Different careers, common ground - Armed with people lessons from navy

 Lui Tuck Yew greeting his supporters after the PAP's walkover in Tanjong Pagar GRC, on April 27, 2006.
Lui Tuck Yew greeting his supporters after the PAP's walkover in Tanjong Pagar GRC, on April 27, 2006. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

You can take the man out of the navy, but not the navy out of the man.

Ask Rear-Admiral (NS) Lui Tuck Yew what deep and abiding lesson stays with him after a 20-year military career which took him to the pinnacle, and his reply would be: The importance of listening to and learning from his charges.

"I have an interest in people, and the navy has taught me to work with a wide spectrum, and to empathise with them," said the 44-year-old father of two.

"I met people with great abilities, I dealt with foreign counterparts, I chatted with young recruits and we swopped stories over a drink."

The former chief of navy stands straight, legs firmly apart and arms naturally akimbo, the image of a ship's captain.

At times, his voice resounds with enthusiasm, at others, it is lowered to a whispered intensity as he speaks about subjects with unmistakable passion.

The Tanjong Pagar GRC MP-elect, whose six-member team was returned unopposed on Nomination Day yesterday, plans to pay special attention to the needs of his own generation - the middle-aged middle-class in their 40s earning between $2,000 and $3,000 a month. 

These baby-boomers are struggling to put their children through school while taking care of elderly parents, he said, and they will swell the ranks of the elderly population in the next 20 years. 

"If we want them to enjoy a more stable future, then we need to understand them better now, the issues and challenges they face, whether it's about money, jobs or health. 

"The next time we have a Progress Package, we need to pay greater attention to their needs."

RADM Lui is seen as the potential minister in the Tanjong Pagar GRC slate whom the team leader, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, alluded to. He has also been singled out by former deputy prime minister Tony Tan as one of the candidates who show great promise. 

So what work in the Government might interest him?

"All the different ministries have very challenging and interesting portfolios. The social aspects interest me the most because there is an immediate as well as long-term visible impact on how we can improve people's lives," he said. 

But before even thinking about becoming a minister, he stressed, he must prove that he would be a good MP who works well with the grassroots organisations and residents, and is able to address the needs of his constituents. 

In recent grassroots events, he has been spotted speaking and joking easily with residents and getting a feel of issues on the ground.

RADM Lui left the navy in 2003 and went on to head the Maritime and Port Authority, and the Housing Board. He stepped down as its chief executive officer on April 10 to focus his energies on politics.

His initial, instinctive reaction to the PAP's invitation, he said, was one of reluctance - partly because he felt that his role in the HDB had already provided enough scope for public service, partly because he was happy being anonymous. 

But what clinched his decision to enter politics was the support of his wife Soo Fen, a teacher, and his desire to put his abilities to the best use.

Now that he has taken the plunge, he is in it for at least 15 to 20 years, he said. 

"We are not just candidates for this election, but part of a team that will be here for the long haul. And I do not want to take up space unless I stay," he said.

"It's a little like being in the navy. You can't just recruit someone mid-career and slap on a uniform.
"In uniform, a lot of it has to do with the ethos, the culture, the training, the preparations. It's not just about business decisions."

On a recent comment by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that he was placed in Tanjong Pagar GRC partly because of "succession planning", he said that he took his 'slot' very seriously.

"PM Lee is obviously trying to build for the long haul. If not enough of us make it, that will create a vacuum in the long term."

For now, just being in the same team with MM Lee was an invaluable learning process, he said. 

"To be able to tap into the experience of somebody who has fought so many campaigns, who has seen so much of the world and its developments, as well as in Singapore, I can't describe the feeling in words."

He added that he had never been particularly ambitious.

"The part that I am concerned about is not individual success, or whether I will measure up to the Super Seven' of the previous election.

"The greater concern is not to let the team down."

So, for the man who never made five-year plans to get to the top of the heap, the goal is an inner satisfaction that goes beyond a job title.

Whether it is the navy or politics, he believes that everyone has an important role to play, and a contribution to make.

"The navy keeps you humble and approachable.

"If the captain thinks he's the most important person on the ship, just wait till the cook has an off day," he said with a laugh.

"To keep your men fighting fit, this means taking care of all levels."