TL:DR version: If I lived in Marine Parade and it was an SMC, I’d vote for Tan Chuan-Jin, because he’s the real deal. Too bad he’s got ‘Self-Check’ Goh Chok Tong as his GRC mate.
I lost touch with Chuan-Jin, or CJ as I remembered him in school, the moment he left for RJC. He was the high flying sort while my friends and I preferred (or were consigned to) treetop skimming.
Over the years I read or heard about a Guardsman officer who led by example, was extremely likeable, inspiring and compassionate. He wouldn’t ask his subordinates to do something he wouldn’t be prepared to do himself, it seemed.
In December 2004 and the first few months of 2005, Chuan-Jin’s face appeared in the news as the colonel in charge of the rescue operations in the aftermath of the Great Tsunami. A few of us treetop skimmers remembered him, and noted that among all the officers who were involved in the operations, he was the only one that kept his full battle order (LBV or whatever you call it these days) and headdress on, no matter if a press event was being held in the officers’ mess or on the ground. It was an Operation, and he had to be seen to be operating.
Us Treetop Skimmers also knew that it was only a matter of time before our former classmate would be called to tea, and would be asked to don a different kind of battle order. And so it was no surprise that when the 2011 elections were called, the then Brigadier General resigned his commission from the Singapore Army and accepted the invitation to be elected to Parliament.
CJ the MP threw himself into his new job with glee, and I remember him being on Facebook at 2am on most nights, trying to answer with the sincerest of efforts every stupid question thrown at him. No ‘admin’ or ‘PA’ for this MP. He’d sleep at 2.30am and be awake by 6am because he was determined to respond to everyone that reached out to him.
In early 2012, when he was holding the two Minister of State portfolios (MND and MOM), we met over lunch a few times at his office (not sure if it was picked for him, but it was in the MOM building), and reacquainted ourselves with each other. I was the short fart who sat at the front of Mrs Evelyn Wee’s class because I was a short fart, while he was the most talkative person that ever lived on the islands of the main.
We chatted, and I must disclose here that myself and Hossan Leong, my best friend and fellow Treetop Skimmer, had an agenda for wanting to meet – we were having trouble with getting temporary work visas for a few Australian actors selected to perform in local musicals. These actors had previously studied in Singapore, at LaSalle, and were very talented, and perfect for the roles they had auditioned for.
They had previously been granted visas, but on the second try, were rejected on grounds that they were ‘entertainers’ in the same class as entertainers who would perform in KTV lounges and ‘hang flower’ bars. These entertainers were not allowed to return to work in Singapore for a second time, for the same employer, once their passes expired.
Of course, we were indignant about real artists being lumped together with KTV hostesses and other artistes, and made it known to our former classmate, now that he was the big man in charge of such things. We proposed a scheme – where foreign students of local arts schools were to be given a one year work experience visa so that they’d be enticed to study here, and we’d be richer for having more talent to work on our shows.
The short answer was ‘no’. The protracted one was that he heard our view, and that he could not grant such an exception to current regulations because every other damned industry would clamour for an exception.
Over our long lunch, we chatted about other things critical to the nation – like the declining birth rate, and I remembered something a friend said I should bring up if I had the chance to speak with someone in cabinet: that one way to solve the declining birth rate is to start supporting single parents, teenage mothers, and do away with the legal notion of an illegitimate child.
So I brought it up, and was met with silence at first, and then I added, “I’m not asking you to encourage teenage pregnancies or single parenting – just support”.
CJ then said something to the effect of, “I see what you’re getting at, and I see many cases in my ward where teenagers are stuck in the same cycle. We must not let them fall through the cracks”, before going on for at least another 30 minutes about the residents he had met recently.
Among the people he had met were a few elderly folk who had taken to collecting cardboard for recycling, earning a few dollars each time. And this is where he learned, to his surprise, that to help these people wasn’t as easy and straightforward as asking if they needed help, and helping when they would invariably accept your offer.
Pride, embarrassment and suspicion pushed some to deny and reject offers – some saying they were doing this, as you’ve probably heard and read from some websites, as a hobby or for exercise.
What’s not reported in media offline and on, is how the Minister perseveres in ensuring that help reaches every single household in his ward, whether they reject it at first offer or not. Ask his MPS volunteers and they’ll tell you he makes sure he leaves no stone unturned. This is what he’s done, and what he hasn’t accomplished troubles him no end.
I was very happy to read, in just his first month being transferred to the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), he announced that he was looking into measures to bring benefits for single parents up to par with married couples’, and that he’d used, in among the rambling, long-winded explanations, the words ‘support’ and ‘encourage’, and that it was something he believed in, and that it was the right thing to do.
Inexplicably, this intent has been, and is still being twisted beyond recognition – with some accusing the government of still stigmatising single mothers, and others coming forth with the usual floodgates argument. I blame it on Chuan-Jin being Cheong Hei. Dude. Summarise.
Fortunately, the other thing going for the Minister is that he’s got a bunch of schoolmates, peers, Army brothers-in-arms who would tell it to him like it is. Because it’s way too easy, in his company of men in white, to be surrounded by enablers who won’t.
There are a few videos and photo sets going around showing Tan Chuan-Jin the tireless candidate running from house to house, with testimonials from residents showing how much he cares. This self-promotion is not what he’s about, and besides, these videos and photos are not going to sway voters who have half a mind to vote for the WP in Marine Parade.
Tan Chuan-Jin is a genuine fella, not prone to contriving a folksy demeanour like some of his colleagues. He’s also someone I’ve known since Secondary One. We used to joke that at 13, he already knew he wanted to become a cabinet minister. He’s always been outstanding and a leader in every aspect – and possibly the only times I’ve witnessed him being downcast was when he was in cabinet, being pilloried by the public for having said something that didn’t go down well.
If I manage to squeeze a few more words in sideways before polling day, I’d tell him simply (again), “You can do this, you’re very good at this job, and if you’re ever discouraged by naysayers, hecklers and people who simply disagree with you, suck it up, dude, you’re earning a million bucks. Deal with it”.