Politically Incorrect: Desmond Tan thinks PAP can communicate better with the younger generation


In this new series, as its name suggests, we (plus the interviewee) try our utmost best to be politically incorrect. To kick start this series we have Minister of State Desmond Tan. Did you know he rides a bike and that there’s a 10 year-gap between his daughter and second son? Read on.

It’s widely reported that he’s a nice guy but here’s something you don’t know about Desmond Tan: he rides a road bike and has been a rider for over two decades.

You need to be here to witness the sparkle in his eyes when he speaks about his current bike – a BMW road bike that he’s the proud 3rd and 5th owner of.

Wait, what?

This means that, yes, he sold it and bought it back after a break of seven years. Even in its third COE cycle, the mileage is only at 40,000km. Impressive.

If I were to psychoanalyse his decision to buy back the bike, I’d say he’s a sentimental guy who is big on family.

But it is still an old bike. What does he like about it then?

“Everything. Really everything. The condition, the power, the engine, the power, the feeling of riding on it,” he enthuses.

Spoken like a true rider who went behind his parents’ back and got his license in the UK (Pro tip: be like him and get your license in UK because there’s only one classification unlike Singapore where riders need to go class 2B, 2A and then 2).

I can’t help but wonder: would he allow his children to pick up a bike license?

I expected the typical Singaporean dad answer of “no, it’s too dangerous” but the answer is not as simple as that.

It stems from knowing the fact that as a rider himself, he is in no position to object.

“In fact, my wife and my oldest son wanted to take lessons and I said: ‘Please go ahead’. Well, until now they haven’t lah. So I’m quite happy that they haven’t. But I can’t stop them. If you want to, it’s their call, and I will just support them.”

That said, knowing the risks of riding – he had some close brushes prior – he’s quick to add that he’s not going to actively encourage them to get their license.

For fear of this interview becoming a bike review, I gently remind him that we have more corners to manoeuvre.

Say hello (again) to the nice guy

Desmond Tan has a knack for making people feel at ease.

Perhaps it’s because of his public service roles he took on before entering politics: He served in the army for 28 years before taking on the role as Chief Executive for the People’s Association.

When I introduce the crew to the 51-year-old during the interview, he repeats their names after me as if clipping on an imaginary name tag.

“I actually spent quite a lot of effort knowing every one in the unit – 700 people by name. And until today, they still remember me for that, because I do make an effort.,” he tells me.

How he does it, I suppose remains a trade secret. But he lets me in on the basis of why he does this.

“It’s about respect.”

Respect is a word with baggage: it’s shockingly convenient to use, making it lacks the sincerity even though the very word contains feelings of admiration.

But somewhat it feels different with him, it seems like he actually means it. Perhaps it’s his easy demeanour, his upbringing, his love for Manchester United (long-suffering fans should always support long-suffering fans, especially during times like these); his love for motorcycles (he owns and rides one).

Or perhaps it’s me feeling the effects of a food coma (the unfortunate combination of age, rice and aircon) while speaking to him at a comfortable office in the Ministry of Sustainability and Environment building, where he holds the position of Minister of State.

Not that I want to be politically correct myself but I think he means it and I know why: he learnt the meaning of respect from his mother. He credits his mother as the main influence in his life.

“It’s something I learnt from my mother since growing up, and it’s also about putting others first, you know, being others-centric. So that’s how I carry myself wherever I go.”

Indeed. Hailing from the Pioneer Generation, Tan says that his mother shows affection by doing, not talking. And as an impressionable youth back then, observing her mother at close proximity shaped him greatly.

“She taught me everything I know about sacrifice. About people. About respect.”

With respect at the heart of it, those 700 names are more than just words; it’s about getting to know their background, their challenges and what they’re going through, he explain.

Speaking of understanding challenges, I sense my opening.

15 minutes in, my subject is properly warmed up and pretty comfortable. The time is ripe for the hard questions – after all, this series is called Politically Incorrect.

Communicate better, please

“Can you name me something that the Party can improve on?” I ask.


A nervous laugh and a pause later, “Well, where do I start?”

“Over the years, if you ask me, has the Party kept pace with how the generation has evolved? I think we have tried our very best, but I think there are some areas we definitely can improve.”

Okay, go on.

“One of which is, is I think being able to communicate better with different generation of people growing up in Singapore. And, you know, not just doing the right thing, but making sure that, people understand the considerations behind the decisions, I think there’s something that we have been trying to do better. So rather than just making the decision, but also sometimes good to share the struggles behind the decision.”

He goes on to cite Covid-19 as an example – the challenges, the pros and cons of various decisions and from different points of view.

But at the end of the day, he’s cognisant about what a government must do, which is to make the tough decisions and lead Singapore out of this pandemic.

The current generation, unfortunately is being stereotyped with some less than perfect labels: they are the woke crowd, they are the social justice warriors but ever the cup half full kind of guy, Tan thinks decidedly otherwise.

“Today, actually if you look at it, young people are empowered. If they believe in certain causes, they don’t need the government or they don’t even need anybody to mobilise them. They’re quite happy and quite empowered to say: ‘Okay, a few of us, let’s get together. This is what we believe in, why don’t we do something about it?’”

So. What would he do – or specifically, what policy would he create – if he were prime minister?

He tells me that he hasn’t thought about that (lucky him, imagine the optics) but this time round, he opts for inactivity.

“I’ll do my very best to retain social mobility. I think that’s the gem of our society,” he says.

This answer is not out of character. After all, he grew up in a 3-room flat in Bukit Ho Swee with 12 people and he probably won’t dispute this if I were to write that he’s a product of the system. Growing up in such a big family also means, as cliche as it sounds, experiencing some form of kampung spirit and perhaps yearning for a bigger family.

Which probably explains why there’s a 10 year-gap between his daughter and second son.

Never leave leftovers for the family

Now this is where it gets tricky: should I ask “what happened?” or wait for him to fill in the silence?

I went with: “Wow, there’s a big gap.”

He replies me with an answer that befits his engineering degree.

“The story is that I went to Afghanistan. When I came back, I told her that, you know, statistically, I have quite a number of friends who came back from Afghanistan, and they all have girls. It’s true. Okay, true data, I can I can give you the data points. She said: ‘Are you sure or not?’. I said yes and quoted some names.”

How then does he find his time for some many things, chief of all his family? He ponders for a bit and then quotes this person in his previous life in the military whom he respects a lot.

“Never leave the leftover for families.”

Wise words to live by, indeed.