K Shanmugam: I like the taste of Chinese rojak, it makes me think of a salad

We hear from the PAP's unofficial chief HR man about how the party has evolved through his 27 years there.

Martino Tan| Jeanette Tan| September 09, 10:06 PM

Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam is one of the most recognisable faces in Singapore politics. As a Member of Parliament (MP) since 1988, Minister Shanmugam is one of the longest-serving People's Action Party (PAP) MPs after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Shanmugam's foray online has been well-received, with a 12-minute video of his day (A Day In the Life of the Minister) becoming viral earlier in the year. He is also the second most popular PAP politician online (79,000 FB fans), after PM Lee.

Mothership.sg caught up with Minister Shanmugam over coffee at OldTown White Coffee to learn more about how PAP works, how he was able to attract so many talents to the ruling party, and what his favourite dish is. 

1. In the recent release of the PAP manifesto, the prime minister introduced 24 new candidates. You mentioned in an interview before that race is a powerful connector, one of the many connectors with people. This round, we noticed there were two new Indian candidates, or in some sense, 1.5 since Ang Mo Kio GRC candidate Darryl David is mixed. What are your views in terms of the new candidates slate?

To be honest I haven’t thought of it in those terms. I’m part of the process of interviews. I thought of it in terms of candidates on the whole. The party looks at appropriate representation, Indians, Malays, the Chinese, and the GRC system requires that anyway. So you have to have a Malay, an Indian candidate in some places. By the time it comes to me, I look at the candidate sans race.

But I know that a number of Indian, Malay, Chinese candidates that were put through the system but they didn’t eventually come through the other end.

So you need a broad spectrum, you need some people who are of a different generation, partly to represent that generation, partly to represent experience. You need that.

But you also need people who are representative of a new generation. Not just in terms of ethos, but also values, connection, and it also is their Singapore.

2. You mentioned in your press conference at Nee Soon that you’ve persuaded quite a number of candidates to join the PAP slate. In fact, we were calculating, some 10 potential PAP MPs and candidates. How did you convince them to join the party? Secondly, what’s your success rate?

I haven’t kept track of everyone. Beyond those 10 you have identified, there are others. And there are others that I have talked to. They are separately identified. And there are some others in the current slate that I’d rather not name. I was talking to them the same time when others were talking to them.

Why do I do it? Basically, I look around, every time I meet a person, they express interest in coming and serving. I take them in and incubate them, then after some time, I feel that, yes, they can be considered and that they are suitable, I push them through.

Since I don’t want to be single-vision, I don’t want them to just spend time with me. I want them to go out and spend time with other MPs and get their assessment.


3. You’ve been speaking to young potential PAP MPs since you became an MP 27 years ago. Do you see things getting tougher?

I think it was always tough to get people to come. Always tough. Basically because, by and large, Singapore is safe, it’s a good place, you’ve got a good career, when you are asked to come into politics.

It’s relatively comfortable – I don’t mean it in the sense that all wants are satisfied. All of us may want something to aspire to, which they can’t quite get.

But nevertheless if you tell them, 'Spend three to four evenings and doing something', they will be prepared if they see it as a necessity to the country.

I think that idealism wherever you go, whether you are working on say, a junior level position or high level position, there is a sense of idealism in all of us.

But some would say, ‘It’s not me, I prefer to contribute in other ways.’ Maybe, because they don’t want to be in politics.

There are also reasons, 'I’m affiliated to my religion I prefer to contribute in that way', or 'I am affiliated to a particular charity and I prefer to contribute that way'.

So it’s not just one reason, it’s a variety of reasons. There are a lot of people who are genuine and want to contribute, but in a different way, specific to their religion, community or cause. So to take them out, it is not easy.

4. So after 27 years, have you crafted a solid elevator sales pitch?

No. I used to be in charge of recruitment at my firm. Again, the same philosophy, I didn’t think my organisation can survive unless you bring in the best, so I used to spend a lot of time with young people and potential employees.

One person who is quite senior in my ex-firm, I spent two whole weekends with him and a year of talking to him.

For an organisation to succeed, you need to bring in people. So it’s not just in politics, it’s what I believed in my law firm as well.

The other thing that I believe in, is sales pitches don’t work. Because you go there, you try and invent what it is not, the fella comes in, very quickly he will find out that what you had told him is not true and you gloss over the truth and then he either leaves or he is very disgruntled.

You got to tell it as it is, this is what it is, it is hard work, it requires a lot of commitment. But there is a good reason for it. People have to come in with their eyes fully open.

5. You’ve been with the party so long. It’s evolved over the decades. What was your initial impression?

I think the fundamental ethos hasn’t changed and I would not want it changed.

In many ways it is artificial in the amount of that fundamental ethos. It’s artificial in the sense that it doesn’t work like that in most places. Because it’s contrary to general human nature. I’m not saying the PAP is somewhat superior, it’s just that luckily for us, the system has been set in place, that moves us all into that and without that mould, we’ll be very different party.

And it would be like any other party and any other country and even in Singapore. What do I mean? You see human nature on its own, by and large, except for a few saints, by and large, we look at ourselves, we look at what we can contribute to the system but also how does it impact on?

That’s how many people may react when put in position of power. So you see that in every country. Generally, power corrupts not just in terms of abuse of political power, but in terms of the attendant benefits. I have not seen an exception to that (except in Singapore). That is why I call us abnormal. Abnormal because of the values we instill. Personal integrity, personal rectitude, incorruptibility, is quite amazing because we got all that.

6. When you first joined politics in 1988, how long did you think you’d be in? 

I didn’t think it would’ve been 27 years. Each one of us comes in, we are doing this because we think that it is doing something valuable for the community.

You give a number of years of your time for the community, by and large, people serve 10, 15 years 20 years. That’s a fairly significant chunk of your life. I’m not sure many people think in terms of beyond 20 years. So if you asked me at 29, 'How long would you serve?'

Not that I had any clear idea, but I would have said 15 years, 20 years.

7. Which Singaporean dish would you be, and why?

Rojak. I like the taste. I like many local dishes. This one makes me feel less guilty, slightly healthier.

(What kind of rojak?)

Chinese rojak, you char kueh, peanuts, chilli. I don’t like cuttlefish. It makes me think of a salad. Local salad.

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