We were at the end of my hour-long interview with Associate Professor of Law Mr. Eugene Tan at the Singapore Management University (SMU), and I had one last question. “This might be a little … whimsical”, I pre-empted. He had taken time to meet a random blogger, had been frank throughout our conversation, and offending him was the last thing I wanted.
“One of your online nicknames is ‘Captain Obvious’. How would you respond to that?”
For a moment he seemed perplexed. Jialat liao. For years writers on the Internet have lampooned the former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) for having too many articles in the mainstream media, for providing too many quotes on Singapore government and politics. Since the general elections in 2006 he has been the go-to authority for political commentaries. Some figured Mr. Tan was echoing perspectives of the establishment, while others thought he was being unfair to the government. “Captain Obvious” could not please everyone.
Yet with a wry smile he quickly replied: “I get quoted fairly frequently by the international media, and if you are not able to make a useful contribution the likes of ‘Al-Jazeera’, the ‘Financial Times’, ‘The New York Times’, the ‘Voice of America’, as well as the ‘British Broadcasting Corporation’ will not come back to you”. And through these experiences he sees many parallels between his role as an academic and as an NMP. “In both cases I strive to be objective, to be independent, and to speak without fear and favour”, he said. When one takes a very pro-government line, the opinion is read as a repetition of what has been mentioned.
“My philosophy is very simple”, he followed up. Credit and criticisms should be delivered when they are due. “If Singaporeans looked up my parliamentary record in Hansard, they would see that I pulled no punches too”.
Moreover in Singapore, where autonomous universities are funded by the government and taxpayers, he believes that academia should not remain in the ivory tower. “If we can use our training and knowledge to contribute to the public discourse, why not?” Mr. Tan hopes more economists, political scientists, and sociologists will enter the fray. Academics like him might not get credit from their universities for political commentaries, and these undertakings could be career-limiting if the opinions are not well-received by the powers to be. Over the years few have done so, and “[I hope] the fact that I have been able to comment openly and robustly would encourage others to do the same now”.
A Robust Generalist in Parliament
I first met Mr. Tan in November 2010. We were both panellists on the Channel NewsAsia talkshow BlogTV.SG, where we discussed the influence of socio-political websites and whether online users should remain anonymous. I was damn nervous. When we exchanged pleasantries he also mentioned that I had – earlier than year – responded to his TODAY commentary on the growing mobility of Singaporeans. I do not remember much from the 20-odd minutes on air, yet one thing that stuck was Mr. Tan’s remark on echo-chambers. Besides a few credible websites he thought most were filled with unconstructive diatribes and tropes, and the users in these echo-chambers were just feeding off one another’s vitriol.
Four years later this phenomenon persists, and with the polarisation of views and political affiliation on cyberspace echo-chambers are even more ubiquitous.
Likewise, even though he was selected as an NMP in 2012, supported by the tertiary education institutions functional group, Mr. Tan has spoken on a broad range of issues in Parliament. When asked about his favourite speeches, he listed the one against the Population White Paper last year (he expressed “deep reservations”, and eventually abstained from voting), the speech during the debate on the President’s Address this year (he noted rhetorically that his alma mater, Raffles Institution, was “less of a beacon of hope” because of the lack of representativeness), his opposition to the Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Bill earlier this year (for it “opens up a range of possible interpretations of the conduct of migrant workers in Singapore”), and the one last year on amendments to the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, which allows suspects to be held in custody without trial.
“My own perception … is that elected MPs are more focused on constituency work, because voters are likely to assess them based on difference they have made to the estate, on the ground [vis-à-vis] their positions or performance in Parliament”. Consequently, Mr. Tan said, this is where the NMP – with their singular parliamentary function – comes in, to focus on preparing parliamentary questions and participating actively in debates on Bills and motions. As the highest policymaking platform there will be engagement on a wide variety of issues in Parliament, and because he saw himself as a “generalist” he had to research broadly and adequately so as to ask good questions.
But he drew the most bouquets and brickbats when he questioned efforts by the four autonomous universities to develop a Singaporean core.
In response last year, Senior Minister of State for Education Miss Indranee Rajah revealed that one in four faculty members on the tenure track in the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) is Singaporean. The figure is one in six in SMU, and one in three in the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). While SUTD does not have any non-tenure tack faculty members, one in two faculty members in NUS, NTU, as well as SMU is Singaporean.
“Without marginalising or discriminating against the foreign academics”, Mr. Tan continued, this Singaporean core is necessary for greater representation, and to build a critical mass of scholastic expertise. “The universities should be conscious about nurturing local talent … ensuring that there is a Singaporean perspective in different areas of study, especially in areas that are vital to Singapore”, he shared. In that vein the role of the university remains unchanged: to provide a safe space for contrarian ideas, a platform to push research, and a training ground to mould attitudes and skills.
He has also filed parliamentary questions on the salaries of top management in the autonomous universities, asking whether annual compensation packages – which could be in the region of a million dollars a year – “[could be] disproportionate to or outstrips similar peer institutions in North America and Europe”.
And with this attention on the tertiary institutions, he remarked that the changes announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the 2014 National Day Rally – to diversify pathways and strengthen applied education in the Institute of Technical Education and the polytechnics – were “long overdue”. The speech will not change attitudes about a degree, in a society which has a “greater love for degrees than a love for learning”. “The presence of a glass ceiling, at least in the public sector, is quite clear for the non-graduates, which undercuts severely at our system of meritocracy … and I hope the public sector will really be serious about this going forward”, he argued.
What Mr. Tan also hopes is for Singaporeans to develop a craftsman-like approach to learning, a commitment to lifelong learning which involves the honing of skills and expertise on a day-to-day basis. Productivity could consequently grow, because “when people apply themselves, knowing that what they do at their job matters, and that how far they will go is determined by their job performance and not their prior qualification, they will not rest on their laurels”, he said. This desire to improve – regardless of your station in life – is important. Society must value and give recognition for that.
Beyond the NMP Stint
“It is probably too soon to reflect on the two-and-a-half-year stint since my term ended on August 8”, Mr. Tan mentioned when I asked if there was a specific issue or cause which he wished he could have spoken more about. Having covered so much ground in Parliament, reflecting on his time as NMP will unsurprisingly take some time.
Reform to the electoral system was nonetheless at the top of his head, and he wished he could have raised more parliamentary questions or even filed an adjournment motion on reducing the marginalising effect of the first-past-the-post voting system on the Opposition. He substantiates: “Notwithstanding our ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system, it is somewhat incongruent for a party which wins 60 per cent of the popular vote to occupy 93 per cent of the elected seats. The electoral process and outcome clearly can be more representative, and that would enhance the authority, appeal, and legitimacy of our political institutions. Electoral integrity and public confidence, ultimately, matter”.
Seeking approval from anyone, it would appear, has never been a priority for the law professor. “I look back at my time in Parliament without any regrets”. The “Captain Obvious” label hardly bothers him, and it has not changed the way he contributes to socio-political discourse in Singapore rigorously. One might not always agree with Mr. Tan’s perspectives, but he will continue to do more – with his academic training and knowledge – beyond the two-and-a-half years.
And I believe we are all the better for it.