INTERVIEW WITH TODAY (SINGAPORE) ON 17 OCTOBER 2008. EXCERPTS PUBLISHED IN WEEKEND TODAY ON 18 OCTOBER 2008.
In your dealings with him, what kind of person does Mr Tan strike you as?
I worked with Tan Kin Lian since 15 August 2003 until his retirement on 1 April 2007. I did not report directly to him. I reported to the present general counsel of NTUC Income, Vincent Yeo.
Tan has often believed in doing what is right and in helping those that really do need help. In doing these things, he is pragmatic and he takes calculated risks. He also has this remarkable ability to simplify matters. I guess these qualities come from his background as an actuary.
I remember, when I first joined NTUC Income, a manager had put forward a proposal to Tan. The manager painted a very rosy picture and provided enticing figures to support that image. Tan replied, "Our goal as a cooperative is not make too much money. We only need to make a reasonable amount of money. Our goal should also be to help people and to create jobs so that they can help others."
Were you surprised that he would turn out to be such a vocal activist after leaving NTUC Income? Did you expect him to do so?
No, Tan has always been vocal about issues of the day, especially matters that he is concerned or passionate about, even if the issue involved regulators or others with influence. When I joined NTUC Income, my mentor told me, "Tan Kin Lian is one person who will stand up for what he thinks is right. And he is the one person who will let you do the same. So the opportunity to work with him is an honour."
Mr Tan's actions are rare in Singapore. We hardly ever see ex-CEOs or ex-politicans publicly taking on a contrarian position to the authorities and rallying people to the cause. So far, Mr Tan's efforts have been quite positive, in terms of creating awareness and getting people's support. What do you think are the reasons why he has been successful in doing so?
Perhaps, most of these ex-CEOs or ex-politicians have other priorities. Nevertheless, Tan Kin Lian is not in unchartered territory. For example, before him, we had Ngiam Tong Dow and the late S Rajaratnam. Of course, Tan has the benefit of blogging technology, which his predecessors did not have the luxury of exploiting.
I am hopeful we will see more ex-CEOs or ex-politicians publicly taking on a contrarian position to the authorities and rallying people to the cause. We already see hints of such will in current leaders such as Lee Wei Ling, Liew Mun Leong and Ho Kwon Ping.
I am presently training to be a trial lawyer. One of the things that is impressed upon you as a trainee advocate is how much your credibility before the Court is very important. The more credible you are, the more the Court is likely you to find you believable. Of course, it is also important to have good knowledge of the law. Tan has been successful simply because, firstly, he knows what he is talking about and, secondly, he has built up enough credibility to be believed. My sense is that both the authorities and the people he has rallied trust him to do what is right and to act within the law.
For many, it's about time that someone spoke up loudly on consumer rights. Do you see this as boding well for the future of Singapore? What could be some of the pitfalls that you think Mr Tan have to watch out for, to avoid the fate of other prominent political/civil activists?
Traditionally, labour and consumer rights have been championed by the National Trades Union Congress. As Chief Executive Officer of NTUC Income, Tan was a pioneer in backing consumer-centric initiatives. Tan is thus keeping to the NTUC agenda by speaking up loudly on consumer rights in the financial sector.
I have always held the view that an active citizenry bodes well for the future of Singapore. It is an indication of how much people care about their country. In being active, citizens should check their facts and stay within the parameters of what is legal. As long as citizens watch out for these things, they can avoid the unfortunate actions other prominent political or civil activists have had to face.
Does Mr Tan come across to you as someone with an axe to grind?
Exemplary leaders have only one loyalty: their cause.
In staying true to his cause, Lee Kuan Yew bowled over the communists and many others that came in his way. Does that mean Lee had an axe to grind? If yes, the same can be said of Tan.
I would prefer to think Tan is staying true to his cause.
Please consider the environment - do you really need to print this?