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Going from “me” to “we”: Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin on transforming the spirit of Singapore

by Gabriel Ong // June 1, 2020, 6:12 pm

Tan Chuan Jin series-1

Image source: Tan Chuan-Jin's Facebook page

What is our role in society? How do we contribute? How do we give back?

Participating in a discussion about faith, community and leadership during impossible413‘s live Instagram broadcast on Saturday night, Speaker of Parliament, Tan Chuan-Jin, had many interesting points to share. 

But in the first of this article series, we will focus on his desire to see a certain spirit fired up in our nation  – an apt message given that the Church has just celebrated Pentecost Sunday, which marks how the Holy Spirit was given to empower believers for ministry to the world.

Speaking on the need to become more “others-centric” in society, the former Brigadier-General drew from his 24-year experience in the Singapore Armed Forces as he began his sharing.

The 51-year-old said: “We train, help our guys to shoot well, buy equipment, develop tactics and processes…

“So that’s the ‘hard’ capabilities, right? But we all know that those things, while important, they don’t represent everything.” 

Are we prepared to go the extra mile for others?

He continued: “There is another dimension, which is the ‘heart’ part. Ultimately, what are we asking of our military? What are we expecting our soldiers, sailors and airmen to be prepared to do?

“To be effective, they must be prepared to lay down their own lives for others. And that is something you cannot order, buy or structure.”

Tan then applied that question to the national context: “We also need to deal with the economy. We need to deal with issues in healthcare like the COVID-19 situation, security, transport, etc. There are many things that we need to do and they are frightfully difficult.”

“But there is also the spiritual dimension,” he said. “The heart and soul of the nation.”

CULTIVATING A HEART FOR OTHERS

What this comes down to is the people of Singapore and the values they hold to. “It’s not just the things that we do, but also who we are,” Tan explained.

“I’ve come to realise, over the years, that there is one quality above all that matters most. As I mentioned in my speech to wrap up the Budget debate in Parliament recently, it’s about ‘me’ versus ‘we’.”

Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin wrapping up the Budget debate on March 6, 2020.

Tan clarified that there’s nothing wrong in thinking about yourself: “We have ambitions and desires, and we look after our own well-being.

But he also challenged viewers to go beyond self-interest and consider the common good.

“Is there also space for others? Are we prepared to go the extra mile for others? Or are we just doing everything for ourselves?” he asked.

Going back to a familiar scene that played out in supermarkets when the coronavirus situation first broke out in Singapore, Tan observed that when individuals were only concerned about themselves, it resulted in behaviour such as the hoarding of masks and food.

While that way of thinking is part of our human nature, it becomes a race to the bottom.

Why panic-buy when you can have peace instead?

He said: “When everybody starts maximising their own utility, you actually compromise society.

“And so, how do we become a society where people are more others-centric and less selfish?

“How can we nurture and cultivate such a spirit from a non-religious perspective? Because we are not a theocracy – we are a secular nation and have our respective faiths.”

GIVING CHANGES US

For Tan, the answer lies in giving and volunteering, which offers opportunities for people to grow in compassion, empathy and love.

Sharing about the priceless lessons he took away from organising the 2009 National Day Parade and the CSR work with the prisons, Silver Ribbon and Assisi Hospice, Tan recounted: “In the hope of being more inclusive, what I learnt from that whole journey is that it was even more transformative for us.”

“I realised that this whole social dimension of caring and involving others because we want to be inclusive – the impact on us is actually as much as it is on them.” he said. “Because we begin to think about what others are going through.”

He added: “I remember speaking to our guys who were performing at the Assisi Hospice. The MPs (Military Police) were doing the rifle drills, and our artillery guys were doing some of the 21-gun salute drills (of course without firing the cannon)…

“I told them that actually, this performance was even more important than the one on 9th August itself. Because for the kids with leukaemia and the elderly folks who are terminally ill, they’re probably not going to ever see this again.

“And you begin to realise what a significantly emotive impact that had on us.”        

Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin volunteering at Assisi Hospice in 2018. (Image source: Tan Chuan-Jin’s Facebook page)

To Tan, it’s clear that wide-level transformation begins with individual introspection and giving, with the latter being “particularly important because it’s transformative”.

He explained: “It is through giving that we begin to receive and change. And it’s not just giving of our money, which is easy for those who have it – it’s the giving of our time.

“Volunteering is where you begin to practise and learn what it means to love, and have compassion and empathy.”

As you look back, it will not be your riches, career or titles that matter.

Reflecting on how his own experiences as a volunteer have shaped him, Tan said: “I volunteer at the Assisi Hospice with the terminally ill. When I visit every weekend and go and look for an uncle, only to find that the bed is empty…

“No one needs to preach to you, but you begin to realise the transient nature of life.”

Spending time with people at the end of their lives has certainly helped to put things in perspective for Tan.

He said: “As you look back, it will not be your riches, career or titles that matter. Ultimately what are the things that matter? I think we all know what the answers are.

“And that’s why in the volunteering process, we begin to introspect. We begin to learn to appreciate what we have.

“But more importantly, we practise becoming a bit more others-centric. We begin to invest our lives in the lives of others. And as more people start to change as individuals, that’s where society at large can begin to change as well.”

This belief that we can build a “fundamentally different society” is why Tan is still very much involved in SG Cares, a nationwide volunteerism movement he helped to start in 2018. 

WE REFLECT GOD’S NATURE WHEN WE LOVE

As a believer himself, Tan shared that the notion of giving is also one that is consistent with the Christian faith.

He pointed out how it was the love of self that led to the fall of man and separation from God, which Jesus Christ came to reconcile by laying down His life.

“The ultimate act of love was when Christ was crucified for us, for our sins, and took upon past, present and future sins of everyone,” said Tan.

“Love is about others. Love is about empathy and compassion. And if we are created in God’s image, and God is love, then the capacity to love, and be humane, compassionate and empathetic, is part of our nature.”

Turning to two Scripture passages on loving others in Mark 12:28-34 and 1 John 4:7-21, Tan reminded everyone: “And that’s what the Bible teaches us, right?”

The question is then: How do we live that out in our lives?

A SOCIETY BUILT ON LOVE

Regardless of which faith one belongs to, Tan said that Singapore’s soul can be transformed when we each begin to play our part.

Tan said: “Even from a secular perspective, I do believe strongly that if our society increasingly has more people that do rather than talk, and we actually begin to invest our lives in the lives of others, we will begin to nurture that sense of love.”

I have a dream (that even a circuit breaker can’t stop)

He continued by urging viewers to dare to dream: “Imagine a society that is built on compassion, love and empathy. 

“It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. When you break it down, it is about simple acts. Whether you call it kindness, you call it whatever it is – it doesn’t matter. But are we able to do that?”

Rather than be quick to blame society or the Government when things are not going as you hoped for, Tan encouraged everyone to recognise their personal responsibility.

“Where is our role in all this? Don’t we own this as well?” he asked. “Because if we and others begin to change, and we cumulatively add all that up, I believe society changes.”

THINK + TALK

  1. Do you recall a time when you were impacted by an act of giving? 
  2. What does it mean to reflect God’s loving nature?
  3. How can you give your time to invest in the life of someone else today?
About the author

Gabriel Ong

Gabriel isn't a hipster, but he loves his beard and coffee. In his spare time, he'd rather be on a mountain.