Saturday 21 September 2013

Living a life of meaning

Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim opens up to Susan Long on what drives her and her years in the opposition.
The Straits Times, 20 Sep 2013

MS SYLVIA LIM's life has been an intrepid search for meaning. She nearly dropped out of her National University of Singapore law degree course, unable to see how a law degree would benefit society. Then, in her final year, driving down the Pan-Island Expressway, she saw a police officer directing traffic in the rain.

"That's how law can serve society," she remembers resolving within herself. She decided on a law enforcement career there and then.

When she graduated, her father sent her for a Master of Laws at the University of London, hoping she would banish the thought. When she returned and applied to join the Singapore Police Force, he threw her out of the house. Undeterred, she checked into the Police Academy. "In my heart, I just felt that I just had to do this."

A decade later, distressed that the opposition could contest only a third of the parliamentary seats during the 2001 General Election, leading to the largest number of walkovers for the incumbent People's Action Party in history, she wrote to the Workers' Party (WP) asking to sign up.

Ten days after the general election, she met WP secretary- general Low Thia Khiang for lunch. He handed her a membership form to take home. She filled it in on the spot. He advised her to mull it over as the form needed a photo to be affixed. She whipped out a couple she had prepared in advance.

"I just didn't want to be distracted or waylaid by anything," she relates in steely tones.

Twelve years on, the 48-year- old's decision to throw in her lot with the opposition has opened up political vistas previously unimaginable. Taking stock in her Aljunied-Hougang Punggol East Town Council office in Serangoon North, she reflects that joining the WP "is probably one of the most meaningful things I've done which had the most effect".

"When I joined in 2001, I didn't have any expectations on what we could achieve, especially in terms of electoral success. I just wanted the elections to mean something and do my part to ensure that Singaporeans could still vote."

Within 18 months, she made history as the first woman to be elected chairman of a political party here in 2003. In the 2006 General Election, the rookie led the WP's Aljunied GRC team, which emerged the best losing opposition team and won her a Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) seat.

In well-crafted Parliament speeches, she took on ministers' salaries, the regressiveness of the goods and services tax, and means testing in hospitals. She helped the party avoid defamation suits with careful vetting of documents. Her less combative style softened the party's image.

Then came the 2011 General Election, which saw the highest proportion of opposition-contested seats - 82 out of 87 - since Independence. The opposition put up its best showing since 1965, with an unprecedented six-seat win, including a landmark victory in a Group Representation Constituency.

While the opposition still makes up less than 10 per cent of the seats, "it's something", she says. "Perhaps, we are finally getting nearer to our pledge of being a democratic society."

She is the first to concede there is much for the WP to do to raise its game, such as focus on succession planning and hone its capability to contribute to policy debates. "When we debate policy with the ruling party, we're up against the resources of the whole government machinery. How are we ever going to match that? We have to rely a lot on volunteers and pick our issues, going in depth only into certain ones as far as we can."

The WP, which used to suffer a dearth of supporters, has seen a surge of "increased interest", including some who come forward with their curriculum vitae, asking to be fielded as candidates, she says.

"Right now, our preference is, instead of inducting members immediately, to have a period of mutual assessment, where they volunteer with us. During the euphoria of elections, some think every day is like this. But in between elections, there's a lot of mundane work that needs to be done."

CV destined for bin

BECOMING an Aljunied GRC MP and being put in charge of the Serangoon division has been a homecoming experience for her. She was schooled at the Convent of Our Lady of Good Counsel at Burghley Drive, then St Joseph's Convent at Hillside Drive, before attending National Junior College.

"Some of my residents are either my friends or their parents. It feels surreal. Even some of the students I taught at the polytechnic are now my residents. Before, I used to nag them. Now, I have to listen to them," she muses wryly.

As MP, she has been running an interim assistance scheme in her ward since 2011, where volunteers disburse donated food vouchers or rations to needy families while they wait for government assistance.

Since July, she has thrown monthly Tea in the Park parties in Serangoon Gardens to reach out to landed housing dwellers, who form about half her constituents. At her inaugural, drizzly tea at Tai Hwan Terrace, she was "touched" that about 60 people came with umbrellas to show support and give feedback.

Her political education began as a child at the dinner table, presided over by her dad, Mr Lim Choon Mong, who was given to "critical" soliloquies about then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his policies. Her nurse mother, younger sister, now working in a bank in New Zealand, and younger brother, in health-care corporate development, were uninterested in engaging him, so it fell to her.

Her father, now 76, had taken the exact opposite trajectory from her. He started out in the police force, quit, sold his Seletar Hills house to study law in London, qualified as a lawyer at 39 and practised till he retired in 1996.

Fond of making "over the top comments to provoke people", he reserved his most piquant barbs for his eldest child. When she spent her university days writing for law publications, initiating new converts into the Catholic faith, singing in the church choir, helping disabled children with hydrotherapy sessions and the elderly do exercises at a nursing home, he told her: "The rate you're going, you'll end up with a second lower. You'll be one of those people whose CVs I throw in the dustbin."

Her law schoolmate, Mr Ivan Heng, 49, artistic director of Wild Rice, notes: "For as long as I've known Sylvia, she's always championed the cause of the downtrodden and less privileged. She's always had a keen sense of justice."

The second lower came to pass. As did her father's prediction that she would feel stifled by police bureaucracy. She served as police inspector, won a Commissioner of Police Commendation award and was grateful to "see life in its raw form". But she left after three years, finding its then gender-biased reward system, which put female officers on different career tracks from men, "hard to come to terms with".

In 1994, she joined Lim & Lim, the practice her father co-founded, cutting her teeth on a drug trafficking case of a Myanmar national caught at Changi Airport with 3.5kg of heroin. She got permission from the High Court to travel to Thailand, where her client lived as an illegal immigrant, to investigate the case.

Her father's injunction: "Don't get murdered." She survived, found corroborative evidence of her client's account that he was duped, and saved him from the gallows.

Lawyer Sarbjit Singh Chopra, 55, her boss for four years, remembers her as being very meticulous and thorough. "She was one of the most capable lawyers I have ever worked with. She showed the same unselfish, tenacious and idealistic traits in pursuing the truth as she does in politics."

She thrived on trial work, but not the stress. In 1998, she joined Temasek Polytechnic, which was looking for someone with legal and police experience who could run night classes for law enforcers. She stayed 12 years, finding it "meaningful and constructive" to work with adults hoping to better their prospects.

Her political awakening began around then. After the 1997 General Election, incensed that eight writs of summons had been issued to former WP chief J.B. Jeyaretnam over a statement made at a rally, she wrote him a supportive letter and enclosed a small donation.

They became friends. During her visits to his office, she saw him hunched over stacks of affidavits from big-name law firms, trying valiantly to reply. Although he invited her to join the party, she was uneasy "about the path that he had chosen, the price he paid and whether it made sense".

She joined the WP only in 2001 when Mr Low took over, to which her father said: "Congratulations, you're one step closer to prison."

But he came round and was a WP counting agent in her maiden general election in 2006.

Both her parents, who live in an adjoining block in the same Toh Tuck condominium she lives in, attended her NCMP swearing- in ceremony, beaming. But her regret is that her father suffered two strokes in 2010 and was unable to attend her 2011 swearing-in as MP, though he very much wanted to.

Exploration of limits

THE last 12 years as an opposition leader have been an intense "exploration of my limits".

"It's not an easy role and the pressure can be quite intense. That probably puts some people off politics. Everything you do is very public, whether you succeed or fail. Even your personal life becomes public property and the limits of that are endless," says the single woman, whose romance with former star footballer Quah Kim Song, 61, a retired widower with two kids, went public recently after media queries.

At such times, she draws comfort from her Catholic faith. When she feels down, she gazes upon a finger painting of Song Dynasty woman warrior Mu Guiying, given to her by a Woodlands resident at a rally, which she has framed in her office. "He told me that we have to carry on with our work, because people are depending on us to protect them. I was very moved," she says.

She quit her polytechnic job after becoming an MP in 2011. She now does ad hoc work with lawyer Peter Low, known for "taking on cases no one else is prepared to take". She is also finishing an online master's in criminal justice with Michigan State University, as she intends to teach or write on the subject in future.

The mandate she has set herself today remains the same one she started out with 12 years ago: "To enhance democratic processes here, which is a better safeguard of the people's interests."

As for the role she will play in the opposition, she says it will "remain or recede as the need arises". "I can't put a definite time to it because that would also depend on how the party progresses and who are the people we can attract and retain in leadership roles."

But she adds "everybody has their sell-by date" and she hopes "introspection" will tell her when it is time to go. Pushing 50, she says "it's also time to think of what is the next thing which is not so strenuous".

Whatever - and whenever - she decides, meaning will be her driver.

Sylvia Lim on:

Criticisms that WP has sold out and become too moderate

"I find that quite interesting because I don't know sold out from what. From what I know, our party has never been extreme left or right. Generally speaking, we're left of centre. As for our ideology, for the longest time, we've been talking about a caring society, from Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam's time or even earlier. I don't think we have shifted from that."

Whether she is just the figurehead, with Low Thia Khiang calling the shots

"I think it's fair to say that Low's a veteran politician whom we all respect. But the party functions on team leadership through the Central Executive Council. Nobody is expected to be a 'yes' man or woman. Low at times comes to us for advice. He has even been outvoted on certain issues. So this is the reality."

What seems to be WP's penchant for not confirming or denying anything

"I don't know what they're talking about because in that market cleaning episode, we've issued quite a few statements based on our findings. The ruling party interprets things in a certain way and wants us to accept it. But based on our findings, it's not warranted. We did our own internal investigations. Anyway, I think the public is also a bit sick and tired of this issue."

Her 61-year-old beau Quah Kim Song

"I'm happy about this development. I think that having a partner at his stage of life is helpful in many ways. He has nothing more to prove. He's willing to wait to meet me late at night after my constituency work. He's passionate and honest and says what he means. That's all I need really."

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