The next PM?

Recently promoted to full minister helming the Ministry for Social and Family Development, Mr Chan Chun Sing talked to Business Times Weekend's Teh Shih Ning & Wong Wei Kong on a wide range of topics. Here are some excerpts:

On being tipped to be PM

"Who eventually becomes the PM is not something that we decide individually. Whoever he or she may be will have to command the trust of the team, and at the same time, the trust of the people of Singapore."

"It's not something that's number one on our minds. If anything, what's number one is to make sure that we have a strong team with diverse talent, with overlapping strengths so that we can cover one another's weaknesses. Our concern is whether we can continue to attract enough people to come forward, especially in this more challenging environment."

"I'm sure more people will come, in a more contested space. The question is whether we can continue to have people with the correct values to put the nation before self, and to care about the people and really work hard for the future of the country. That has become even more challenging after GE (General Election) 2011.

"I think I can speak for my cabinet colleagues that this search for people with the correct values is the number one (priority). Without sufficient depth and diversity in the team, the question of who may be the next PM is "quite irrelevant".

On his approach to helping Singapore's most needy

"My own view is that we've only one official religion, which is pragmatism - whatever it takes to get our society to share the fruits of its labour in an equitable manner, that helps society stay stable, and yet at the same time, allows the social mobility for people to move up and down."

On curbing the numbers of foreign workers:

"If we over-calibrate, we would flip the market and if we go on a roller-coaster dive again, suddenly, all the graduates coming out of the universities and polytechnics may not have jobs. That is the scary part."

"To be frank, a bit of the crowdedness we can still manage. It is a problem to manage, but the other problem is just as scary."

On changing the definitions of success:

"The fact that you don't own a private property doesn't mean that it's a disaster, that the country has failed you.

"We now have more opportunities for people to pursue a diverse path to success...

"One part of society will continue to compete within the traditional definition of success, like scholarships, a stable job in a big company, but hopefully (more) will be more prepared to venture out into the arts, sports and start up their own businesses."

On the challenge of a widening income gap:

"One is that you'll have to redistribute more. And the second thing is, how do you keep the bottom-end moving up? Either we raise their productivity for them to command better salaries, or if not, how do you distribute enough for them to keep up generally without destroying the work ethic, and the individual sense of self-worth? That is a challenge."

"Those who are better off will always be able to afford more options than those who are less well-off. And, in time to come, those options may also create more opportunities for their children and their children's children. If you don't do anything then society will fragment."

"Our job is to make sure that those with relatively less opportunities can also have access to the same kind of opportunities. It will never be entirely equal, but you try to narrow the gap, and then within that, people will work hard, and based on their talent, they will have a chance to climb up. Never mind if your parent used to be a hawker or a taxi driver... The philosophy is that if you work hard, you'll have a leg up."

*Mr Chan's mother, a machine-operator in a plastics company, raised her two children on a salary of $500 a month.

On his concern that there will be a system that produces the right leaders:

"There's nothing to say that the PAP will be around forever. If the PAP cannot renew itself with people with vision and values, if somebody else comes up with a better team with a better, stronger vision, a better sense of values, then they will deserve to take over the government."

On why it is vital that Singapore's leaders do the correct thing for the long term:

(Otherwise)... "we will be like any other country. We won't be extraordinary. We'll be extra-ordinary, with a hyphen.

"Normality means we'll lose our edge, globally. You can be the most eloquent, discursive Parliament, but if you have no relevance to the rest of the world, then you're a Timbuktu. Your internal dynamics must support your larger external relevance.

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