WHAT YOUNG POLITICIANS NEED: A THICK SKIN, AND A CAUSE TO FIGHT FOR
Straits Times 30 Aug 2014
How did you feel when PM Lee praised you last weekend at the opening of the refurbished community club in your MacPherson ward?
Pleasantly surprised. My grassroots leaders, volunteers and myself – we were all very touched and pleased that PM did it.
As you know, I had a tough start in 2011. If not for my team who stood by me, it would have been difficult to arrive at where I am today. So, by PM acknowledging that we had done at least an okay job – that was a morale booster.
Although you seem to have overcome most of the criticisms, many people are still sceptical about your political mandate. Would contesting a single-seat constituency silence your critics?
Hopefully. But nobody can please everyone every time and so, there may be new criticisms that will emerge.
At the end of the day, a politician must be prepared to face such negativity, develop a thick skin and do things for the right reason.
Would you stand in a single-seat constituency, if asked?
I will. Of course, I'd leave the decision to the party leaders, but I'm ready to take on the challenge.
Some say your achievements in MacPherson are no more than those of a good social worker and estate manager. What is your response?
When I decided to put myself forward as a candidate, it was mainly because I felt strongly about the elderly, youth and mental-health issues.
But at the end of the day, no policy can be formulated in a vacuum. Whatever the debate, whether it's about a particular law or the grand direction of the country, we cannot divorce ourselves from a good grasp of the ground.
That's why I focus a significant amount of my time on getting to know the people on the ground, and to see whether policies have worked or unintentionally hurt them.
When your party fielded you, it said you would be a voice for your generation. But your detractors say they hardly see you play that role in Parliament. What is your reply?
I have raised parliamentary questions, participated in debates and discussed many issues on Facebook and during media interviews, especially about the elderly, the young and mental health.
Also, there is a whole slate of MPs who feel strongly about different issues, and who speak passionately about them. That is positive because I doubt any single MP can reasonably represent every Singaporean.
I will try harder to make my points more strongly, and perhaps post my speeches and questions I have raised online more often. At the end of the day, I want to contribute constructively to the debate and bring about real benefits for people.
I think there are expectations that the youngest one must always be the one to bang the table.
I do bang the table sometimes, but it does not mean that I have to do it publicly or all the time. Different people can take on different roles, and for issues I feel strongly about, I will speak up.
The issue I've talked about most in Parliament is the elderly, because I feel passionately about this and I believe the concern as to whether my generation can support them will become more prominent as our parents enter retirement.
What are the top demands of your generation that they want to see fulfilled?
I think I'm Gen Y.
There can be a broad range of desires in a generation, because a generation is not just one year, but 10 or more.
Take having kids, for example. Some don't want children because they want time for personal pursuits – like climbing a mountain! Others worry about the cost of living, while still others are happy to have kids.
But if I were to pick some of their key demands, these would be: having a good education and a meaningful job, fair competition, and being able to support their families (whether it be their children or aged parents).
There's also an increasing desire to participate in decision-making, to have a voice in major issues of the day and to build a fairer society.
I saw this very clearly when, as an undergraduate, I chaired the National Youth Forum in 2006. (The biennial forum is for young people aged 17 to 25 years old to discuss national issues.)
In MacPherson, one-third of the constituents are aged above 50. What is your biggest challenge in relating to them?
Actually, I love talking to them.
But it was highly challenging at the beginning. I was new, young and taking over from Mr Matthias Yao who had been their MP for about 20 years.
There was uncertainty and doubt about whether I would be able to relate to their problems, and solve them. You could tell from their body language and this was most apparent among the middle-aged group, those in the 50-to-60 range.
But it's been three years, and I've had the opportunity to resolve their issues. As people get to know me better, a lot of the initial difficulties have started to recede.
Now and then, there will be people who still have doubts and, maybe, don't feel very pleased. But it is much better now than when I started.
At the end of the day, what residents are most concerned with is whether you can solve their problems. It doesn't matter if you're pretty or ugly, old or young, as long as they can trust you.
You are no stranger to harsh criticism. How did you cope with the stress and avoid having a meltdown?
Usually, I would run it off. But because of the intense campaigning during the elections, I was often exhausted. So, I would watch a comedy on DVD or, if I could, sleep or take a nap.
What also helped was knowing my party leaders believed in me, and I could not let them down.
I've said this before: At the end of the day, no matter how hurt and humiliated I may feel, it is nothing compared to my residents' real problems, like getting a job and providing for the family.
So, yes, I feel battered, but that's just reputation – it's intangible compared to real problems.
What lessons have you learnt from the elections and as an MP?
A lot, lah. It was an intense journey for me. Everyone, regardless of age, will have gainful experiences.
But one important thing is communication – learning to sharpen my message, making my points clearly and not leaving ambiguities out there. At the beginning, I wasn't so savvy about the media and that threw me off-course a little bit.
With the new normal and your experiences, what would be your advice to a young person entering politics as a PAP candidate?
The party should give young candidates a longer runway to get prepared. So when the time comes for them to assume leadership positions, they are ready. Don't leave them in the deep blue sea to paddle on their own.
But at the same time, the young candidate has to: first, develop a thick skin. Politics is not for the faint-hearted. Some of the criticisms can be very harsh, but if it's reasonable, take it in and improve yourself. If it's not constructive, take it with a big pinch of salt.
Second, do it for the right reasons. Not because it's fun, exciting or looks glamorous. Otherwise, you will be so disappointed.
What is the right reason?
A cause to fight for.
If you feel not enough is being done for the elderly, that's a cause. If you feel there should be more space for people to express themselves, go ahead. If you think education should be overhauled and focus less on rote learning and more on the pure pursuit of knowledge, that's a cause.
In short, join politics only if you feel passionate about something.