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Chan Chun Sing: The practical politician

SINGAPORE - He laughed when asked about being a future prime minister. "I don't know why people talk about it this way."

But his has been an eye-catching and meteoric rise. Two years after entering politics and just 44, former army chief Chan Chun Sing has been promoted to full minister, helming the Ministry of Social and Family Development.

Mr Chan's new appointment was the highlight of several cabinet changes announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in late August, as the government gears up to tackle fresh policy challenges.

In a wide-ranging interview with BT, his first since his promotion, Mr Chan was quick to downplay his own achievement.

"The rest will all be promoted in due course. I think I can speak for the rest, that for us, teamwork is very important," he says, making reference to a Facebook post by his "good friend", Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin - also touted as a rising political star.

"There is a reason why we serve, and it doesn't depend on our appointment," Mr Tan had written.

Says Mr Chan: "Who eventually becomes the PM is not something that we decide individually. Whoever he or she may be will have to command the trust of the team, and at the same time, the trust of the people of Singapore."

"It's not something that's number one on our minds. If anything, what's number one is to make sure that we have a strong team with diverse talent, with overlapping strengths so that we can cover one another's weaknesses. Our concern is whether we can continue to attract enough people to come forward, especially in this more challenging environment."

"I'm sure more people will come, in a more contested space. The question is whether we can continue to have people with the correct values to put the nation before self, and to care about the people and really work hard for the future of the country. That has become even more challenging after GE (General Election) 2011.

"I think I can speak for my cabinet colleagues that this search for people with the correct values is the number one (priority). Without sufficient depth and diversity in the team, the question of who may be the next PM is "quite irrelevant".

"I know it's a fascinating topic over dinner, but unfortunately, not so fascinating for us. Our preoccupations are elsewhere. We spend a lot of time getting people to recommend good people, and we are also focusing on our own respective work. While we look after the ministries, we also have to build the team."

If teamwork underlines the cabinet, what defines him is a "practical bent", in his own words. His choice of timepiece is a black plastic watch, which has almost become his trademark.

"I have been wearing this make of Casio watch ever since I was young and continued into the army," he explains.

"It is just a practical thing as it is waterproof and can take the rough and tumble of infantry life. Usually it lasts quite a few years before I sometimes have to change the strap."

"The watch fulfils the purpose of telling time. Never needed anything more than that. When I was a ground commander, I would sometimes add a small plastic compass onto the strap, like many army folks."

"I have a spare which my daughter is wearing now," he adds.

The same pragmatic approach characterises his approach to helping Singapore's most needy.

"I'm never very ideological... (to) move left, move right. I don't think we've always been like that. My own view is that we've only one official religion, which is pragmatism - whatever it takes to get our society to share the fruits of its labour in an equitable manner, that helps society stay stable, and yet at the same time, allows the social mobility for people to move up and down."

Under his watch, new measures have been announced to transform the pre-school sector, to ensure that children from less privileged backgrounds start off on a more equal footing, and to draw more talent into the social service sector.

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