Straits Times: Ready to take on a bigger role

THE WP QUARTET OF NEW LEADERS

Insight

Four fresh faces joined the Workers’ Party’s new line-up of 15 leaders at a party conference on Sunday. Insight speaks to the quartet to find out what propelled them to take up the opposition cause

BY SUE-ANN CHIA
SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT

JOHN YAM (left)

Age: 48

Job: Technology consultant

Education: PhD, University of South Australia; Masters in Business Administration, University of Strathclyde, Scotland; Bachelor of Science (Electrical Engineering), National University of Singapore

Status: Married with two children: a son, 17, and a daughter, 12

Pet peeve: The stressful education system in Singapore

Passionate about: Changing the education system

DR JOHN Yam says it is no secret that he was a member of the ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP) youth wing in the mid-1990s.

He was helping out in then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Teck Ghee ward in Ang Mo Kio, as his friend’s father was a grassroots leader there.

But he stopped his PAP activities after two years and let his membership lapse.

He did not feel very engaged, he says, and decided to focus his energy on pursuing his PhD.

Yet, his heart was never very far from politics. Before the 2006 general election, he began to consider being a political activist again. This time, in the opposition.

Why not the PAP?

“I want to play a constructive role. I don’t think I’ll be effective in the PAP as I won’t have the same freedom to talk about issues I feel strongly about,” he says.

He also thinks the current batches of leaders are not as inspiring or as grounded as those of earlier days.

The Workers’ Party (WP) caught his attention and he attended all its election rallies.

“I found them to be very responsible. They don’t want to rock the boat just for the sake of it,” he says.

“They want to provide competition, and were gentlemanly in their ways.”

But it took him almost three years before he joined the party, answering a calling he could no longer deny, says Dr Yam, who is a Christian.

He became a member in the middle of last year, with an aim to speak up for those who cannot do it themselves.

What issue does he want to raise?

The answer rolls readily off his tongue: Change the education system.

What gets his goat is the elitism, undue stress and what he describes as “aggressive streaming” in schools.

He writes regularly about these issues on his blog, criticising the system which he says penalises late bloomers.

“Education is not about competition but learning,” he says, sharing his personal experiences.

The former Beatty Secondary School student says he started concentrating on his studies only in Secondary 3, and did well enough in his O levels to get into the then Hwa Chong Junior College.

He then went on to get a bachelor’s degree, a master’s and a doctorate.

But he believes if he was in the current system, he would have been “finished” as he did not do well in his Primary School Leaving Examination.

Despite the pressure in schools, his advice to his two children has always been: Don’t worry about exams.

“Daddy will be happy as long as you put in your best effort,” he says, adding that what is more important in life is character building.

He says the flaw in the education system can be seen in our lack of Nobel Prize winners or even innovative companies like Ikea, Nokia or Apple.

He wants to set it right in Singapore.

“It starts with cultivating the right passion,” he says.


MUHAMMAD FAISAL ABDUL MANAP (right)

Age: 35

Job: Freelance counsellor

Status: Married with three children: two sons aged eight and four, and a daughter who is 10 months old

Education: Bachelor of Arts (Psychology), Monash University, Australia

Pet peeve: Nothing comes to mind, he says

Passionate about: Keeping families intact

FOR the past four years, Mr Muhammad Faisal Abdul Manap has been counselling couples on marriage or divorce. At the same time, he was also a WP member.

Both roles converged, or perhaps collided, when he decided to step up to the plate and be part of the WP leadership.

They converged because he felt ready to contribute and play a bigger role in the opposition owing to his better understanding of the issues in his community.

“After working closely with the community, I have the experience to back up my arguments,” he says.

Yet his career and political path appear to have collided, as he has just resigned from his job as a counsellor in a social work agency. He now calls himself a freelance counsellor. He intends to send his resume to various voluntary welfare organisations to seek ad-hoc work.

The sole breadwinner and father of three young children seems sanguine, despite the lack of permanent employment.

“I do not worry,” he says, adding that he is deeply spiritual. “I believe there’s something in store for me in the future.”

He went into counselling after graduating with a psychology degree from Monash University in 2005.

Before that, Mr Muhammad Faisal – who also has a diploma in civil and structural engineering – worked as a technical officer in HDB between 1998 and 2002.

Asked why he changed course, he says: “I felt there was a calling for me to serve the community. I’ve had a smooth-sailing life. I’m born with a, not silver, but copper spoon in my mouth, and I felt it was time to give back.”

This impulse extends to serving the community through politics.

When he returned from Australia, he paid more attention to the opposition, in particular, the WP. “I’m thankful for what the PAP has done for Singapore, but they lack the human touch these days.”

It is this “human touch” he believes the WP has, in how it reaches out.

He joined the WP in February 2006, a few months before the election, serving as an election agent for the WP campaign in Aljunied GRC. Led by WP chairman Sylvia Lim, it faced the closest fight, securing 44 per cent of the votes there.

But the WP also recognised that it failed to capture the Malay vote, an issue it said it would rectify by drawing in more minority candidates and engaging the various ethnic communities. Mr Muhammad Faisal intends to do just that.

But while he wants to tackle the issues within his community, such as higher divorce and re-marriage rates, he also believes he has to take a broader approach.

“To assist the community, I have to touch on national issues, such as the cost of living and income gap, as these will impact on their livelihoods,” he notes.

Yet the issue that remains close to his heart centres on the family.

Something should be done about the stressful work environment, he says, adding: “A lot of marriages end up in divorce because the couple spend too much time at work.”


FRIEDA CHAN (right)

Age: 34

Job: Social worker

Status: Single

Education: Bachelor of Arts (Social Work and Sociology), National University of Singapore

Pet peeve: People who mouth off without checking their facts

Passionate about: Developing young people as “servant leaders”

MS FRIEDA Chan grew up in a family that was very pro-PAP.

Her maternal grandfather and father were once activists who volunteered in the ruling party. Thus, her family reacted with great dismay when she joined the WP in October 2006.

Her father, who used to be a grassroots leader in Boon Lay, did not speak to her for a few months, she recalls.

Though he has stopped the silent treatment, the rift has yet to heal fully.

They used to bond over watching news and current affairs programmes, including parliamentary debates, when they would discuss hot political issues.

These days, she often lets him speak.

Why then did she go over to the other side, knowing the wrath she would incur?

“It was more pull than push factors. The WP is a credible team and my own personal philosophy is that absolute power corrupts,” she says. “I believe in having diversity in politics.”

She reveals that her image of the opposition was negative, thanks to her family.

“‘The opposition always points out things that are not true, and (they) are an emotional lot of people’,” she says of what she was told. “There was also the fear factor of joining the opposition.”

Ironically, it was her political exposure at home that sparked her political activism when she was an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore.

She was a member of the Democratic Socialist Club, where she got to know Mr Yaw Shin Leong, who later joined the WP and led a team which unsuccessfully contested Ang Mo Kio GRC at the 2006 general election. Their friendship led her to help Mr Yaw during the polls.

Consequently, she got to know the WP members and found they were unlike what her family had painted the opposition to be. They were rational people who cared deeply for residents, she says.

This was a good fit for the social worker who says she has a passion for meeting people’s needs.

In 2004, she founded a charity organisation, Life! Community Development, which offers disaster relief services and trains volunteers. She has been on overseas missions to help rebuild tsunami-hit communities. On returning from one of them in 2005, she cried for three days.

The emotional release perhaps paved the way for her entry into politics. She says she realised the need to help people at home, too.

Now she finds fulfilment in meeting residents during walkabouts and helping to solve their problems. She is also keen to groom young people to serve.

“What is needed is a change in political climate. There shouldn’t be such an atmosphere of fear,” she says.

Citing her own situation, she says her family has been more accepting of her decision to join the opposition.

“Seeing that nothing happened to me week after week, they grew more at ease,” she says with a smile.



ST PHOTOS: MUGILAN RAJASEGERAN

GERALD GIAM (right)

Age: 33

Job: Senior IT consultant

Status: Married, with a 20-month-old daughter. His wife is expecting their second child, a son, due by National Day.

Education: Bachelor of Science (Electrical Engineering), University of Southern California

Pet peeve: Immigration policy

Passionate about: Putting Singaporeans first

TWO months before Mr Gerald Giam joined the WP, he had a casual chat with an older relative who dismissed the opposition as opportunists.

They serve out of self-interest and ulterior motives. Capable individuals would be out of their mind to join them and oppose the ruling party which has governed well, his relative concluded.

While he was dismayed, the words did not deter him from taking the plunge into opposition politics.

“This is the view among the older generation of Singaporeans who had seen the country’s success since independence,” he tells Insight.

He says the PAP has changed over the years and believes that complacency has set in “which is partly a result of a lack of political opposition to question their policies and compete with them with alternative policies”.

This belief has shaped his political journey since the last general election: from a non-partisan blogger on sociopolitical issues to opposition member.

The thought of joining the WP first crossed his mind in 2007, after getting to know its members and liking what he saw – people who had the interests of Singaporeans at heart, he says.

But it was almost two years later, in January last year, that he found the conviction to stop being an armchair critic and be part of the team to build a credible opposition that could form an alternative government.

The decision was made after talking to his wife and “a lot of prayers”, he adds.

However, he kept a low profile until a year later when he wrote on his blog a piece titled Why I Joined The Opposition.

In it, the alumnus of Anglo-Chinese School said he had not always been an opposition supporter, and that most of his friends and teachers would know him as someone who always followed the rules and did not question authority.

He was studious, and did well enough in his O levels to gain direct entry into the University of Southern California.

His interest in politics was piqued during his undergraduate days, where the level of political activism was high.

When he returned home, he could not wait to contribute to Singapore society.

He was involved in the South West Community Development Council and joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He also believed the only way to effect change was from within the PAP machinery, not through the opposition.

He soon changed his mind.

“Changes to the finer details are possible from within, but fundamental changes to the way the country is governed can come only if the top echelon of leaders in the party either radically change their mind, or are replaced,” he wrote on his blog. “Neither is about to happen soon.”

Now that he is in a position to try to effect change, what would he change?

“For a start, we need to revamp our immigration policy,” he says. “Although immigration is important and I value the contributions of immigrants, the massive influx of foreigners in the past few years has been too extreme.

“It has put a strain on so many things, such as public transport, housing, health care, jobs and incomes.”

While the Government has pledged to stem the flow of foreigners, he argues it is not enough. “The residents I talk to do not feel any difference from before.”

He wants a Singapore where citizens come first.

He also wants a more comprehensive social safety net for needy Singaporeans, especially the elderly poor.

While he is confident that the best days are ahead, he is no naive idealist. He still has to convince people like his older relative to give the opposition a chance.

Yet, the boyish-looking bespectacled man, who is willing to contest the next general election, is optimistic he can sway such voters.

“I believe I can. They just need to see a certain level of sincerity,” he says.

sueann@sph.com.sg

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