At the outset, I should disclose that I have a personal nexus to this subject and it is something I feel very strongly about. You should read what follows below taking this fact into account. I am going to be unusually subjective.
Some present and former employees of NTUC Income will probably have shivers down their spine if they hear their former boss wants to be the next President of Singapore.
If Tan Kin Lian runs without the support of his former employer, these employees will in all likelihood volunteer to help the candidates opposing him.
There are as many others, who will firmly stand by him, help his campaign and ensure he gets a good chance at being elected.
That is the kind of loyalty and reaction Tan Kin Lian attracts as a leader.
The first time I heard from Tan Kin Lian was in early 2003. I was about to take my final exams in law school in England. He asked, “Would you like to come back and work for me?”
I got the job without attending a single face-to-face interview. That too during a financial crisis when an employer would be spoilt for choice in recruiting others.
I asked Tan Kin Lian about this many years later. He said he had read my published materials and thought that I could make a constructive contribution. If I hadn’t, he said, his general counsel would have fired me.
This is not the first time I am writing about Tan Kin Lian. See here and here.
Tan Kin Lian is no politician. He is a simple man, with a fiercely independent streak. He says it like it is. He has an acute sense of what is right or wrong, and often does what he feels is right. He is decisive, prepared to take chances and ever ready to learn from the mistakes he makes. He is candid about his strengths because of his conscious preference to focus on what is positive.
When he wanted to reduce the cost of motor insurance, he stood up against the motor workshops. At industry meetings, he rattled other insurers with his unbendable resolve. Some motor workshop operators ended up in jail. Cases also went all the way up to the Court of Appeal to secure precedents that would bind judges in the lower courts.
As former corporate counsel of NTUC Income, I know Tan Kin Lian is a passionate advocate of the rule of law.
I once met a District Judge at an event for the legal fraternity. She asked most accusingly, “Why does NTUC Income send so many cases to court? Why can’t you all just settle the matters? Why are you always appealing decisions?”
I replied, “Firstly, we want a fair outcome for all parties involved in the matter. Secondly, ma’am, you should be grateful we send so many cases. It means the courts are kept busy and we create jobs for people like you.”
Not surprisingly, she found my answer unimpressive. She is still actively hearing motor insurance cases in the Subordinate Courts. When I became a trial lawyer some years later, I had the good fortune to appear before her weekly. I am not sure if she felt likewise.
In the meantime, Tan Kin Lian moved on to other causes. He single-handedly took on financial institutions in Singapore, when many lawyers were reluctant to take on these companies for fear of never being instructed in cases from such organisations. He gave relevance to the Speakers’ Corner by organising the largest gathering of protestors in the history of that public space. He pressured our financial regulators to remarkably change the retail space for investment products in a manner that protected consumers.
These are the stories that people know of Tan Kin Lian. There are many other untold stories of him.
Tan Kin Lian stood behind Ong Teng Cheong when the hegemonic force of the ruling party took on the former President. He led various charitable initiatives of the late President. After Ong’s death, he was among those determined to preserve Ong’s legacy.
He supported competition among the English mainstream media in Singapore, and I learnt that he provided critical advertising revenue to sustain Today in its early days.
He employed a relative of the author of the controversial book, "Singapore the Ultimate Island (Lee Kuan Yew’s Untold Story)", during a period when others distanced themselves from such links.
He made a former lawyer at Tang Liang Hong’s firm his general counsel. That lawyer still remains general counsel of the NTUC cooperative and has given over a decade of dedicated, commendable public service to the labour movement – notwithstanding his past association, and that his valuable experience would have made got him a lot more wealth in another financial institution.
There was once Tan Kin Lian came under severe pressure from his bosses to fire me. He was told that I was funding opposition parties and supporting their causes, while being an employee of the NTUC cooperative. He did not believe these allegations, and carried out his own inquiry. It turned out I was helping my constituency's Member of Parliament from the ruling party!
His critics also have their untold stories.
Two very good friends, who are journalists, rather adorably call him a "megalomaniac" because of the shameless way he made himself the face of his organisation. For a similar reason, another friend does an awesome mimic of Tan Kin Lian.
I never liked they way Tan Kin Lian used to surround himself with his “yes” comrades. There were times I disagreed with his views. He once told an office gathering that his legal counsel could be relied on to disagree with him!
Many years ago, I was told someone created numerous copies of a fake obituary of him and flung them from a building roof-top. At one point, some of his colleagues were so unhappy with his leadership that they wrote letters of complaint to parliamentary representatives voicing their lack of confidence in him.
I am not sure if Tan Kin Lian can be the unifying President that at least one other Presidential candidate thinks Singapore needs. Given his imperfect history, he will probably an imperfect President be.
I know, however, he will make a difference to the office of President, if eventually selected and elected. In a Parliament dominated by one party, Tan Kin Lian can be depended upon to leave his unique imprint on our constitutional system.
"Tan Kin Lian for President” represents the cry of numerous Singaporeans wanting to exercise their power to vote for their next President. “Tan Kin Lian for President” is also a prayer for a President perceived as independent.
I hope, in the inimitable manner that has become the hallmark of Tan Kin Lian, he will take a chance, put the selection process of the presidency to the test and give others the choice to consider electing him as a future President.
Whether or not he is elected, at the very least, he owes this to the many supporters calling for him to stand up and be counted.
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