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'Fear of not doing it right pushes me': Tan See Leng on his first 100 days as Manpower Minister

SINGAPORE – At one of the meetings Dr Tan See Leng attended in his early days as then Second Minister for Manpower, his team had been discussing the difficulties surrounding “COE”.

He was told that “it’s very difficult and takes a long time”.

“So I said: ‘What’s the problem? We just bid for it’,” he recalled in an interview on Wednesday (Sept 1) about his first 100 days as Manpower Minister.

The team looked at him quizzically, and asked what he was talking about, and he replied that he was talking about the certificate of entitlement, required to own a vehicle in Singapore.

It turned out that at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), COE is more commonly used to refer to “change of employer”, which governs how foreign workers can be transferred to another company.

Dr Tan, 56, cited this anecdote as he talked about the steep learning curve he faced going from the private to public sector.

The doctor, former business executive and one-time entreprenuer, who went into politics only last year after close to 30 years in the private sector, had joined MOM during its battle soon after the explosion of Covid-19 cases in migrant worker dormitories.

“For someone who has been in the private sector all his life, coming into the public service and taking on this responsibility, there is a lot of trepidation. And I think till today, I still have that same trepidation,” he said.

“I think it’s healthy. You need to have a healthy sense of fear of mediocrity. Fear of what if you didn’t do this right – that keeps you going, that motivates you and pushes you.”

Now, he is the man tasked with helping Singaporean workers make the switch into new jobs being created, as the country moves to transform its economy.

He has set up a jobs task force for this, and intends to conduct dialogues with different groups of workers to better formulate policies that will address their needs.

Having made the switch himself in his mid-50s, Dr Tan credits “very good mentors” for making the transition less daunting.

He lists Emeritus Senior Minister (ESM) Goh Chok Tong, who brought him into politics, and Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo, as well as Minister for Education Chan Chun Sing as those who provided invaluable guidance and support.

Mrs Teo was Manpower Minister when he was Second Manpower Minister, while Mr Chan was Trade and Industry Minister when Dr Tan was first appointed as Second Trade and Industry Minister.

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On Mrs Teo, he said: “She was a very good mentor, understands and provided me with a lot of guidance and support in terms of the dormitories. I remember when I was first appointed in August last year and very quickly went head-on into it, I could always count on the support from Minister Josephine Teo and the entire team.”

He describes lifelong learning as “the story of my life”. After graduating in 1988 with a degree in medicine, he pursued a master’s in family medicine in 1998, and a master’s in business administration in 2004.

“At 53, 54, I started to study about public service, and so on, from ESM Goh. So every 10 years, I have had to learn new things,” he quipped.

He hopes his ministry can support workers in their own lifelong learning journey, and help them make the transition into 10 key sectors, including infocommunications technology and financial services, where the opportunities are.

His other priorities are to narrow the gap between income earners in the 20th percentile and those in the median, improve protections for delivery workers in the gig economy, as well as stamp out workplace discrimination while preserving the non-litigious workplace culture, among other things.

He also wants to make the Central Provident Fund system more intuitive and simple, and will make it easier for members to top up their retirement nest egg and to receive payouts during retirement.

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Asked about the biggest change to his daily life since being appointed to the Cabinet, Dr Tan said, chuckling: “Sleeping less and less, exercising less and less.”

But he relishes the opportunity to continue creating good jobs for Singaporeans, help workers and businesses bounce back from the Covid-19 pandemic, and also strengthen the societal compact so no one is left behind.

“The work is intense but meaningful. In the past, I can say every day is a new experience, but the experience (now) changes from morning, afternoon and evening, and sometimes even in the wee hours of the morning as well,” he said.

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