Interview with the Speaker of Parliament

Tan Chuan-Jin intends to continue speaking up for social causes

Championing social causes is not a role associated with the Speaker of Parliament, says Mr Tan Chuan-Jin. But he intends to use his new appointment to continue championing the social causes that he was involved in before.

These include coaxing companies to donate to charity and persuading individuals to volunteer to help needy families.

Whether he is successful in this role, he says, will depend on both "the weight of the office" of the Speaker and how much regard people have for him as a person. It comes down to "whether there is a certain level of respect, not just about the role (of the Speaker) but you as a person", Mr Tan notes in a matter-of-fact tone.

He tells Insight that he sees the Speaker as wearing three hats.

The first is the parliamentary business of passing laws that have an impact on people.

Then there is the diplomatic function, such as meeting foreign dignitaries. "I hosted a visit from a Malaysian parliamentarian," Mr Tan says by way of example.


The causes I believe in don't stop just because my job has changed. The terms of reference (of the Speaker's Office) do not provide for it, but it's something that I feel passionately about.

MR TAN CHUAN-JIN, on continuing the causes he started as Minister for Manpower and for Social and Family Development.

The third role - championing social causes - is "not traditionally associated with Speaker", he says, adding that he plans to continue the causes he started when he was the Minister for Manpower and Minister for Social and Family Development.

Announcing last month that he had nominated Mr Tan as the new Speaker, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong singled out his deep interest in social issues and helping the disadvantaged. He added that the new Speaker would continue to oversee SG Cares, the national movement to build a caring society.

Mr Tan tells Insight: "The causes I believe in don't stop just because my job has changed. The terms of reference (of the Speaker's Office) do not provide for it, but it's something that I feel passionately about."

He intends to tackle the social causes from three fronts.

The first is schools.

"I am reaching out to the schools, I'm going to talk to them," he says. "The vision ought to be this - that every child, every young person leaves school and tertiary institutions with a very deep passion and desire to care for others and to want to make a difference."

The second front is sustaining the interest of school-leavers in volunteering when they join the workforce. Surveys showed that young people want to join companies that have strong corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes, but not all companies offer that, Mr Tan says.

The third front is therefore coaxing companies to step up their CSR programmes, he adds.

He has had some successes so far.

Mr Tan recounts a talk he gave last month to about 150 people, including company bosses, at a seminar on corporate giving organised by Temasek Trust, the philanthropic arm of Temasek Holdings.

Such outreach can help companies look beyond using their CSR activities as branding tools to using them to meet the needs of the recipients and to make a difference to society, Mr Tan points out.

These outreach activities have taken up a fair bit of his time, he says.

When asked whether the Speaker's role, which is a part-time appointment, frees up more time for him outside his work as compared with him being a minister, Mr Tan says: "Doesn't feel like it. Doesn't feel like there is more time."


Mr Tan's involvement in championing social causes raises the question: Will he become a full-time Speaker?


He discloses that some members of the public have written to him to ask whether he is a part-time or full-time Speaker. The Speaker's role is defined as a part-time job, in the traditional duties of conducting parliamentary proceedings and diplomatic roles, and by the very pay structure, he notes.

But with the additional outreach role, "it pretty much feels quite full time, at least if the first month is anything to go by", he says with a laugh.

Is there an option of Mr Tan making the Speaker's role a full-time one, Insight asks. How do you go about doing that? Do you have to get approval from the House members?

He replies: "(I) don't know."

But it does not matter to him whether the role of championing social causes is written officially into the Speaker's duties, or whether the role is a part-time or full-time one, he says.

"I'm not too particular about it," he says. "It is something I personally feel committed to."

"I definitely intend to apply myself as fully as I can, because it's something that I believe is important".

Will you take on another job as some Speakers in the past have done, Insight probes. As Speaker, Mr Tan Soo Khoon also ran his watch business and Mr Michael Palmer continued practising law.

"Well, I'm open to seeing what develops I guess," he replies. "Right now, I guess I'm focused on really learning the ropes as to how to be a better Speaker."

Toh Yong Chuan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 15, 2017, with the headline 'Speaking up for social causes'. Print Edition | Subscribe