Tuesday, April 12, 2011

K. Shanmugam

Tue, Apr 12, 2011
The New Paper

By Tay Shi'an

He's the Home Affairs and Law Minister, and a People's Action Party (PAP) member.

As a 20-something, he wanted political change like many of his peers. He then disagreed with "30 per cent" of the Government's policies.

While intellectually and rationally agreeing with the other 70 per cent, he said: "There's also a natural sympathy, a natural empathy and support for the underdog, and the opposition were the underdogs.

"It was youthful idealism - wanting to change the status quo."

Believing that he could more likely make an effective contribution by joining the PAP, he became a PAP Member of Parliament at 29 in 1988.

He then saw how the theories he learnt in law school met reality, when he got to know the ground-level issues faced by his constituents, and his perspective changed.

He said: "I still disagreed with some policies, but had a much greater appreciation for what the Government did."

He was a young idealist and said he remains an idealist, but tempered now with greater realism.

Today at 52, Mr Shanmugam, sees an all familiar journey of thought - in his son, 22, who is studying in the UK.

Said the Minister: "As with many young people in their 20s, he takes a very liberal approach and view of society, he thinks that we are too restrictive in Singapore. He thinks that I am too conservative and 'right wing'.

"He often disagreed with me in Singapore, on the way we do many things here. (Or rather), he used to.

Now he's sending me e-mails saying he appreciates Singapore better."

He also has a daughter, 20, studying overseas.

Mr Shanmugam spoke candidly during the two-hour interview with The New Paper on Sunday over coffee and plain toast at Old Town White Coffee at Novena Square 2 (Minister's choice of venue).

He shared his son's experience of seeing how the health services in some countries operate, how students have to cope with a cutback in public services, and unemployment.

The announcement late last year was of a plan to triple the tuition fees of British universities. Now students from lower income families fear they cannot afford to continue their education.

Said Mr Shanmugam: "He's seeing it raw, and first-hand, how public policies affect young people.

How if the government doesn't get its economic policies right, that affects people.

"So, he suddenly sees our policies in a very different light."

Culture shock

His son got another culture shock when travelling to another European city recently, when he arrived at the cheap place he booked and saw it had an armoured door.

"The chap who let him in told him, don't go to the city centre (which is two metro stops away) because it is full of drug dealers and is dangerous," said Mr Shanmugam.

"Imagine if we said to people, 'Don't go into Raffles Place or don't go to Orchard Road- it's too dangerous.'

"(In Singapore) All of us feel safe walking out during the day or during the night in any part of the city. That's a very very precious thing to have in a city."

His son also had his pocket picked by "civilised pickpockets", who lifted his wallet and later walked up to him and returned it with 10 euros (S$18) inside.

Mused the Minister: "I suppose you're so happy that you got it back, that you won't then file a police report... So it's become a very sophisticated system.

"Thankfully he didn't have too much money on him so he didn't lose too much. But this is the state of affairs. In Singapore, people also get pick-pocketed, but I guess it is not a common experience here."

In The New Paper Young Voters survey of voters aged 21 to 35, 77 per cent said they feel the need for more opposition in Parliament.

How does Mr Shanmugam, once a young idealist, react to the finding?

He said: "It's up to us to convince them of the true state of affairs and our viewpoints... "When you take your education for granted, and you take your health care for granted, when you take your home and stability for granted, when you take your security for granted, then your viewpoint is different.

"Suddenly when you feel that you can't pay for your education, you can't take their security for granted. Public services, medical services are not reliable, and you have to wait for months. Things take on a whole different perspective."

Mr Shanmugam said it will take time for his son to fully appreciate Singapore's system, and the trade-offs and consequences of countries which have struck a different balance between individual rights and the rights of the community.

"Because it's at least seven years of believing that we are too restrictive, reading the international press and believing that we are against freedom of speech, that were strict individual liberties," he said.

"He is in a mould similar to how I was 30 years ago. In particular, in Singapore we place such an emphasis on the community, and some young people don't like that because the Government, the PAP, is seen as all-powerful, and you want a change from that."

But he believes some of these perspectives arise from not knowing what really the Government does to help Singaporeans.

"And then you grow up a little bit and become wiser and you realise how much of a welfarist system Singapore really is. Many aspects of people's lives, the Government is intervening to help, from education to housing to health care," said Mr Shanmugam.

"You also realise for all that talk of restrictions, in fact, you can pretty much say and do whatever you want to do - as long as you don't commit an offence.

And in reality you have more freedom here compared to places which are touted to be more liberal."

Is he disappointed with the strong opinions that his son and those of his generation hold?

No, he said. In fact he sees it as a good sign. He added: "You have to be an idealist in your teenage and early 20s... if you are not, something's wrong with you.

"If you don't start out with idealism, then you lose something. Many people want to change society in their 20s. It's good to have the passion."

It's a journey of exploration, said Mr Shanmugam.

"At 22, you don't think about practical mundane things.You just want change...

"As you grow older, you see what is really important for yourself, and society. It's safety, it's security, it's the future, the children. It's a certain stability in economic policies, it's good governance, it's the ability of the country to be nimble in dealing with international issues, it's the ability of the country to look after its poor people, people who are not doing so well.

"And if you look at those things and what happens here and if you have the ability to compare that with what happens elsewhere, I think you will come to your own conclusions. Idealism will be tempered by practical experience."

Only 29 but... I thought I could pick it up and learn

By Eugene Wee

AS SOMEONE who joined politics before he hit 30, Mr K Shanmugam knows what it's like for Singaporeans to question a candidate's abilities because of age.

"One of the questions I was asked (by reporters then), they asked me, you are 29, that was the time when town councils were being formed, you haven't done anything much in your career, you haven't been involved in community work, what makes you think you can run a town council or be a Member of Parliament?" said Mr Shanmugam, who contested his first election as part of the Sembawang GRC team in 1988.

"So I just told them, on the town council part, I'll be part of the team with (then-Education Minister) Dr Tony Tan, and I think I will be able to pick it u pand learn."

He had said then that he was confident he could contribute despite his age.

The Aug 21, 1988, Straits Times article introducing him as a candidate bore the headline: "Youth not a handicap, says youngest candidate Shanmugam".

It's a familiar topic that pops up every election, this time after Ms Tin Pei Ling, a 27-year-old management consultant, was introduced as a PAP election candidate last month.

The perception that Mr Shanmugam was too young wasn't the only hurdle he faced going into Chong Pang, the ward he would be standing in, which was "very traditional, conservative, lots of clans, lots of Chinese temples, very dialect-speaking, very Hokkien", said Mr Shanmugam.

"The perception on the ground was first, you send an Indian candidate. Secondly, he's this lawyer, who speaks English and not a word of Mandarin, and third, he's so young," he said.

"Probably not a good fit you can think for the constituency in many ways. Or it would have seemed."

But this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Mr Shanmugam said that one thing that Chong Pang constituents appreciated was a person's sincerity and the knowledge that he was trying his best to help them.

"So within a short period, they could see, I was there genuinely to listen to what they have to say, and try and deal with it and help them," he added.

"Once you build up the trust, it's also a hallmark of the background of people in my constituency, if you earn their trust, they are completely with you, they don't change their minds easily. They support you."

Mr Shanmugam said that in the early years, he was at the constituency four to five times a week on weekdays, heading down in the evening after a full day's work at his law firm.

Often, he would have dinner only after 11pm, and get to bed only at 1am or 2am.

"For constituency work, you have to be on the ground. Your physical presence matters," said Mr Shanmugam, who added that he shadowed various MPs for more than a year to learn more about the job before making the decision to enter politics.

"You cannot intellectualise it and say, 'It's okay, they know I care for them'. You have to be there, you have to interact, you have to be present at the dinners, at the wakes, to be present at the functions and you have to work for the people."

More than 20 years on, that work ethic doesn't seem to have changed.

When asked how he manages work-life balance now, Mr Shanmugam replied with a laugh: "I don't manage it.

It's just mostly work. It's the one thing I haven't been able to manage."

He added: "You can't be effective in this job without a very supportive spouse. And I am lucky to have a totally supportive wife."

Mr Shanmugam's wife is a fourth generation Singaporean and a clinical psychologist who often accompanies him to functions.

"We spend time together with her coming with me to many of my events in the constituency," he said.

"She comes with me, and we try to engage each other on the way to my constituency and on the way back, we talk to each other. And on the weekend, I try and set aside two to three hours to spend sometime with her."

What does he think of the criticism of Ms Tin? Mr Shanmugam said he was "bemused".

"I think there is a youth constituency out there, they also have views, and it's good to have a mix of parliamentarians of different age, and the young have a certain idealism, a different way of looking at things, and it's good to have some representatives who are young in Parliament, who will reflect the views of her generation.

"That ought to be heard in Parliament," he said.

"So rather than focusing on a young person as to what he or she alone can do, you look at the whole slate. The slate as a whole is better because it has people from different backgrounds, different ages - adds to diversity."

Pay cut when he quit job

HE REPORTEDLY took a pay cut of over 85 per cent when he quit his job as a lawyer to become a Minister three years ago.

When asked, Mr Shanmugam would only acknowledge that he took a "significant" pay cut.

When pressed on his fees, he said jokingly: "(It) was well-known at that time that it was not inexpensive."

The senior counsel and former senior partner at Allen & Gledhill was viewed as one of Singapore's most formidable lawyers.

After 23 years in court, Mr Shanmugam said he does miss parts of being a lawyer.

He said: "In legal practice, I would be able to mix around far more with people, sit around like this and have a coffee."

But the "intense pressure" of being a litigator has prepared him well for the transition from backbencher to Cabinet Minister, the first backbencher in 23 years to do so.

He said: "(The) way you deal with pressure is by ignoring it and focus on your job. The moment you allow pressure to get into your mind, you are not focusing on what you have to do, you become less effective.

"I deal with the work in two ministries, major policies, day-to-day issues, urgent matters. I have to deal with my constituents, and I can't be doing all this if I worry about what's happened in the past, or worry about what's going to happen in the future. I do what I have to do."

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