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Lunch With Sumiko

Lunch With Sumiko: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, says MP Tin Pei Ling

She had a rough introduction to politics, but MP Tin Pei Ling has turned her image around

It's unlikely that any interview with Member of Parliament Tin Pei Ling would ignore her bumpy start in politics, when she became the target of both online and offline trolls.

I'm going to raise it during our lunch, but she beats me to it.

We're at Hippo, a small, cosy zhi char restaurant in her constituency of MacPherson. Ms Tin orders for us soon after she arrives, and as she settles down, I ask if she eats here often.

Yes, she says, she's been here a number of times, and the last time was because its har cheong gai - chicken wings with shrimp paste - was her "comfort food".

Oh, I say, as in you ate a lot of it when you were pregnant? Her son was born in August 2015.


Last year, Ms Tin made the news when cases of Zika were found in her ward. The MP, who had raised the Zika issue in Parliament before it was discovered in Singapore, and her team swung into action, visiting homes and setting up a register of pregnant women there. Thankfully, those mothers in her ward who have since given birth have had healthy babies. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

NOTHING TO HIDE

I think there's nothing to hide. It's all public record. I did not do anything wrong, nothing immoral, so I think I will probably find a way to talk to him.

MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT TIN PEI LING, on what happens if her son one day Googles her name and reads the criticisms about her.

"No," she replies.

"Actually when I was under a lot of stress. Like in 2011."

Ah, 2011. That was the year she was introduced as a People's Action Party (PAP)candidate for the General Election. She was just 27.

For a variety of reasons, some Singaporeans took a dislike to her.

First, she was accused of contesting on the coat-tails of then Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who headed the Marine Parade GRC team she was placed in.

Then, a photo of her striking a cute pose with a Kate Spade box - the handbag inside was a birthday present from her husband - made social media rounds and was lampooned.

The fact that her husband is a senior civil servant also drew flak.

A video of her at a PAP event where she playfully stomped her foot and exclaimed "I don't know what to say" was shared, mimicked and mocked.

She was unfavourably compared with the opposition National Solidarity Party's Nicole Seah, then 24, who also contested Marine Parade GRC.

When the PAP won just 56.6 per cent of the votes for the GRC, Mr Goh cited the negative publicity surrounding Ms Tin as "a factor" in the results.

Down but not destroyed, she soldiered on.

  • WHAT WE ATE

  • HIPPO FAMILY RESTAURANT

    Block 72 Circuit Road #01-13

    Har cheong gai (chicken wings with shrimp paste): $6.50

    Homemade beancurd with minced meat: $6.50

    Sambal potato leaves: $5.50

    Fried pork chop: $6.50

    Rice: $1.20

    Barley: $3.80

    Total: $30

As an MP, she worked hard in her ward, which comprises a fair number of rental units and elderly folk. In Parliament, she raised questions and made sensible speeches.

In 2012, she auctioned off the infamous Kate Spade bag at a charity event organised by women's group Aware.

When the September 2015 General Election came round, MacPherson was hived off as a single seat and she had to go solo.

She faced two opponents and easily won 65.6 per cent of the votes. Marine Parade GRC got 64 per cent.

Somehow, she had turned her image around. She must have felt vindicated.

Ms Tin, now 33, assures me that she has moved on from that traumatic start. But it's clear some hurt lingers because several times during our lunch, she refers to that period, like when I ask if she is enjoying her second term.

"Ya," she says. "I enjoy being with people. I think I can say that I draw energy from people around me."

She continues: "There are some aunties who will hug me. It just feels very good and makes it feel like this is worthwhile. These are the very positive moments. Of course, definitely, compared with the first term..." She trails off.

Or when she says she is thankful that MacPherson residents have been supportive and "willing to see me differently".

"Because of the opportunity that they have given me, I've been able to, I don't know whether 'transform' is the right word, but change from the supposedly young-looking girl who was basically hit left, right, centre, in 2011 to who I am today. And so for that I am grateful."

She adds that she has a great team behind her at MacPherson. "Despite all that was against me - or not in my favour, basically - they stuck with me and we have gone through thick and thin."

I remark that she seems scarred by what happened. She says she has said before how 2011 was the darkest period of her life. "Even though I would say I've overcome it, pretending that it never happened is also not quite realistic or quite possible," she says.

"I certainly wouldn't ever want to repeat what happened back then, and I don't wish it on anyone either."

On how she managed to move on, she says there was a point when she realised that if she overcame the nastiness she faced, it might encourage others with their own challenges.

"So there was also this additional dimension that was motivating me." She adds: "There's this song, if it doesn't kill you, you will get stronger. So sometimes these pop songs help." (She's referring to Kelly Clarkson's Stronger).

What also helped was putting the criticisms in perspective. Even though she felt wronged and hurt, she realised that what she suffered was "really just (loss of) face issue, pride, reputation".

"All these things are intangible, right? I still have my family around me, whereas for other people whom I've met, they have real bread and butter issues, like losing a job and worries about how to feed the whole family."

I broach how her son might one day Google her name and see the past comments about her online. She must have given some thought to this because she has a ready answer. "I think there's nothing to hide," she says firmly. "It's all public record. I did not do anything wrong, nothing immoral, so I think I will probably find a way to talk to him."

HIPPO where we meet is at the foot of Block 72 Circuit Road and has a charming family feel to it. A blogger describes it as "the cheapest zhi char I've had in my life".

I get there early and the friendly owner, Ms Helen Ren, shows me her collection of plants. The restaurant is named after her son's hippopotamus soft toy. One of her husband's pencil drawings, of a plant, hangs on a wall, and he designed the shop sign too.

I tell her I'm having lunch with the MP. What does she like to eat? Ms Ren laughs and says in Mandarin: "You look at her, she's so slim, but she likes fried stuff."

True enough, har cheong gai is one of the things Ms Tin orders when she arrives, as well as fried pork chops.

Ms Tin is, as Ms Ren says, very slim. What strikes you are her eyes, which are wide and bright and framed by well-groomed brows. She speaks clearly and thoughtfully and is warm and friendly.

A middle-aged man who has finished lunch stops by to say hello. Grassroots leader? I ask when he leaves. Party activist, she says.

I wonder how older grassroots leaders take to her. "Thankfully they had no problems," she says. "They're very welcoming... in a way I'm like their daughter, or granddaughter in some instances."

She adds: "Sometimes I like to touch them. Thankfully we are women, so can touch." She laughs when she realises what she's just said. "This may sound a bit wrong but, ya..." (She has no qualms hugging her residents, as photos on her Facebook page show.)

Her easy bond with older residents could stem in part from how she's an only child who grew up in a household of adults.

Her father owned a coffee shop in Ghim Moh with several shareholders. He ran a drinks stall where she helped out at, while at Crescent Girls' School and later Hwa Chong Junior College. "Making coffee was what my dad was good at and he raised the family through this," she says.  Her mother is a housewife.

Her paternal grandmother, who died at the age of 100 last year, and an aunt lived with them in Queenstown. Her aunt, who had suffered brain damage after falling into a canal when she was little, has special needs.

Her father was involved in grassroots work. Because his English wasn't strong, she would help him translate. When she was in her second year at the National University of Singapore, she met minister Vivian Balakrishnan and volunteers from his Ulu Pandan ward at her father's coffee shop. He invited her to join them and the following week, she went to his Meet-the-People session to help out. That was the start of her grassroots career.

When she was in her third year, her father had a heart attack. She had to run the coffee shop and took a semester off for this. Upgrading works were being done in the area and business was bad. "We dipped into savings... My mum would sometimes cry secretly. She tried to hide it but I knew. "

She gives an animated recitation of a typical day: "Wake up at five plus. Open the coffee shop by six. Heat up the stove, check cashier, everything is in order then do, do, do, do, do. Afternoon, if there's class, I try to run to class while my mum takes over... then after that I come back, then to midnight, then close. Very tired. By the time I reach home... after shower, hit the bed, gone. Very tiring."

That experience taught her the struggles of small businesses and students who juggle work and study.

After her father recovered, he decided to retire. By then, she was about to graduate with an honours degree in psychology and could help support the family. She was a senior associate with Ernst & Young and left her job after she was elected to focus on parliamentary and community work.

She met her husband, Ng How Yue, 46, at a National Youth Forum. She was chairman of the forum and he was an adviser, and they got married in 2007. He is permanent secretary in the Law Ministry and second permanent secretary at the Health Ministry. She would like a second child, "but this kind of thing, sui yuan", she says, referring to the Mandarin phrase for leaving it to fate.

Her days are filled mostly with MacPherson and parliamentary work. She has many plans for the ward and talks earnestly - and at length - about plans to rejuvenate the ward, help the elderly age actively in the community, and projects for younger residents.

Last year, she made the news when cases of Zika were found in her ward. She and her team swung into action, visiting homes and setting up a register of pregnant women there.

She had raised the Zika issue in Parliament before it was discovered in Singapore. When the first case happened, it was in Bukit Timah, a distance away. "Then it happened in Aljunied Crescent, right? I was like wah lao," she says. Thankfully, those mothers in her ward who have since given birth have had healthy babies.

We're done with lunch and I ask where she's off to next. She says she's meeting a resident for coffee nearby. "He's semi-retired so he has time to meet me. He has some issues and some feedback."

Actually, I can think of more exciting things a young person could be doing on a Wednesday afternoon than to listen to a resident give feedback. But it doesn't seem a chore to her.

She walks off to her appointment, blue handbag in hand.

And, no, if you must know, it isn't a Kate Spade, and neither is it branded.

Twitter @STsumikotan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 19, 2017, with the headline 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger'. Print Edition | Subscribe