Tan Chuan-Jin set to be Speaker: There’re many different roles, we’re running in the same race

Question of what led to exit from Cabinet could simply be that other duties call

Politics and political leadership changes in Singapore are generally predictable, so last week's announcement that Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin would be Speaker of Parliament was a considerable surprise to many.

The move requires the 48-year-old minister, touted as a core member of the next-generation leadership team, to resign from the Cabinet.

Explaining the decision, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that Mr Tan has the temperament and personality for the role and is the best choice for the post.

Still, the announcement has seen many, online and offline, ask the question: Has Mr Tan been demoted?

Those who say he was not demoted note that the Speaker of Parliament is a higher office, protocol-wise, than a Cabinet minister. The Speaker is the face of the legislature, just as PM Lee is the face of the executive branch of the Government and the Chief Justice the face of the judiciary.

All three - legislature, executive and judiciary - are separate and important branches of the Government.

The significance of the role of Speaker was flagged by a government-appointed committee reviewing ministers' pay in its report in January 2012. It pegged the salary of the Speaker - a measure of the importance of the job - at that of an entry-level minister.

On the other hand, those who take the view that Mr Tan's move was a demotion cite several reasons.

  • He moved from a Cabinet position where he can make policy to one where he cannot.
  • The Speaker's post is a part-time one whereas a minister's job is full-time. The 2012 White Paper on ministerial pay said: "Parliament currently applies a 50 per cent discount to both (Speaker and Deputy Speaker) positions as they are not full-time positions."
  • Previous House Speakers were mostly senior backbenchers and in one instance, a Cabinet minister who was older than Mr Tan and who held the post until his retirement.
  • The qualifications to be Speaker are less stringent than that required for a minister.

On these grounds, it is not difficult to understand why there would be those who see the move as a downgrade.

Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, who has been described as someone with ''a deep interest in social issues and in helping the needy and disadvantaged'', can use the post of Speaker to be an advocate in these areas, using his influence and networks to help advance their causes. Opinion Editor Chua Mui Hoong calls this being Speaker-Plus- Social Advocate.  ST PHOTO:

But even as the debate rages on, what appears to be clear is that Mr Tan has in all likelihood been dropped from the core political leadership.

The question is why? After all, even PM Lee acknowledged that Mr Tan was "an effective and activist minister".

In his five-year stint at the helm of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) - both "blue collar" ministries - he has made a name by championing low-income workers, needy families and disadvantaged Singaporeans.

However, one public gaffe was the infamous cardboard episode in 2015 when critics slammed him for saying that some elderly people collect cardboard, not to earn a living, but to get extra income or as a form of exercise. Mr Tan later explained that his comments were taken out of context and that the point he was making was that there were various reasons why people collect cardboard.

Was it his health then? In 2015, Mr Tan was struck by a rare form of tuberculosis from which he has since fully recovered.

The question of what led to him being moved from Cabinet is unlikely to be answered fully.

But one wonders whether going forward, the episode will have ramifications for the People's Action Party (PAP) and its efforts to recruit top talent for leadership posts.

Mr Tan is not the first young minister to leave the Cabinet.

Other examples include Mr David Lim, the Acting Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts in 2003, and Transport Ministers Raymond Lim in 2011 and Lui Tuck Yew in 2015. They were aged 48, 51, and 54 respectively when they left Cabinet.

There are many reasons why ministers leave. PM Lee outlined some when he spoke in the debate on ministerial pay in Parliament in January 2012, saying: "Not every person who comes into Government will succeed as a minister. It is a difficult job."

One wonders whether episodes like Mr Tan leaving the Cabinet might deter capable people from stepping forward and taking up political office, knowing that their exit, in the event they do not make the cut, may well be a public event.

Perhaps this is not an issue. The Prime Minister has been able to draw members into his Cabinet at every election, or from among serving MPs willing to step up and hold political office.

But the larger point is that those who step up to try out greater responsibilities should be prepared to move on to other roles if things do not quite work out - or if other more critical duties call.

In Mr Tan's case, it might be difficult to convince the public why a seemingly effective minister was moved from the Cabinet and offered the post of Speaker.

On social media, many of his followers said they were sad he would no longer be a minister.

Yet the man at the centre of it all has maintained a stoic face and a consistent line.

He said: "There are many different roles and many different pathways that we all have to take. (But) I would say we are all running in the same race. And the end outcome we are all working towards is... you have to make things better for Singaporeans."

A serving army officer, who used to work under Mr Tan, who resigned as a brigadier-general to enter politics in 2011, told me that the minister is a soldier at heart: "He was always marching and running with his men and he loved it."

Mr Tan told The Straits Times: "Throughout my life, I have never bargained or negotiated on where I get posted to. I embrace the opportunities and put in my very best."

When Parliament sits today, and a new Speaker takes the chair, Mr Tan will make the most of his new role. Soldiers like him know that they do not always get to pick their battlefields, but they will still fight their best in whatever they are called on to do.

As the saying goes, you cannot keep a good soldier down.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2017, with the headline 'There're many different roles, we're running in the same race'. Print Edition | Subscribe