Straits Times Sept 19, 2005
ON THE GROUND
Here's where PM can listen to the voice of the heartland
By Zuraidah Ibrahim and Li Xueying
AS DUSK gives way to darkness, the heartlanders of Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3 disappear into their flats, where dinner, television and a good night's rest beckon before another working day dawns.
At Block 322, however, the air drips with expectancy. Rows of people with paper slips in hand wait in a hall. Some peer out through the slats of the glass-paned windows. Plainclothes policemen stand around trying to blend in, but look too neat and freshly showered for a weekday evening.
A white car draws up next to the void deck and the doors swing open. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong unfolds himself from it and strides into an inner office.
He has arrived for the Meet-the-People session (MPS) at his Teck Ghee ward of Ang Mo Kio GRC.
It is like clinics run by Members of Parliament in the 83 other constituencies, except here, the MP is the PM.
Business starts almost immediately. Files are passed through the door from the outer office. Men and women, some with children in tow, enter.
They are usually a little tentative at first, appearing surprised that only a small desk separates them from the PM. They relate their problems to Mr Lee, who switches between English, Mandarin, Chinese dialects and Malay depending on what his constituents are speaking.
In an interview at the Istana the following week, Mr Lee said he has not been able to attend his MPS as often since he became prime minister in August last year. The party allows senior ministers to delegate their constituency work to junior colleagues. 'But when I can, I go down,' he said.
It is partly to give encouragement to the volunteer workers at the branch, who are inundated with cases even when the PM is not present. The MPS is also a way to get 'a feel for what the mood is like among the residents, what they're preoccupied about', he added.
Then, once in a while, cases surface that show a policy needs to be changed. For example, a year or two ago, he saw a series of immigration cases. 'All of them were falling foul of the rules as they were then, so we had a look at the rules and we made some adjustments. So I think it's better now,' he said.
When he comes across a case that may be a symptom of faulty policy or a poorly implemented one, he puts a red sticker on the file. This evening, the stickers are on standby on the desk before him.
The first petitioner of the night is a 77-year-old. He bounces in and asks for his Block 175 to have a lift on every floor. He's read that the Government will install them over 10 years. He wants his now.
'Mao Zedong said everyone is equal. But how can that be true? Rice in communist China was rationed. Everyone got a sack every year but do you think that Mao himself - the head of the People's Republic of China - would have eaten just one sack?' he says.
Later, he explains his appeal in more prosaic terms. 'Mr Lee is PM, I hope he can use his status to help us. With one phone call, he can make things happen.'
He gets a letter. But his file has no red sticker.
Two middle-aged sisters in pink outfits and dyed hair giggle as they press Mr Lee for help with their neighbourhood shops. Another woman is more forceful in her demand that rent for her stationery shop be reduced.
Mr Lee is patient, humorous at times, taking the opportunity to find out more about their lives, their children, their studies, their work.
A young man wants to marry his Chinese Indonesian girlfriend.
'How long have you known her?' asks the PM.
Less than six months.
'Wah, very fast,' replies Mr Lee as everyone breaks into laughter.
'It's yuan fen,' says the youngster, using the Chinese word for fate.
More working-class young men pop in, asking that their foreign wives be allowed to come here to live with them.
'Singapore girls don't want these men,' muses Mr Lee.
A prata man in his 40s has a different immigration problem. He has lived in Singapore since he was five, but never took up citizenship because his father didn't want him to do national service.
Now, he desperately wants a pink IC like his wife and two sons. Compared to them, he feels 'second class'. He is crestfallen when Mr Lee replies: 'A bit hard, now.'
Mr Lee says he will write him a letter, but warns that the appeal probably won't succeed.
There are numerous sad stories, such as a woman whose brother is in prison. She is looking after his wife, who has given birth to a premature baby. It's taking a toll.
A woman with cancer comes in with her mother, asking to be allowed to rent a Housing Board flat. They are Indian, but speak fluent Mandarin. When they switch to English, there is a Chinese accent.
Retired teacher Chan Yang Hui, 62, limps in with newspaper clippings and a worn file in his hand. He has nasal cancer and is supposed to go for a special scan.
As a pensioner, he is entitled to medical benefits, but they don't cover the scan he needs. He could ask his children for money, but feels that the Government should keep its promise to pensioners with medical benefits.
He takes his time, repeats himself, but no one interrupts him. Mr Lee says he will look into it. As soon as Mr Chan leaves the room, his file gets a red sticker.
Later, Mr Chan says: 'It changed my perception towards Lee Hsien Loong and the PAP. A simple shake of the hand won my heart over, because I felt so close to my PM. He was willing to listen to my long-winded story, and talk, and promised to look into the matter.'
More than 70 constituents are given a listening ear that night, about a quarter of them by the PM. The rest talked to grassroots leaders or fellow Ang Mo Kio GRC MP, Mr Tan Boon Wan.
For the residents, the visit to Block 322 has been about trying to fix the problems of daily life at its rawest - a roof over one's head, securing one's rice bowl, tying the knot with the one that 'yuan fen' has found, dealing with failing health.
For party volunteers, it has been about the unglamorous and largely unheralded task of helping Singapore at its grassroots.
For PM Lee and his Government, it is about listening to the voice of the heartland, and getting the minute details of policy right.
It is nearly 11pm when the MPS is wound up for the night. When Mr Lee leaves the inner office, he's carrying one item he didn't have when he came in: a single file with a red sticker in the corner.