The N is not the end
SINGAPORE - New Workers' Party (WP) MP Lee Li Lian sees her life's meaning in toppling stereotypes.
She hopes to eradicate "stigma" in many forms. She yearns to illustrate that N-level students can make it, that joining the opposition is no longer a career-killer, and that a woman of reproductive age is not a workplace liability but, given support, can juggle it all.
Well, the 34-year-old certainly proved, in the recent Punggol East by-election, that gender, youth and less lustrous credentials are no impediments to clinching a single-seat ward.
The Jan 26,2013, polls saw her trouncing the People's Action Party's candidate, colorectal surgeon Koh Poh Koon (43.7 per cent), Reform Party's Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam (1.2 per cent) and Singapore Democratic Alliance's Mr Desmond Lim (0.57 per cent), and sailing into Parliament with 54.5 per cent of valid votes.
She hopes people's takeaway from Punggol East 2013 is the "power of unity".
"Together, everyone can achieve more. I hope the takeaway for Singaporeans is the power of their votes, that they do have a say in the future and direction of their country," says the financial institution trainer in her first one-on-one interview unchaperoned by party bigwigs. Her answers are artless, served straight-up with folksy charm and toothy grins.
Does she see this as the beginning of more "non-elite" candidates stepping up?
After all, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said that the ruling party needs to field more personable candidates who can connect with the ground to reclaim ground lost to the opposition.
More candidates from different backgrounds who represent a broader swathe of Singaporean concerns can only be "a good thing", she says. Then adds: "I think Singaporeans also realise that there's no perfect and ideal candidate who fits everything. What matters most, in my opinion, is to have someone with the heart to serve and the ability to relate to Singaporeans."
A month into her new role, the newly trim MP, who lost some 4kg on the campaign trail, is busy building up her grassroots team and getting to know residents. Most evenings, she is in Punggol East attending wakes, holding Meet-the-People Sessions, briefing volunteers.
Her Punggol East Town Council is currently being merged with the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council, which will have seven wards under its ambit.
After being sworn in as MP, she championed in her maiden speech in Parliament better work-life balance in the Population White Paper debate.
She is now perusing the Budget to prepare for next week's debate on it.
She now sleeps five hours a night, juggling "immediate and long-term priorities", acutely aware she has only half a term left to prove herself. She's set herself the target of knocking on every door in her 31,649-voter-strong constituency by the next general election, due in 2016.
"I just need to get everything done faster," concludes the MP who famously announced the venue and timing of her first Meet-the-People-Session on victory night.
She is still on annual leave from her company but may quit to become a full-time MP.
She says her plans to have a baby with her husband of three years, telecommunications consultant Jacky Koh, 36, are continuing apace.
They were derailed earlier by the 2011 GE, where she was fielded in Punggol East and held her own against PAP's Michael Palmer and SDA's Desmond Lim, garnering 41 per cent of the votes.
Mr Palmer became the Speaker of Parliament before he quit in December over an extramarital affair.
Meanwhile, Ms Lee was made legislative assistant to Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh, and helped him with Meet-the-People Sessions and volunteer recruitment.
She has had plenty of time to think about the kind of Singapore she wants her children - she hopes to have two - to grow up in. Having come from the Normal (Academic) stream, where students are told they "can't do well in life", she wants her progeny to walk tall and enjoy "equal opportunities" in education and work.
"I hope for a Singapore they are proud of, which takes care of its elderly and disadvantaged. Such that when they go overseas, they will tell people: 'In my country, elderly folks above 80 get free public transport'," she says, revisiting a theme she pushed passionately on the stump.
Elbow grease years
If there is one thing she yearns to implement, it is flexi-work arrangements that help more housewives return to work.
For years, she watched her father slog long hours doing piling work as the family's sole breadwinner.
Her mother quit as a garment factory worker shortly after she was born in 1978.
Every month, pay day was accompanied by budgeting in hushed tones in their spartan three-room Lorong Lew Lian flat.
From a young age, she assumed a "da jie" (big sister) caretaker role.
At age six, her mother found her trying to change the cloth nappies of a younger cousin.
She slept atop a double-decker bed shared with her two younger sisters, whose homework and whereabouts she supervised.
She even attended the youngest one's parent-teacher meetings as her mother spoke little English.
At home, they nattered in Mandarin, Cantonese and Hokkien.
She picked up English from her largely Nepalese classmates at the now-defunct Elling Primary, located next to a Gurkha camp in Bartley Road. By nine, she was taking the public bus to school herself.
At 12, she was one of a few unaccompanied pupils who collected their PSLE results on their own. She rated herself "slightly above average" and was devastated to be posted to the Normal (Academic) stream in secondary school.
Her first thought was for her parents - that it would "make them lose face".
Plus, studying one more year would be a further financial "burden" on them.
Sobbing into the public phone, she called home and blurted out her news. Her mother fell silent for a moment, then reassured her it was fine as she had done her best.
"It made me feel even worse. I cried even louder," she recalls.
She entered Holy Innocents High in the last class, determined not to "feel inferior in any way" and disciplined to do better.
There, she met uplifting teachers, one of whom enlisted her and other students to decorate the chapel for her wedding day.
Ms Lee, who had taken community centre art classes since she was four, was roped in to illustrate the guest book, which the teacher later framed and hung on her wall. "It meant a lot to us that she asked us to help in the most important event in her life," she remembers.
Determined to improve her O-level English, she handed in a composition every other day to her teacher for marking.
In return, she helped the teacher, who lived near her, carry her books home. She also organised a group of N-level students to take private tuition in Additional Mathematics and sit it at the O levels to "improve our prospects".
Eventually, she did well enough to study business administration at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.
To finance that, she dabbled in all kinds of part-time work from age 15 to help out with family expenses.
She had little time for extra- curricular activities, joining only the Art Club and Audio-Visual Club so she could help her father install electronic items at home.
For years, she was a shoe salesgirl on a "permanent part-time" contract, working four hours a day, then a hospital receptionist and assistant nurse.
She witnessed many things, including Singaporeans who anguished over paying medical bills.
She went on to complete a distance-learning degree in marketing with Australia's Curtin University of Technology, largely paying her own way, except for her fees which her parents helped out with.
At 23, she graduated, while holding her first full-time job selling commercial laundry equipment. She discovered her strength was in selling, building rapport with people, hosting corporate events and giving presentations.
Two years later, she met her "introverted" husband at a sales seminar.
They went out for seven years before tying the knot in 2010. He took her, then a first-time voter, to her first WP rally during GE 2006.
She says she was wowed by the hordes who came despite having to wipe mud off their footwear later.
They both volunteered to be polling agents at Aljunied GRC, and she joined WP as a member shortly after "to give back to society because there are others who didn't get the opportunities I was lucky enough to get".
"I also wanted to get rid of the stigma that by associating with opposition, you cannot get your flat, your children will be disadvantaged, your career will be over," says the Upper Serangoon condominium dweller.
Two months later, in August 2006, she became the WP Youth Wing organising secretary.
In 2008, she was elected to its central executive committee and appointed deputy treasurer. WP chairman Sylvia Lim observes:
"What strikes me most about her is her 'can-do' attitude, deep commitment to own any task she is assigned and her unbridled sense of living life to the fullest."
There was zero objection from her parents and sisters (one is an auditor, the other a bank compliance officer) - "they knew I would be responsible" - who help out with her grassroots events.
There were no repercussions on the job front either. She has worked in financial advisory, brokerage, recruitment and training with top companies here.
In 2008, she told her prospective employer, Great Eastern Life Assurance, that she was a WP committee member. They made her an offer the very next week.
She never missed a promotion. When she ran as a candidate in GE 2011, her "very supportive" bosses and colleagues helpfully covered her duties.
She now lives by this simple dictum, which governs all her interactions:
"People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."
"I'm not someone very ambitious," she adds, half-apologetically.
"I want to be remembered as a filial daughter to my parents, a supportive partner to my husband and a loving mother to my children. Last but not least, a friend people can count on." Lee Li Lian, Member of Parliament for Punggol East .