Tony Tan Keng Yam is pondering one of the enduring mysteries of modern life—why do people seem to live their whole lives on the internet these days? “Whenever I attended an event as president, we would usually post something about it on Facebook afterwards. By the time I got around to it, the post might be quite late at night,” he says, a hint of gentle bemusement in his calm, measured voice. “What I found surprising was that almost immediately, the post would get a flurry of comments.”
We are catching up with him just a little over a month after the end of his six-year term as the seventh president of Singapore, and this observation is just one indication of how seriously he took the task of reaching out to all segments of Singapore society. He left banking and entered politics in 1979, when communicating with the electorate was a much more straightforward affair. By the time he ran for president in 2011, the use of social media was prevalent, Tan recalls.
“I knew it was going to be an important medium. If you want to engage the public, you have to use it.” Some of his posts were written by his Office, but the ones he deemed most personal were signed off with his initials TT. As he chats about the frequency of his posts and changing cover photos to keep people interested, we can’t help but remark that he seems to have taken to the brave new world of the interwebs quite naturally. He demurs the suggestion with a laugh. “I wouldn’t say that. It was quite an effort. And I had a lot of help from younger friends.”
In case you were wondering, yes, he does read the comments on his page, and even replies to some occasionally. “It’s been quite interesting. You get some idea of what Singaporeans are feeling. Sometimes people can be quite cynical even on the most trivial matters. But people are entitled to give their views, and whether they want to say critical or nice things, that’s up to them. Where you have to draw the line is when they say something defamatory.”
"I knew it was going to be an important medium.
If you want to engage the public, you have to use it.”
- Dr. Tony Tan on social media
He is also concerned about how young people get most of their information from the internet these days, which can make them more prone to fake news from dubious sources. “But on the whole, it’s been gratifying. You have to reach out, and social media enables a more personal interaction.”
The goodwill that such personal engagement accrues is particularly valuable during critical moments. When the 2013 Little India riot broke out, for instance, Tan was in Germany. “The first information I received about the disturbance was not from the government. A member of the public had uploaded a video of what was happening, and my security officer saw it online and showed it to me. That just shows what a different world we live in now,” he notes.
After being briefed on the situation by deputy prime minister Teo Chee Hean, “I felt that it was important to urge people to calm down, not take the law into their own hands, and work with the police and government. So I crafted a statement and posted it within a few hours. It was quite a scramble. The internet moves so fast now, when these things happen you have to come out with something almost immediately.” Nothing like that had happened in Singapore for decades, so it was “a very frightening, disturbing event”, he says. “I wanted my statement to reach out to Singaporeans immediately, and to be a part of the media reports the next day, because that was an important message for Singaporeans to hear.”
With the presidency now behind him, his way of engaging online may well shift. A day after he stepped down on August 31 this year, he decided to change the cover photo on his Facebook page to a picture of him with his wife, Mary. It is an endearing snapshot of the couple in their younger days, smiling exuberantly (and a rare sighting of a shorter hairstyle on Tan, well known for his favoured slicked-back do). The photo choice is partly a way of thanking his wife of 53 years for her support. “She has this way of reaching out to people that’s very natural. People respond to her. I try to do the same, but it’s not the same,” he says, very sincerely.
The photo also serves as a signal of his transition into life as a private citizen, he says. “We would use photos of the Istana in the past, but that wouldn’t be appropriate now that I have stepped down. This is a nice photo, so I thought, let’s try that for a while.” Will he continue using Facebook? “That’s a very good question,” he muses with a chuckle. “I’m not sure. I’m taking a social media break now. We’ll see.”
School of life
Tan appeared in Singapore Tatler’s very first issue in 1982, where, as the minister for trade and industry, he spoke about the need for Singaporeans to keep retraining in order to stay relevant. This same message is more relevant than ever today. “Life goes around,” he says philosophically when we show him the old article. “Things may change but the fundamentals always remain the same.”
Joking that taking up social media was “in a sense, retraining for myself”, he emphasises: “Digital skills are a must nowadays. You can’t live in the world today without knowing how to use the internet, the computer, the smartphone. People are going to have to become more adaptable. We have to get away from the idea that you finish school, take a job, and remain there for the rest of your life. That’s just not going to happen anymore. The world is changing and very few people will have jobs that are completely safe. You have to be prepared, and have the mindset of retraining and learning all your life.”
In his view, the long-term policy plans for Singapore will ensure the country remains a draw. “We will continue to be an attractive place for foreign companies to grow, we will attract investments, and continue to produce enough jobs. What’s going to be more uncertain is that while the jobs may be there, will our own people have the skills to fill these jobs? We don’t want to create the jobs and then have to recruit from overseas to fill them.”
This is why the education system will be crucial. “We have come a long way based on our position as a transport and logistics hub. But that was the past. What’s the next 50 years going to look like? How can we keep ourselves at the forefront? What skills do our young people need? That’s a major challenge for our education system. The basics don’t change—good teachers and schools that are well prepared. But while a good foundation will always be important, it may not be sufficient. In addition to skills and knowledge, we need to foster resilience, flexibility and a commitment to lifelong learning. Encouraging entrepreneurship and improving productivity will be critical to Singapore’s continued success.”
Education has been a key focus of his long career. Trained in physics and applied mathematics, Tan started his working life as a lecturer in the University of Singapore, and later served two stints as education minister. As a policymaker, he oversaw the formation of all three key universities here—the National University of Singapore, the Nanyang Technological University, and the Singapore Management University (SMU). That last endeavour, launched in 2000, seems especially dear to his heart. The first appointment he accepted after stepping down as president was honorary patron and distinguished senior fellow at SMU, and the school has now become a part of his daily routine as he manages his schedule and workload from his SMU office.
"What’s the next 50 years going to look like?
How can we keep ourselves at the forefront? What skills do our young people need?
That’s a major challenge for our education system."
- Dr. Tony Tan on Singapore's future
“There’s a great sense of satisfaction to seeing how it has grown,” he says. “When we started this idea, there were already two well-established universities, and we thought we should take the opportunity to do something different.” Conceived as an American-style university offering a broad-based education, SMU became the first publicly-funded autonomous university in Singapore and the first to have admissions criteria that looked beyond academic grades and co‑curricular records to include elements such as interviews and essays.
“When you start something new, you don’t really know how it’ll be received. We thought this experiment was necessary at that time, because we wanted to diversify the university landscape. Were we apprehensive? Yes, of course,” he reminisces. “I believe that on the whole, SMU has done well. The collaboration with the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania helped a lot, chairman Ho Kwon Ping and the board of trustees are very good, and there has been a series of distinguished SMU presidents. The school attracts a different type of student and is also well‑regarded by parents. The aspirations of our young people have diversified, and we need to give them more options and opportunities.”
Eye on tomorrow
The word “aspirations” comes up a lot when you ask Tan what he learned about Singaporeans during his presidency. When he first entered public service, “aspirations were simpler—get a job, get a home, earn a living. Now, Singaporeans’ horizons have widened. Everybody travels, they know the world and Singapore has become more open”.
He has described the role of president as the most challenging appointment of his career, and that is because of the broad nature of the job. “I was an MP for Sembawang for over 20 years, and I grew up with the community there. But as president, you have to look at all groups, all constituencies, all types of communities.” As a result, he shares, he became much more aware of Singaporeans’ diverse needs, challenges and yes, aspirations. “I was able to learn something new every day.”
A large part of the president’s job—looking after Singapore’s financial reserves, and ensuring the integrity of the public service by signing off on senior appointments—takes place out of the public view, and this went smoothly because of what he describes as a harmonious working relationship with the government. But the more visible ceremonial part of the job has enormous significance as well, because that is how the president shapes his role as a unifying figure for all Singaporeans.
Tan says he has learned much more about Singapore’s voluntary welfare organisations over the past six years. “The president can lend their work more visibility. Other high-profile individuals can also play an important role in supporting their work, because these are the people with the resources to help.” During his term, he expanded the President’s Challenge drive to include volunteerism and social entrepreneurship. He also cheered on Team Singapore at many sports events, shone the spotlight on the importance of protecting Singapore’s natural heritage, and opened up the Istana more frequently to members of the public. During state visits abroad, he would remind Singaporeans living overseas to maintain strong ties to home. Earlier this year, he marked, with great pride, the 50th anniversary of National Service.
One of the most memorable events that occurred during his term was the death of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew during Singapore’s golden jubilee in 2015. “The way Singaporeans lined up to pay their last respects shows how much they remember him and are grateful to him. It was a profoundly moving event; in a sense, the passing of a generation,” he says. Lee had asked him to go into politics in 1979, and he said yes even though he does not (to this day) consider himself a natural politician. “He said Singapore needs good people to keep the Singapore story going. And when there is duty to be done and you are needed, you have to respond to what the mission is. I have always put the interests of Singapore above my personal inclinations.”
Ask if he has passed on any words of advice to president Halimah Yacob about this unique job, and he says: “I believe that it’s for each president to decide his or her own style and interests, which I’m sure she will do.” As for him, a new chapter beckons. “I don’t think it’s helpful to look backwards. One has to look forward. In different phases of life, there are different experiences. As long as you have a positive outlook, try to do something useful for society and develop your own personal growth, you’ll continue to make a contribution.”
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