Elected into office on 7 May 2011, new Members of Parliament Edwin Tong ’94 (Moulmein-Kallang Group Representative Constituency) and Desmond Lee ’01 (Jurong Group Representative Constituency) talk to Adeline Ang ’96 about life as newly-minted MPs.
What (or whom) inspired you to enter into politics?
Edwin Tong ’94 (ET): Well, Singapore has developed and nurtured a first class socio-economic infrastructure, has good stability, strong governance and a secure environment. But we cannot assume that this will last, and I was attracted by the fact that I could play a part in maintaining and advancing Singapore.
At a more local level, I was taken by how much could be done to make improvements to people’s lives. It is easy to be cynical, but I could see that real value could be added, and I wanted to be able to make this contribution and also push for changes, from within the system.
Politics was not a life ambition of mine. I was introduced to it by my former mentor at Allen & Gledhill (for 16 years), Mr K Shanmugam ’84, now the Law and Foreign Affairs Minister. I spent some time observing and understanding the role of an MP. After a while, I felt that I was able, and wanted to, make that contribution.
Edwin Tong '94
Desmond, you grew up watching your father (26-year veteran Member of Parliament Lee Yock Suan) at work as an MP and Cabinet Minister, how did that experience inform your decision?
Desmond Lee ’01 (DL): I knew that joining politics in Singapore was a very heavy responsibility, entailing significant personal sacrifice. His experience made me think longer and harder before deciding to step forward to stand as a candidate for Parliament!
What do you hope to achieve, as a Member of Parliament (MP)?
ET: Primarily, to work on improving the lives and the living environment of my constituents. I also see my role as contributing, critically, in Parliament. By and large, the right policies and objectives are in place. But there is a lot of room to ensure that the implementation and execution of such policies does not unfairly affect people at the fringes.
Desmond Lee: Singapore is a small ship in a vast and unpredictable ocean - good, strong governance and long-term stewardship is important. MPs play a role in ensuring accountability, transparency and the improvement of policies (and their implementation) through robust and constructive discussion and debate.
At the broadest level, I hope to make a difference to the lives of Singaporeans, to improve the environment for residents of my ward, Jurong Spring, and to promote a more caring and cohesive community.
Why go into politics now?
ET: I would not have wanted to go into politics at a younger age because I feel that an MP has to understand and empathise with life’s problems and issues, and that is something that cannot be done without myself having enough life experience.
Why do you think there are so many lawyers and legally trained people in Singapore politics?
ET: That’s hard to say, though I think there are almost as many doctors!
Is legal training and/or experience an advantage, when it comes to being a Member or Parliament?
ET: As lawyers, we often analyse facts critically, identify difficulties and then find a workable and practical solution for the client. MPs are often put in a position where these same skills can be employed to help an individual constituent through a problem, handle problems with government agencies or advise a grassroots organisation gain a better outcome.
DL: Law school and legal work trains the mind to analyse, to question, to build your case, and to articulate and push your position. These are skills that may come in useful when analysing legislation and debating issues in Parliament and outside. But I believe there are other characteristics and skill-sets that are needed to serve well as an MP, such as empathy, compassion, humility and a commitment to service.
ET: Experience would be good if you have it, but it is not necessarily bad to have no experience. I would rank experience below sincerity, ability and determination. Sometimes, a lack of experience can also mean a fresh perspective, which is good.
How are you able to juggle your 'civilian' career with the equally hectic schedule of a Member of Parliament?
DL: Now, more than ever before, time management is critical! At Jurong, there are many many 'unsung heroes' – grassroots leaders and volunteers, People’s Association staff, branch members and volunteers – who work tirelessly to serve the community and who work beside me when I carry out my duties.
Desmond Lee '01
ET: It’s been a steep learning curve and every day is a new experience. I have a fair mix of involvement in both political and legal work in a day, and I have to make time for both. I have to be very disciplined with my commitments.
I must admit that it’s not easy, but it can be done with some discipline and organisation. And hopefully, with time and some experience, it will get easier. In addition, I am lucky to have a fantastic team of lawyers whom I work with at the office. I discuss big picture strategic directions with them, and then they work very independently in managing and running day-to-day matters. It is really a first-rate team, and that has made it so much easier for me.
How has your family adapted to your new role?
ET: My family and I have had to make some adjustments to our routine because of my schedule. We value our time together a lot, and so, the additional demands on my time in this new role has been one of the biggest challenges for us.
I make a special effort to spend time with my children or just be home on the ‘extra’ school holidays which my children get - be it Founders' Day, Youth Day or just PSLE marking days. There are also ‘black out’ periods reserved for the family; which both my secretary at Allen & Gledhill and my grassroots team know about.
DL: My family has been very supportive. I try to go home for lunch a few times a week, to spend a bit more time with my family, especially my 18-month-old daughter. During that time, we feed her, then read a book or play with her.
How have things changed, since you were elected into office? Do the people you know treat you any differently?
ET: Yes. I’m now told to serve my friends, listen consultatively to colleagues and receive complaints and criticisms from clients smilingly! … No, just kidding. Actually, there’s been no change at all. I am not treated differently nor do I expect to be.
DL: At a lunch one day, a friend (former colleague; also an alumni of NUS a number of years my senior) reminded me in jest that "the ribbing won't stop just because you're an MP!" But seriously, there has been no real difference. Friends and colleagues have been very supportive and understanding.
What are your best and worst memories of Law School?
DL: During 'exam fever' period, some friends and I would camp in the Law Library or in empty classrooms in Law School to 'mug'. If the western food stall at the Bizad (Business School) Canteen or the famous char kway teow stall at the Arts Canteen was open, we would head there during self-declared break times. Those were both my best and worst memories, depending on which angle you look at it!
Do you think any of your Law School experiences inspired you to go into politics, or were instructive in preparing you for this work?
DL: Law School experiences didn’t specifically inspire me to join politics, but our public law courses will, I believe, be very useful.
ET: When I was in Law School, the Dean was (now Judge) Tan Lee Meng ’72. He empowered student leaders to make our own decisions and chart our own courses. It was never a top-down approach with him, and it worked very well because it allowed students to take ownership of and responsibility for our projects and events. I have carried this with me, and it is particularly relevant when working with my grassroots organisations. He was a very strong mentor to many students, and I count myself privileged to have worked under him.
Adeline Ang '96