Chan Chun Sing stays close to ground despite swift rise

Then Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing (fifth from far left) with MP Murali Pillai (fourth from left) during a ministerial community visit to Mr Murali's Bukit Batok ward in July last year. Mr Chan seems to have stayed true to hi
Then Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing (fifth from far left) with MP Murali Pillai (fourth from left) during a ministerial community visit to Mr Murali's Bukit Batok ward in July last year. Mr Chan seems to have stayed true to his heartlander ways despite receiving harsh criticism online when he first entered politics.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

It was way past midnight, and Mr Sitoh Yih Pin and his supporters were still at a counting centre, waiting for the electoral result for the Potong Pasir single-member constituency.

Finally, at 3am, the recount was over, and it was the last result in the 2011 General Election.

Victory was declared for Mr Sitoh who, with his supporters, returned to the party's gathering centre at Toa Payoh Stadium.

It was 4am, and there was hardly anyone there. But waiting for them was Mr Chan Chun Sing, one of the People's Action Party's (PAP) new candidates, who was widely seen as a potential minister and possibly leading the fourth generation of Singapore's leaders.

That incident on May 8, 2011, the day after the election's Polling Day, is etched in Mr Sitoh's mind as it told him about the man and his leadership style.

Yesterday, he recounted it to The Straits Times: "This was one of the 4G stars, PM Lee (Hsien Loong) was going to unveil him at a press conference, he didn't know me well at the time. Yet, he was there. As long as the last platoon has not come home, he was not going anywhere."

Mr Chan had just left his role as the chief of army to join politics, and was elected MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC in the election.

Within a month, he was named to the Cabinet as Acting Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports and Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts.

At age 41, he was the youngest in Cabinet.

But politics initially had its bumps for the military man, who had spent 24 years in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

In the 2011 General Election rally, he was ridiculed by some people for using the Hokkien phrase "kee chiu", meaning "raise your hand", when posing a question to several elderly folk at a PAP rally.

Perhaps the down-to-earth, chatty style had endeared the former chief of army to his men in green but, in politics, many suggest his folksy approach seems out of step for a potential bigwig in the Government who would represent Singapore on the world stage.

Online critics were especially harsh, but Mr Chan seems to have stayed true to his heartlander ways.

His informal style of speaking continues to be peppered with colloquialisms and Chinese dialect phrases.

In 2013, as Social and Family Development Minister, he described the Government's strategy of offering overlapping layers of support to Singapore's needy as a "kueh lapis".

Mr Chan's work over the years has evidently spoken for itself because yesterday evening, he was picked by the PAP as its second assistant secretary-general.

The position puts him on track to be elevated to deputy prime minister in the not-too-distant future.

It has been a swift rise through the ranks for the 49-year-old Trade and Industry Minister.

A year after joining the Cabinet, he took charge of the newly created Ministry of Social and Family Development and, the following year, in 2013, he was promoted to a full minister and given what could be called a "homecoming" role: Second Minister for Defence.

Unlike in the past, the new ministry has added significance in a Singapore embarking on building an inclusive society.

Mr Chan introduced several key initiatives to strengthen Singapore's social safety net and support for families.

They include the partner operator scheme, which gives eligible childcare operators government funding if, among other things, they keep fees affordable and raise the quality of care and education.


In May 2015, he became chief of the labour movement.

In his three years as secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress, he expanded its scope to include more white-collar workers and professionals, managers and executives, a group that is growing fast and will make up two-thirds of the workforce by 2030.

Mr Ken Tan, president of the Public Utilities Board Employees' Union, said Mr Chan's down-to-earth manner helped him relate easily to the unionists.

"You can tell when you talk to him that he has the big picture in mind, but he knows how to speak the unionists' language," he said.

"I learnt this from him - that when you are delivering a speech, focus on three key messages. Any more than that, and the audience cannot remember."

Since joining politics, Mr Chan has hardly stayed beyond three years in a position. In April, a Cabinet reshuffle saw him become the Trade and Industry Minister. He was also named Minister-in-charge of the Public Service.

The new portfolio is a new challenge, intensified by the rising tide of protectionism across the world, coupled with the trade war brewing between global giants China and the United States, while Singapore continues to push for open and free trade.

Against this turbulent backdrop, Mr Chan collected a few wins, including a free trade deal between the European Union and Singapore.

Meanwhile, the blockbuster Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade pact looks set to be finalised next year.

But even as he rose in government, Mr Chan did not let up on his commitment as an MP of Tanjong Pagar GRC.

At interviews and other enga-gements, he often shares accounts of the residents he encounters at Meet-the-People sessions in his Buona Vista ward to illustrate his views about inequality and people's responsibilities towards one another.

He recently shared his encounter with a single mother of six children who needed help to get a job and $300 in financial aid from the ComCare Fund for lower-income families. He contrasted the case with that of a young couple with a combined five-figure monthly income who complained they got only half of a $20,000 grant from the Housing Board.

It was a "surreal" contrast, he said, showing how the more well-off in society can sometimes feel more entitled to government help.

As the son of a single mother who raised two children on the meagre pay of a machine operator, Mr Chan's frugality is legendary.

When he left the SAF in 2011, he was given, like all departing officers, an SAF watch. But he continued wearing his old, black, plastic Casio, explaining: "The battery hasn't run out." And he continues wearing it today.

Although an old boy of the elite Raffles Institution, he gave short shrift to elitism and has strong views about how the successful should give back to society.

At a conference last month, he said: "I would not hold it against somebody, regardless of his background, if he does well and makes a contribution to society.

"But if someone has done well, not through his own effort but maybe through his connections... and doesn't reach out to people, then that is different."

• Additional reporting by Rachel Au-Yong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2018, with the headline 'Chan Chun Sing stays close to ground despite swift rise'. Subscribe