By Howard Lee
Let’s not mince words here. Tan Chuan-Jin was demoted from Minister to Speaker of Parliament. Call it a different stage of his development, or call it everyone heading the same direction to make Singapore better, nothing can hide the fact that Tan has been left unceremoniously in the People’s Action Party’s naughty corner.
The question, however, is why. It took Mothership.sg a crew of three just to line up the many questions about his departure from the 4G leadership – all with no answers in view. This move in Singapore politics is clearly baffling enough to warrant the queries, and the slew of articles since the announcement did little to provide answers.
By all counts, Tan does a reasonably good enough job. Some may balk and exclaim that, for his pay, reasonably good is really not good enough. But compared to some other Coordinating Minister who basically asked reporters to run a train system – come on, let’s have some perspective on this.
In fact, Tan’s work at the Ministry for Social and Family Development, while not necessarily all hunky-dory, has been recognised by the community and civil society MSF works with. Baring the snafu over the “consultation” attempt with the Bukit Brown activists and the “exercising carboard collectors” gaffe, Tan has made no major misstep that requires him to step down from the PAP top leadership, let alone his current portfolio.
I personally remembered his “keep calm and carry on posting” jibe during the FreeMyInternet protest, which led to a few chuckles and a social media flooded with “keep calm” memes. He even fielded a live television interview, which proves that he had no qualms about taking the fall heat for his colleagues.
All good form for a team player. So why kick him out?
And let’s not be coy about it. Tan’s own statement says as much: “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.”
That’s easily said when your boss is the head of the nation – what choice do you really have? But clearly, his departure was pregnant with reluctance. He didn’t ask to be Speaker, but didn’t protest when given marching orders.
And therein lies the puzzling question. Why would PM Lee demote a full Minister, when there are heaps of other potential candidates to pick from?
We might never know the answer, but we can agree that it is a bad call. In the wake of Heng Swee Keat’s stroke (and wishing him good health) the PAP should have learnt the lesson that what little talent they have needs to be valued. Even if the PM was to deem Tan unsuitable to be PM, surely there are worse options to fill his shoes as Minister?
In fact, kicking out Tan in still-early days of the premiership horse race demonstrates a lack of contingency planning – very uncharacteristic of the PAP. For sure, the 2015 General Elections have brought in Ong Ye Kung and Ng Chee Meng, essentially bolstering the options for leadership succession. But you don’t throw away a jack just because you draw a king.
Moreover, Tan’s current performance and the eventual experience he would eventually have mustered would provide a new PM much-needed stability for his first team. It is hardly wise to throw all of that away. So strange it is, that we might even be fooled into falsely speculating that the PAP top leadership is full of petty dictator-wannabes who are uncomfortable with even the slightest threat to their grasp on power.
The situation as it is now would mean that PM Lee would now need to build it up the team again by the next General Election. He might not be able to retire as early as he had wished, and might need to stay on as PM for another term to continue the team-building exercise. By PAP standards, that usually takes a while, and an increasingly diverse political environment would only make talent spotting and development even more difficult.
Strange times ahead, and very little clarity to guide us.