Is Tan Chuan-Jin’s appointment as Speaker of Parliament a downgrade? The Straits Times Opinion Editor Chua Mui Hoong thinks not. She sees it as an upgrade, that is, if the outgoing Social and Family Development Minister carves out a role as a Speaker-Plus.
Interesting thought. Speaker-Plus. Let there a more fluid political landscape, more in tune with a “disruption-friendly, startup way”, where different pathways for contributions become the norm. Tan said so himself: “There are many different roles and many different pathways that we all have to take…I would say we are all in the same race.”
Tan’s fellow 4G clubmember Chan Chun Sing agreed. He gave possibly one of the most politically correct and non sequitur answers in the annals of local politics, given that he has been widely touted as a fellow PM-post contender: “All of us in Government do different things, perform different roles, each according to our own strengths.” Don’t we all know that?
As far as I am concerned, an exit is an exit, however you want to couch the move. Ministers have come and gone for all types of reasons – corruption, scandals, non-performance, wrong temperament, poor team-worker, bad fit, change of mind, convenient scapegoats on behalf of the team, disruptive element, not a group-thinker, and so on.
Tan Chuan-Jin’s exit should not be explained through linguistic gymnastics as some kind of well-thought out and deep move which will somehow enrich Singapore’s development. A downgrade is a downgrade. Whether there is another motive that is part of a larger political agenda is another matter altogether, which I will come to later.
Actually, what is really on the minds of most Singaporeans is this: Is the next Prime Minister really going to be from the remaining so-called 4G team – Heng Swee Keat, Chan, Lawrence Wong or Ong Ye Kung – or perhaps 5Gers like Desmond Lee or Ng Chee Meng?
This is not the only question.
Other questions: Is Lee Hsien Loong going to step down as PM in 2022, when he reaches the age of 70, as he has said so publicly? What role will he play after that – replay of his father’s Minister Mentor – not quite appropriate as he is not a Founding Father, maybe as Minister Counsellor Singapore version like Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar? Will he have the status of LKY or Deng Xiaoping (in China) neither of whom needed any title to have de factor clout, in the first place? Since he may not have that kind of founding father charisma, what kind of guiding hand position can he or the Cabinet of the day agree on for him? And what about Tharman Shanmugaratnam? Going to the World Bank?
All these questions are important and they have been brought into focus because of Tan’s downgrading. The pool of leaders with sufficient experience has qualitatively shrunk. And not all the current Cabinet leaders are in the best of health.
Coincidentally, while doing some research this week, I came across Lee Kuan Yew’s 1984 National Day rally speech. I remember that speech very well. It was the year he started his plea to young Singaporean couples to get married and produce more babies – and I was the leader writer at The Straits Times who had to editorialise on the speech. For coverage of LKY’s message, the then Editor Cheong Yip Seng gave what I thought was one of the best Page One headings ever: “Get Hitched”.
What I also remembered, reinforced by rewatching the 1984 speech, was the late PM’s intimations of mortality. He correctly spoke about his own health, and the sudden scare he had during a visit to India, and the health problems of three of his top colleagues – Dr Goh Keng Swee, S. Rajaratnam and Hon Sui Sen. He said Dr Goh and Rajaratnam wanted out. They eventually left.
What is the current situation? PM Lee collapsed at the ND rally in 2016, this in addition to his lymphoma which has gone into remission. Heng Swee Keat suffered a stroke. Tan Chuan-Jin had a rare form of tuberculosis. Perhaps Tan also wanted out, we don’t know.
The leadership transition should have been properly and frankly addressed at the ND rally last month, instead of being evaded for a bizarre chitchat on diabetes, Smart Nation and pre-schools.
But, you know what I think? The Tan Chuan-Jin move may not that straightforward. There may be a kernel of wisdom in Chua Mui Hoong’s view that to be a potential Speaker-Plus is not a zero-sum game, not from the Government’s angle. Look at all the changes in the Elected Presidency, mostly triggered by, I believe, the relative success of Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s challenge which reflects a persistent desire by Singaporeans to have another mechanism to check concentration of power in one party.
Should a “rogue” Elected President (one who does not see eye to eye with the Government) have to be removed in an unforeseen yet not impossible scenario in the future, the next in line would be the Speaker. Bishop takes King. Checkmate. Problem nipped by a reliable, fairly heavyweight and loyal Speaker. Enters Tan Chuan-Jin, who is only 48 and is good for many years as Speaker.
Neat, neat move.
Good luck, NKF’s Tim Oei
Welcome Tim Oei, the new National Kidney Foundation CEO, to the ecosystem of the local dialysis world. He has much to do, especially in public outreach, which is fundamental to the effectiveness of the foundation and the well-being of its patients – 4,200, with one new kidney-failure patient every five hours across the country. If we add two or three Singaporeans who have to take care of these patients in their families, the number of Singaporeans involved would be two or three times that number, not to mention cost to employers and economy.
I dare say not many Singaporeans really understand what kidney failure and dialysis are. If they are not affected, they do not really much care.
The NKF has its work cut out: To continue to furiously educate the public on what the disease is and what they must know and do to help their friends or family members who are dialysis patients.
Here, I believe family members would not be that big a problem. They live with kidney patients every day. So like it or not, they have to deal with it. The challenge is how to reach out to the inconsiderate friends who have to learn that dialysis patients cannot continue to drink or eat the same nonchalant way they are used to.
NKF’s task is to radically change social habits – which includes encouraging healthier cuisines even if they run counter to what the Chinese, Malays and Indians think are “traditional” food. Good luck, Tim Oei.
Sense And Nonsense is a weekly series. Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.