Sunday, 9 February 2014

Lee Bee Wah: Grassroots MP doesn't take 'no' for an answer

Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah, 53, has probably managed to get more concrete things done - not just in her own ward but nationally - than any other backbencher. She tells Rachel Chang why, to her, "no" does not mean no.
The Straits Times, 8 Feb 2014


You're a tenacious fighter for infrastructural improvements to Nee Soon South, your ward. What were the sweetest victories?

When I got them to build a lift at the overhead bridge (at Khatib MRT station), and now they're rolling them out nationwide.

I (first) brought it up in 2008, during the Committee of Supply debate in Parliament. (Former Second) Minister (for Transport and Finance) Lim Hwee Hua told me, if your resident cannot go up the overhead bridge, the resident can walk to the traffic light junction - it's 32m.

I SMSed my CC (community club) staff: "Go and measure now! I know it's not 32m!" Parliament adjourned for a tea break. By the time it resumed, my CC guy came back with the measurement.

I said, "Minister, sorry, it's 136m. I believe LTA (Land Transport Authority) measured from the nearest distance across the road. But residents don't walk across just that. Have to turn right, walk along the road, cross six lanes, walk back."

I spoke four times in Parliament about it.

Finally, in 2011, they said, okay, we are piloting it at six locations, and Khatib MRT station was one. But then, even after they approved that, they found that there were big cables and a water pipe underneath (the place where we wanted to build the lift).

And PUB (the national water agency) said, we don't allow any structure to sit on the water pipes and cables. I told the PUB guy, I'm sure there is a solution. We went a few rounds, eventually they agreed. After that, they said, okay, your Khatib one is the most difficult one. After we solved the Khatib one, we can do it all!


It seems your training as an engineer (Ms Lee was a civil engineer and a principal partner of her own engineering consultancy firm until she sold it last year) gives you an edge in dealing with government agencies on infrastructure.

Yes. Another example is that previously, four-storey blocks didn't get to have their lifts upgraded. Because in the programme, the benefit to each household unit must be a certain amount. So since four-storey blocks have fewer units, they said it busts the cap. The cost of installing the lift is too high.

I went to HDB's deputy chief executive. I said, there are not so many units, so you don't have to put in such a big lift. I just need a lift good enough for a wheelchair and two persons. A mini-lift (that is less expensive).

I said, I'm an engineer. If you need my expertise, I'm more than willing to contribute. I was joking lah. So, after some time he came back and said "yes". So those seven blocks in Nee Soon South that are four-storeys tall - they did it. And now, they've rolled that out to all four-storey blocks in Singapore.


How come the engineers the Government hires can't come up with these solutions on their own?

A lot of people think, "Okay, that's policy." "No", they take as no. For me, No cannot be No!

I thought, elderly residents here also need a lift, even though it's four storeys.

There are 110 blocks in Nee Soon South, and only seven are four-storey ones. They are thinking from the angle of what the majority needs. But for me, every resident's needs are important.

I'm the eldest in my family. Whenever my brothers and sisters had problems when we were young, they would run to me. All this while, I have been the problem solver. This is coupled with my engineering training, which is also problem-solving.

And I enjoy solving problems for my residents. It's very rewarding for me to see their smiling faces.


What have you not been able to solve?

I feel very sad when residents come and share with me, for example, about family breakdown.

Sometimes, the marriage is beyond repair. But I can help the wife get a job, so she can stand on her own.


Do you have to step on the toes of government officials to get things done?

Whenever HDB, NParks (National Parks Board) or PUB staff get posted to Nee Soon South, I say, "Give me your mobile number! And make sure it's on because I can call you whenever..."

The agencies find it good training ground for their officers!

One LTA officer told me, "My CEO (chief executive officer) said, 'Any e-mail from Bee Wah, better reply within three days.'"

I work layer by layer. I go to the officers first. If they cannot solve the problem, I go to the director. If they cannot solve, I go to the CEO. If the CEO cannot solve, I go to the minister.


Do the government servants or ministers feel that you can be unreasonable with your demands?

They reject it not because the demand is unreasonable, but because of funding reasons or because the policy at the time didn't cater to that.

When something registers in my mind, I will find the opportunity to do it.

There's a river at Sungei Seletar. Residents said, no footpath. I asked for one. (But) it's MINDEF (Ministry of Defence) land. MINDEF doesn't want people to walk there, so cannot put in a footpath.

Then one day, it flooded. I told PUB, "You must deepen the river right? Take this opportunity, put in a footpath. Call it a service maintenance path." We got it.


Do you sympathise with the policymakers' point of view, though? Someone has to balance the needs and the budget.

We need to strike a balance. If everybody were to look at it from (the) overall (view), whatever the feedback is from the ground (is ignored). And residents feel, you're not lobbying for me. Then who is taking care of residents' needs?

It is my role to raise things from the ground, so that those balancing the overall (view) have that source of input.

Most of the issues that I bring up are from residents' feedback. Maybe I'm more of a doer, a grassroots MP.

The Government has become more flexible, more open to our requests, making exceptions. I think they realised, sometimes jokingly we will tell the minister, you're so heartless.

Those who can take it, they just laugh, those who cannot take it don't want to talk to me any more. But I haven't made any enemies. By now, they accept what I am.


What else is on your wish list?

We provide public housing for those earning up to $10,000 a month. Up to $12,000, they can buy executive condominiums. But in time, we have to lift the cap for ECs.

They feel that private property is beyond their reach and they cannot buy ECs. It may not be a big group, but why are we making them so unhappy?

The other group is divorcees - we must help them with housing. Some headway has been made here.


What drives you? You seem indefatigable.

This is my second chance in life. I had colon cancer in 2003. I had an operation.

Then two years after, in 2005, they called me in for a tea session and asked if I was keen to go into politics. I said, "Do you know that I have colon cancer?"

"Yes," (Deputy Prime Minister) Teo Chee Hean said. My medical report was on his table. "I think it should be okay," he said.

I went home to tell my husband, "Wah, PAP wants me, wo bu hui si ("I won't die" in Mandarin)!" (laughs)


What do you do in your free time?

I exercise, swim or cycle in the morning. I make it a point to visit my mum in Malacca five times a year.

My girl is in the final year of university, my boy is in the final year of polytechnic. I'm also lucky, with a very supportive husband (Soh Chee Hiang, 54, a manager at Singapore Technologies), who goes marketing, who takes care of the home. A lot of residents think I'm not married and don't have children. They ask, how come you're always here!




What's for supper

Coffee shop at Yishun Street 81, Block 844
- Chrysanthemum tea and iced milk tea: $2.20
- 10 sticks of mutton and pork satay: $6.50
- 6 chicken wings: $9
- Rojak: $4
- Total: $21.70


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