The pulse of policy-making

From army general to politician to university lecturer? Tan Chuan-Jin gives a public policy lesson to AJF Fellows.

From army general to politician to university lecturer? Tan Chuan-Jin gives a public policy lesson to AJF Fellows.

The former army brigadier-general went from macho to mushy in a heartbeat.

In he middle of a white board scribbled with hot-button words such as immigration and economic restructuring, he scrawled a heart shape. He quartered it and filled the quadrants with the words Singapore, Singaporean, today and tomorrow.

This work of doodle art belonged to then Minister of State Tan Chuan-Jin, who treated the 2012 AJF Fellows to a uniquely graphic exposition of the policy issues facing Singapore.

The heart, he said, represented what all the policy work ultimately mean to him. “At the heart of everything, really, has to be Singaporeans and Singapore,” he said, referring to how the concerns of citizens remain at the centre of policy- making for the short as well as long term.

Tan has championed issues such as heritage conservation. “It is important for a young country, the whole aspect of your value system, character, ethos, culture and heritage,” he said. “It cannot be just about surviving, earning a living, a better quality of life; it has to be anchored on something.”

Tan, who has since been promoted to Acting Minister for Manpower, is one of several office holders who made their political debuts in the 2011 General Election. Asked what the defining characteristic was of the new leaders, he replied, “I find labels not very useful, they tend to pigeonhole you.”

Everyone has a distinct personality, with personal leanings to the left and right of the political spectrum, he said.

Asked about the palpable unhappiness among many Singaporeans over the large population of foreigners in the country, Tan acknowledged that a “tipping point” had been crossed in recent years. The surge in foreign worker numbers had caused a strain on infrastructure such as housing and transport, and prompted a backlash from citizens.

It also led to depressed wages, especially for the lower-income workers who had to compete with cheap foreign labour, he noted. The average monthly wage of cleaners, for instance, had dipped over a decade, from slightly over $1,000 in 2001 to around $900 in 2010. Even some white collar workers were feeling the heat, he pointed out.

As a result, the government has had to soothe what he described as “indigestion” caused by the massive intake of foreigners in recent years. Singapore’s demography was not helping, with a shrinking and silvering workforce owing to fewer babies and a rapidly ageing society.

Singaporeans showed their displeasure in the 2011 election, which saw the opposition winning more seats in Parliament. The government, Tan said, was aware that it had to improve its public engagement style – both online and offline. “We have to change the way we talk, engage and do business.”

He was also quick to caution that there should be a cut-off point to the consultation process. Policies can never please everyone. “A policy isn’t right because it makes sense for the majority or the minority. At the end of it, we need to make a judgment about what is the right thing to do,” he said. But the criticism was welcome, he added.

“It forces the government to think harder, to make sure that you justify policies better, to explain better, because more people are challenging you both in and outside Parliament. That can only be good for the country.”

Article by Sue-Ann Chia