New Paper: So, what moves you, Sylvia?

Eye on election

Workers’ Party chairman Sylvia Lim talks to SYLVIA TOH PAIK CHOO about her days as a policewoman, turning 40 and entering politics


Picture: KUA CHEE SIONG

POLITICS is not for the faint-hearted.

And this former cop is one gutsy lady.

She remembers the day she got called out to a Geylang hotel.

The hotel owner was worried about a guest who had overstayed and had not checked out.

“He had shot himself in the head with a carpenter’s nail gun,” said Ms Sylvia Lim (right), chairman of the Workers’ Party.

“It was very sad. So sad, when we found he was listening to sentimental Thai songs at the time.”

She has seen life in the raw, but it has not numbed her sensibilities.

Ms Lim later left the force to become a lawyer – like her father.

It was not a conscious move to follow in his footsteps.

“My father was a police officer who decided he wanted to be his own boss. He became a lawyer after 35.

“I did my master’s (in law) in London, but got the sense that people do law for the glamour and the money.

“I wanted to gel law and public service.”

From 1991 to 1994, she was a police inspector. The petite lady cop was never ribbed by male colleagues. In fact, it was her mother who made the point of remembering her “mata-mata (police, in Malay slang)” uniform.

“One time, shopping in Hong Kong, my mother told the salesman that her daughter is a policewoman. So what kind of bag to buy her?” she chortled.

The laugh-out-loud personality continued: “And that’s the bag I lost when I got robbed.”

This was after she’d left the police force. “I was walking along Claymore Hill when two men on a bike snatched it from me.

“It was dark, they had helmets and it happened so fast.”

She had handed in her badge because she felt, “at the time, women officers were not being treated fairly”.

“My contemporaries were promoted in two years, but I was told for women, it’d be five, six years.

“Of course, things have very much improved since.”

To put it in common context, Ms Lim has moved from Law & Order to The West Wing.

She watches neither TV dramas, but has the entire set of Band Of Brothers.

“Leadership and camaraderie,” she said.

Then, “Do you have the DVD of Women Warriors Of The Yang Family?”

No, but Cheng Pei Pei (lead actress) is my friend.

TRIPPY LADY

Ms Lim is one peppy lady.

She is still nursing an ankle injury from student days – “I fell into a drain” – which has cut back her jogging routine.

The old injury means taking extra care. Just last week she was in record shop HMV to buy a CD, “and I tripped and had to hobble”.

Were you looking to buy Daytripper (Beatles)?

I had to hold on to her chair as she almost fell off laughing.

“Platters,” the 41-year-old leader of the opposition party said. “My father’s kind of music, great singing.”

The readily likeable Temasek Polytechnic law lecturer turned 41 on Tuesday and looks 30.

We met in the Lemongrass restaurant in Siglap.

Happy birthday. You order, I’ll pay, I said like a yaya papaya (show-off in Malay slang).

“Quick, take your picture, after that we can get messy,” she said to our photographer.

“Turning 40 was harder psychologically because it’s a milestone.”

The single girl continues to receive hongbao. “Fortunately, I don’t have many relatives,” she mused, at the annual so-when-are-you-going-
to-get-married recital from distant family.

“Not anytime soon” is her response.

There are two younger siblings, a brother with NUS and a sister in New Zealand.

What’s a pretty career woman like her, with discretionary income, doing in the world of politics?

You’ve got to give 150 per cent of your time, with none to spare to stop and smell the Starbucks. “I can still commit the time,” she said, seriously.

“Concerned friends quote that Chinese saying about opposition candidates ‘die ugly death’, but succeed or fail, I know I would have done my bit.

“To inject balance into the system.”

She held a thought. “Or move on to the next glass of wine!” she chuckled.

Her family is supportive.

“We’ve always talked politics at home, so it’s a natural step. They were not surprised.

“My father comes to the functions. My mother, being Catholic, prays for me. And my sister, who works for a bank, says send her the money and she’ll put it in an account with a funny name!” she rocked with laughter.

“Would that I had any,” said the heartlander who shops mostly in Tampines. “It’s close, we are in the east.”

Visiting residents and WP meetings take up most of her non-poly hours.

Win or lose, she has her teaching job, which is not all civil and criminal procedures.

Yes, students do get crushes on their teachers. “It’s normal,” she shrugged.

“They invited me to Zouk for a retro night, and I didn’t even recognise one song!”

And she was off, to a church choir practice, rehearsing a musical.

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