We are a party of strong values & one that does right for S’pore for the long haul: Tan Kiat How

Mr Tan Kiat How is a man who wears many hats. As he sits across this Petir.sg writer, he’s the branch chair of Kampong Chai Chee ward; once he’s done with this interview at the MND building, he will continue his day job as Minister of State for National Development while double hatting as another for Communications and Information; during weekends he spends time soliciting feedback as Reach chairman, and as he sheds his official duties, he’s loving husband, father to a two-year-old boy, and at heart, an anime fan.

If you only get that he’s an anime fan after listing out all his existing hats, I don’t blame you. A 45-year-old anime fan is quite unexpected.

Before you label him an otaku, he’s not – the Demon Slayer lover doesn’t even know the definition. Instead his love for anime stemmed from the cultural forces in his formative years.

“I started watching from young. Last time it was Gundam, Dragon Ball, Slam Dunk. So the interest grew over time,” he says.

Looking at the number of hats he has, one would suspect that he doesn’t exactly have the luxury of time for the latest episodes of Demon Slayer.

That is correct because he has other real demons to slay.

Of duty and honour

Chief of which is to slay short-term populism.

Against the backdrop of a bustling cityscape with the iconic Pinnacle – crown jewel of public housing –that the founding fathers built up from scratch, he says the reason of the continued success of Singapore is partly a reflection of the Party and its members.

He changes hat and explains with tone and voice of a REACH chairman.

“We are a party of, I’d say, very strong values. You can speak to the fellow branch chairs, branch secretaries, activists, many of them have a very strong sense of duty, of doing right for Singapore for the long term. It’s not just about short-term populism, short-term political gains but is always what’s right for Singapore and what’s right for Singapore for the next generation.”

Honour is probably a rare commodity nowadays but for Mr Tan, honour can always be mined within the Party as he’s surrounded by loyal party activists, who he describes as people of honour.

He cites the example of one 83-year-old Mr Png from his branch: “He’s one of the early members of the PAP, he joined when he was 16 years old and he strikes me as a person of duty and honour. Whenever he sees me, he will remind me that the PAP must be stand for that. We must know our duty, we must be honourable, and we must do what’s right for Singapore. And that’s the ethos of the party.”

And it is particularly this ethos that pulls good people with a sense of purpose together, he opines.

This probably applies to Mr Tan too.

After all, why join the rumble-tumble world of politics when he’s near the peak of his career? Prior to entering politics, he was the chief executive of Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA), having built up Singapore’s connectivity infrastructure. One would think that his stint at IMDA should be longer than the three years he was there, given that he’s a trained computer engineer.

Throw in the fact that his wife and him were expecting a baby (in fact, his son was born right after GE 2020 on Aug 5) and the 45-year-old’s decision to join politics became yet a tad stranger.

But not to him.

Why politics?

Truth be told, Mr Tan’s wife wasn’t all that enthusiastic to hear about his political ambitions then.

“Because it adds a lot of additional stress and pressure on the family, especially when we were having a young baby, starting a family,” he explains.

And not to mention the loss of privacy.

Ultimately, the decision to enter was a joint one; it took them some time to think things through, weighing the motivations and desired outcomes, he says – this time putting on the policy-laden hat of a Minister of State.

“Finally, we agreed that let’s give it a shot, not so much for anything but really think we can make a difference for Singapore, shape the society that we want to see Isaac grow up in, the kind of values and systems, and really just making sure we continue to keep Singapore going,” he says of his primary motivation to enter politics.

But yes, why join when in his own words, he’s “quite an old” father? And besides, he was already making a difference to the society, albeit in a public service role.

Same, same but different?

“Politics is about bringing people along, making a case, persuading the people and having the leadership and gumption to make decisions and do things that may not be immediately popular, may not yield short-term gains but are important for the long-term good of Singapore,” he continues, “Public servants ought to be focused on the implementation and proposing the policy options. So there are slight differences.”

Suffice to say, his personal values are in line with the Party’s. So when it was time for “tea”, it was a no-brainer for him.

Building rapport with East Coast residents

His pride and joy not only got featured in his Instagram but also on many of his residents’ minds.

“Many of them are young parents in my constituency, kids about the same age as Issac and we exchange tips and share experiences… I post my son’s photos on Instagram because a lot of my residents both young and old keep asking. I go to my markets very often, do house visits very often. Many of the residents are asking ‘How’s Issac?’, ‘Can I meet Issac?’ But it’s a bit difficult with Covid,” he says.

Indeed, Mr Tan has grown quite attached to East Coast having moved to the east prior to entering politics – quite the mean feat since he spent most of his life in the West.

“I like the vibe, the food, the culture and I think there’s just a lot more green spaces, which I really enjoy,” he says.

His frequent visits to the markets and hawker centres also mean that he plays hospitable host to some of the Workers’ Party members who were there on the weekends.

“They are visitors and we should play host, you see. And I realised many of them don’t stay in the east, they come from different parts of Singapore and that really shows commitment. Some of them come from Clementi, Woodlands and they are really not familiar with the place, so I would always recommend them the food to try,” he says unironically.

Seasons in life

Any regrets joining politics? A question Petir.sg likes to post whenever there’s a chance for a face-to-face with a MP.

He explains with a philosophy that reveals a certain worldliness.

“There are seasons and windows in our lives that we do certain things. For me, it just happens that this is the season for politics. It’s not as if I wouldn’t have the same motivation to do good for Singapore… For me this was where stars were a bit more aligned. If I’m much older, say 50s or 60s, I wouldn’t join. I don’t think I have the energy to contribute. The heart is willing but the body can’t deliver. If too young, I’m not sure if I have the right maturity, right experience to contribute meaningfully. So I just happened to be in a window.”

And since he’s in a philosophical mood, this writer pries further, checking if he’s more of a Kant or a Nietzsche.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow and my personal philosophy is I try to live a life of as little regret as possible. Temperamentally, I don’t look into the rearview mirror. End of the day, when I go to bed, I ask myself: ‘Have I done my best?’, ‘Have I lived up to the expectations I set for myself?’”

With that many hats to wear, we certainly hope he has a good rest at night.