you do the right things in the right way. And if children in schools actually begin to participate in some of these activities, they are powerful platforms on its own.
Because when you give and you actually engage and care for others, there’s a transformative effect. And you see many children actually wanting to continue even after they finish their hours. So they may have started for various reasons, but it’s such a powerful platform. We actually believe that in giving that we receive. Then that is going to be that vehicle for change.
Now is it far-fetched? Conceptually, I think it’s do-able. It’s not easy, but we can begin to see how perhaps how we can bring this onboard through different programs, because big aspirational ideas need to be translated into something that’s workable.
MARIA RESSA: In bite-sized …
TAN CHUAN-JIN: Rajaratnam always says, ‘it’s a democracy of deeds, not words.’ Words are easy. We all have conceptional and high-flowing ideas that sound really good, but can you do it. You need to be able to translate into something practical. It may not sound aspirational. It may sound – as you said – butt of jokes, but in real life, things need to be practical. And big ideas, vision need to be executed at very basic levels as well.
MARIA RESSA: Singapore is at the forefront of using technology. Social media fragments. Social media gives voice to people who don’t necessarily understand in the same way, and it’s almost the opposite, a bottom-up approach to Singapore’s top-down. How are you dealing with this? What does this look like now?
TAN CHUAN-JIN: We’re grappling with it. To me social media is a neutral platform, neither good or bad. It’s transformed interaction between governments and people.
Today you have a means on actually tapping on the full potential of populations – so if you look at the positive, you’re literally tapping the wisdom of an entire nation. And as people become more educated, and because of the Internet they’ve become a lot more informed, you’re in a way crowdsourcing. A lot of the changes were put in place, a lot of it is not from opposition, funny enough, is actually from the people. Some of them offer far better solutions, than what perhaps the opposition – the politicians, they’re careful not to commit themselves into positions. But citizens are pushing us, actually sometimes sending emails and Facebook messages with really quite involved ideas. And you begin to pull together different things. Some things become a lot clearer. Some things we also look at doing. But the nuancing of those policies can adjust because of those inputs.
So that’s a big strength. But it also amplifies things, you can amplify the positive and you can also amplify the negative. As in all societies, you have no perfect society. Singapore is certainly not perfect. There are lapses, there are things that fall between the gaps. For example in my previous portfolio, you deal with foreigners working in Singapore.
MARIA RESSA: Jobs.
TAN CHUAN-JIN: Are there abuse cases? There are. Will I be able to ever completely eradicate it? No. But by and large I think Singapore is a good place for people working here. Many of your compatriots, Filipinos who work here…
MARIA RESSA: It’s something like 250,000…
TAN CHUAN-JIN: I don’t know the specific numbers. Many of them do have many positive experiences. Are there those with negative experiences? For sure. But what are the numbers? I’m not downplaying the incidences, but in the overall scheme of things I think it’s a good experience. Singaporeans do treat others well, there are isolated cases, but when you amplify stories on social media it takes on a different dimension, and it becomes immortal – that’s the power of storytelling. You tell one story and you assume the whole landscape is like that. It’s one story. Sometimes the story is not even completely true or half true. Those who are using that space for various reasons know that. You change your headlines, content may be exactly the same – we will read it through different lenses. They do that because they know, people actually don’t read the articles. The read the headlines, they glance at the first liners and that’s it. The rest of the article may be completely different. But that’s the real world; that’s what’s happening today. So how do you deal with that.
MARIA RESSA: So how do you deal with it?
TAN CHUAN-JIN: With a lot of difficulties. Suddenly, as a government we have begun to have bigger presence. It’s not just from the defensive perspective, it’s actually a very big opportunity to then engage with people. How do you then establish the links, how do you communicate, how do you break down barriers? I think social media allows it. I think we do need to be in that space to contend for that space. We are battling for hearts and minds. You need to put across perspectives, to share your views, and to debunk myths and untruths. And unfortunately, these myths and untruths, do have traction.
MARIA RESSA: We have a mood meter and it shows us that the emotion that spreads fastest on social media is anger.
TAN CHUAN-JIN: Anger. And it’s not difficult to get people angry. And it may not even be true, or at best half true. What it does is it chips away at confidence, trust, it chips away at institutions which are important. Because if your society completely lost faith in the whole process of politics, government, how do you actually lead and bring your country forward? Now, countries, to each his own. But for small countries, I think, you do need institutions. You do need strong leadership; you do need to have the wherewithal and the capacity to make all those difficult calls. Because I think that these longer term perspectives which may not be popular, necessarily, are important to keep a country going. And I think we’ve been successful, not perfect, but successful in some fronts, because we are able to look past the politics of it.
MARIA RESSA: Let’s move towards leadership and elections coming up. Many expect Singapore to call elections this year, what’s the outlook like in a post-Lee Kuan Yew world?
TAN CHUAN-JIN: So it’s interesting. In the week we had the national mourning, so many Singaporeans came out. I was out every day at the Parliament walking up and down the roads, crowds of people in the regional memorial sites. And I was looking at the things people were writing. And a lot of the young people – some would have thought, they wouldn’t relate to Lee Kuan – actually, remarkably, a lot of introspection. I think a lot of people, not just young people but young and old, actually read what he wrote and listened to speeches about what he said. You could see especially young people coming forward, some of them bringing their young kids, babies in their arms, almost realizing that their children are going to grow up in an era where Lee Kuan Yew was not part of the landscape.
It was really quite emotional. And I think for many of us, although he’s stepped down in many ways, and became a lot less involved – I guess it was like, knowing that Lee Kuan Yew was there somehow gave you that confidence because – love him, loathe him – I think there was a great deal of respect and trust. Now he’s no longer here. So in that sense it’s quite a watershed. So we’ve never been in that position but that day was going to come in any case, and I think he did put in a lot of effort to ensure that transition, which not many people do or do very well.
So but the fundamentals, it doesn’t change. The fact that we remain vulnerable – much as people seem to think there they go again, paranoid, but the world is evolving at such great speeds, I wouldn’t say it’s more challenging today than before. The challenges are different, you know, competition? For example, jobs, the economy which we were preoccupied with in our earlier years because how do you provide jobs for a growing population?
But the competition today is so real. We have companies, jobs, departments being outsourced and completely relocating to Manila because graduates in Manila could do their job for a fraction of the pay. That’s globalization. And that has resulted in the hollowing out of jobs in many developed countries, those jobs are not going back.
Now, so that’s a real challenge that we face today. It may not seem apparent because Singapore continues to do relatively well, but it’s happening and it’s difficult to get to Singaporeans realise that these challenges remain real and we need to pay attention to economic growth. But there will be the rolling of the eyes, there they go again, economic growth, GDP numbers, we have it in – we could do a slowing down, yes, and we are, by tackling manpower and so on because of other considerations. Those fundamentals don’t change. Security needs don’t change, I don’t believe it changes. The reality of real politics is that you are a small nation and you need to be able to wield a big stick. To be able to operate as equals.
MARIA RESSA: We’re talking about jobs before we move on, the foreigners, you mentioned this – when you were a Minister at the Ministry of Manpower, there was, one of the worst cases was the riot in little India, what happened? Where do you see this moving?
TAN CHUAN-JIN: It’s a function of various things, we know in India, when sometimes incidents happen it can break out in all sorts of incidents.
MARIA RESSA: That’s never happened in the time…
TAN CHUAN-JIN: No not here, but I guess in many ways, you know when you have crowds gathering in particular places in this case a combination of various things, alcohol, incidences, individuals reacting, but is it chronic? Actually no. Some people say it was chronic but to be honest if it was chronic it would be happening all over Singapore. And you would be dealing with it for days to come.
MARIA RESSA: But it seem to have been a convergence, Singapore has long been moving away from the race riots of the 60’s. It’s put in place so many things to have racial harmony, but you put that together with the foreign workers, the kind of fear of losing jobs, it’s jobs Singaporeans don’t necessarily want, is the other thing.
TAN CHUAN-JIN: That’s why when I go abroad, unemployment for Singaporean citizens was at 2.9 %, but yet when you converse you feel as if we’re falling apart with no jobs. But you see this happening, UK, in the States. It’s a very primordial reaction. Us, them – the silver lining in this is we’re beginning to have a very strong Singaporean identity, which is a good thing. But to be also circumspect, will we ever have zero unemployment? No. 2.9% translates to over 50 over thousand people, you don’t see 50,000 people blogging, you read their experience, but the reality is there will be.
MARIA RESSA: There was a period of time when Singapore had near zero unemployment.
TAN CHUAN-JIN: That’s right. The flipside of that is the opportunities from employers, they feel Singaporeans can be quite picky. I’m fully aware that there are people who are unemployed. The way I look at statistics is: You can talk about 2.9% percent unemployment, 3% but to a person unemployed it’s 100% until I get a job. Scant consolation. The challenge of course is that we feel pressured because of change. You feel the world is moving on a double quick pace. Technology, physical transformation of spaces, you are a bit disoriented, a bit uncertain. Conditions of postwar growth will also not be replicated. For example, our parents’ generation had that big jump – that so-called 3rd world to 1st. That was symptomatic of a period where post 2nd World War, very low development in Asian nations then, then that huge jump took place. Even our parents, non-graduates, they were able to hold on to decent jobs, buy land and property, a house. Today, having that same expectation you won’t realize the same aspirations. One, you have uplifted so many. There are so many more graduates you’re competing with.
And as you talk about race, religions, aspirations, and the very differing expectations that people have, so the process of engaging becomes a lot more important. Again, we may not always agree, we are not always able to meet everyone’s needs and aspirations the same way, but are we still able to at least create that common space so we can agree to disagree but at least establish a sufficient level of trust so that we can still go on to wherever we’re going on to.
Even if you talk about poverty and the poor, and there are those in Singapore, but when you compare with the poor, say in another country, it’s actually not as bad. But that’s relative.
MARIA RESSA: Singapore’s planning is incredible, but in terms of how much power to let go of, I mean that’s something this top-down control that Singapore’s had for a long time, is being eroded by social media. How much are you willing to let go of? In order to be inclusive, in terms of a more noisier environment?
TAN CHUAN-JIN: You could probably involve other groups. For example, housing development, perhaps in the past, you’ve got plans, you’re going to develop a housing estate, you’ve cleared the area, and you begin perhaps to engage much later. But what if you actually did that a lot earlier? It can be messier. But when it’s blank sheet, you have a lot of space.
For example one housing estate has a row of beautiful old trees along this old road and nature groups feel we really should try to keep these trees. Okay, that makes sense. Why don’t we incorporate this route, we’re gonna convert it to a pedestrian walkway, keep the trees, build that estate around it. What it means is you can now begin to co-create.
MARIA RESSA: Bring them in earlier…
TAN CHUAN-JIN: We have a lot of different stakeholders out there who are very passionate about the issue. Could we involve them earlier in think tank groups, focus groups so their inputs can come in and weave some of that in. And while we may not take everything on board, I think people appreciate fact that I had a role to play. I am not marginalized. I am not just a cog in this whole machinery and this efficient machinery that is Singapore, but I have a stake. And the truth is, people want to have a sense of purpose, not just an audience watching things unfold, I’m actually able to play a part, and there’s a purpose and you’re purpose driven. It’s a very different sense of being a citizen. You begin to be part of that larger fabric and that engagement is important. So that part I think is changing, and we definitely need to do a lot more of that.
MARIA RESSA: Prime Minister Lee is expected to stay in power a few more years, but there’s a new leadership, your name has actually been tossed around, some analysts say, as potential candidate for Prime Minister.
TAN CHUAN-JIN: They’re misinformed, these analysts…
MARIA RESSA: In this new… what things must be there for the new generation leader?
TAN CHUAN-JIN: I think I come back to fundamentals especially for Singapore and what we in People’s Action Party believe in very strongly in values: integrity, honesty. We are not perfect people, we’re not monks and nuns. As a system, in the way we approach governance it has to be first about people. We all have our own aspirations, every individual out there, we must be able to figure out where society and people come in your nation, so that when you make policies, it’s always about how it benefits society.
MARIA RESSA: But that’s still very similar to the past. Is there anything going to be different?
MINISTER TAN CHUAN-JIN: What is going to be different is the whole process of engaging a lot more. I know engagement is a bit of a catchphrase but useful to remind ourselves what engagement is for and why?
As we age as a nation, it’s not a threat or challenge but it’s an opportunity. A generation of Singaporeans will be growing up educated, skilled, informed. How do you tap on this segment of the population to be involved, and to continue to contribute economically, socially, I think the possibilities are quite endless. And as we celebrate and look back, 50 years of achievement, which is quite remarkable, not perfect but quite remarkable. The future is for us to define and I think it’s incredibly exciting as well.
MARIA RESSA: Thank you very much. We’ve been speaking with Minister Tan Chuan-Jin in Singapore on leadership, moving forward in the post Lee Kuan Yew era. Thanks so much for joining us I’m Maria Ressa. – Rappler.com