Telling it like it is: Tan Chuan-Jin

Telling it like it is: Tan Chuan-Jin
Minister Tan Chuan-Jin
PHOTO: The New Paper


He was only 18 and busy with National Service but a young Tan Chuan-Jin already felt strongly about looking out for people and defending the nation.

He said he still cannot quite figure out why he felt that way, but that feeling has amplified over the years.

In 2011, he left the army to join politics, a transition he saw as a continuation of his work - interacting and engaging people.

"The reason I joined the army in the first place was really about giving back to society in some ways..."

Did the military hierarchy make it easier to become a leader?

"(Being a leader) is really about inspiring (people) to believe in something. That's not something you can order," he said.

The only big difference is the loss of privacy.

"You're pretty much in the public eye. Previously, I was a lot more anonymous in some sense.

"But the reasons for serving are no less different. The cause is really about looking out for people, looking out for society.

"So that's one thing that I found that has reinforced over the years."


He is no stranger to epithets and stinging comments hurled at him on the Internet.

Most recently, the Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin was called "delusional", "out of touch" and "living in denial" for his post about some old folks collecting cardboard as a "form of exercise".

It has been a sobering journey, he said.

"Even with the best intentions, (there are) different perspectives and you get burned in the process. And you just got to learn to deal with it," he said.

"It's not just happening to me, it's happening to others as well... But you can't live in fear. I think you're here for a reason. Your purpose is to do something that's good."

Mr Tan had been active on Facebook even before it was popular among government agencies and he runs his own public Facebook account.

"I don't analyse the strategic times to post... I never understand the algorithms. I just suka-suka (Malay for as you wish) post something when I feel like it," said the minister, breaking into laughter before he became serious again.

"But it's me. It's things I'm interested in. I've a wide range of interests and am inquisitive about issues. So to me, social media allows me to interact and engage...

"You have to accept that there will be people who are critics. There will be people who will distort everything you say.

"But that's okay," said Mr Tan.


Once in a while, he comes across a piece of news that makes him furrow his brow in annoyance.

He did just that when he read about a woman who was caught running a curry puff factory out of a two-room rental flat here to feed herself and her two children.

The law caught up with her and the Indonesian was fined $3,000 for selling curry puffs without a licence. She served a five-day default sentence instead as she could not afford the fine.

Even as a minister used to doing his checks and verifying every case, Mr Tan's first reaction, like many, was: "Tsk! Why are our agencies so inflexible?"

After some checks, he realised that she was "not quite the poor lady struggling to make ends meet". Details of her receiving help did not emerge in the story, he pointed out.

With such cases, things are not always what they seem, Mr Tan said.

It becomes important to strike a balance between being circumspect and flagging up concerns.

"So the main thing is be involved, highlight, flag up all your concerns, but let's find out. You cannot have a trial and jury (online).

"I can't come forward and clarify many of these things because a lot of the information is confidential. It goes on, and then people come and weigh in. We appreciate the public concern, and that's really gratifying, but where's that balance?

"So the reality is we need to find out more and unfortunately, sometimes there are complex reasons (behind) these problems," he said.


Is a Member of Parliament a social worker or a lawmaker?

Mr Tan is certain that the answer is both.

Calling it a fallacy to see MPs as just lawmakers, he said: "I am very particular about our roles on the ground.

"We sometimes discuss about whether you are electing an MP to be your chief social worker rather than a parliamentarian, as if that this is really not your job, and that being a parliamentarian is about making laws.

"I find that may sometimes trivialise the issue. Yes, I'm not a chief social worker. In fact, I'll be hesitant to call myself a social worker, because it really does my social workers injustice... because they are far better qualified and able.

"But there are things that I can do.

"And being involved with families who need help allows me (to have) a very intimate perspective about the issues, and that actually instructs me in my role as Minister for Social and Family Development."


As a Member of Parliament for Kembangan-Chai Chee, Mr Tan has been racking his brains over how best to help the disadvantaged. Some rental flats come under his ward.

This pet cause was sparked in his later years in the army. As the organising chairman of the 2009 National Day Parade, he came up with outreach programmes to make the event more inclusive and brought in the less privileged to help with the fun packs.

"I also wanted to tag the fun pack so that when people receive it, (they would realise) this was packed by someone. So you remember the people who are sometimes very anonymous and faceless in our society," he said.

What he did not expect was the impact the outreach had on him and the soldiers involved.

Said Mr Tan: "You begin to care in a much more intimate way, you also feel that you change in the process...

"I think it made (those who were involved in the outreach) more human in terms of reconnecting our sense of compassion."

The NDP outreach made him ponder over how to replicate the same experience in his political career.

"I can't change society at large, but in my own small, little way, can I begin to involve residents, volunteers to actively play a part, to actually make a difference?"


Some jog or hit the gym as quick ways to beat stress.

Minister Tan said he does it a little differently and more efficiently: He sometimes runs up and down the stairs of the blocks at Kembangan and Telok Kurau.

He explained this habit: "You can de-stress, get some exercise and also meet residents, although it's sometimes a bit bizarre. Sometimes I walk by and then if the doors are open, I talk to residents, they're a bit perplexed (and probably wondering) 'Who is this chap talking to me?'"

Another hobby he indulges in, when time permits, is photography. More specifically, Mr Tan finds processing photos therapeutic.

He started off doing it the old-school way - in the darkroom - until Photoshop came along.

"It's really quite exciting, but it (developing in the darkroom) takes too long!" he said.

"I don't analyse the strategic times to post... I just suka-suka (Malay for as you wish) post something when I feel like it."

This article was first published on August 30, 2015.
Get The New Paper for more stories.

More about

Purchase this article for republication.



Your daily good stuff - AsiaOne stories delivered straight to your inbox
By signing up, you agree to our Privacy policy and Terms and Conditions.