GE2015: On the campaign trail with PAP's Sun Xueling

As campaigning for the Sept 11 polls comes to a close, The Straits Times spotlights some candidates to find out how they interact with residents and what drives them.

SINGAPORE - It is difficult to imagine soft-spoken PAP new candidate Sun Xueling in an abattoir, mingling with someone gutting a chicken. But that is what the 36-year-old has had to do as Temasek Holdings' investment director as she tries to size up investment opportunities for the company.

"We are looking for companies that create value and are growing," says Ms Sun.

"I end up going to factories a lot, putting on boots and spending days walking through abattoirs and food processing plants. I talk to the person who is taking out guts from the chicken, to the person in charge of the machine that saws pigs in half, to the person separating forks and spoons at catering companies."

By contrast, says the mother of one, wearing a suit, sitting in air-conditioned rooms and talking to CEOs do not yield much. "You don't get to know a lot about a company by doing that," she explains in an interview with The Straits Times.

As she pounds the ground in Pasir-Ris Punggol GRC, her experience with speaking to people on the ground shows. The slight-built woman, who has a master's degree in international political economy from the London School of Economics, appears at ease shaking hands and chatting with residents.

The long-time grassroots volunteer - who said that seeing her face in the newspapers for the first time after her candidacy was announced was shocking - approaches people in an almost deferential manner, bowing slightly and making sure she is not interrupting them.

And when The Straits Times interviewed her at a childcare centre at the foot of a block of housing board flats on Monday, she insisted that the reporter take a bottle of cooling tea from cartons of the drink that were to be supplied to supporters on the campaign trail.

Her soft-spoken manner, however, has had residents wondering if she has the mettle for politics.

She said she understands why people might have that impression of her, but said that she did not think her approach was a weakness.

"I like to think of it as a strength when you come across friendlier and softer. In my mind, I am quite a rational person, I consider all the facets of the matter. I think you tend to win an argument when you are reasonable and not when you are banging your fists on the table," she said.

She even has a soft analogy for joining politics, describing it as a marriage proposal - the climax of a relationship that started way back in 2001.

Then, the National University of Singapore economics student first started helping out at the People's Action Party (PAP) Meet-the-People Sessions at Buona Vista. In 2004, aged 25, she spoke at the party's 50th anniversary rally.

She has had many informal "chats" with various people since 2010 and Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean has revealed that the party considered fielding her in 2011. But she was then working in Hong Kong - where she moved to in 2007 - and thinking of having children.

Ms Sun during a walkabout at Block 301, Punggol Central on Sept 7, 2015. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

She returned to Singapore in early 2014 and started working at Temasek Holdings in June that year. The question was eventually popped just two weeks before Nomination Day - at the end of July 2015. It took her about a week to say yes.

Ms Sun was brought up by her grandmother as both her parents held full-time jobs.  She grew up with a younger sister in a flat in Clementi, and subsequently moved to Ang Mo Kio.

She hopes to push for more support measures for parents because she understands how difficult it is to juggle work and family as a working mother.

She says that being able to find a good preschool for her two-year-old daughter was critical as it gave her the peace of mind she needs to "go out there and do (her) own thing".

"That is very helpful as a working mother," she says, adding that the availability of childcare centres has been one of the top issues raised by Pasir Ris-Punggol residents on the campaign trail so far.

Unsurprisingly, finance and economics are her strengths. She wants to contribute to the debate on growing Singapore's economic pie, which she sees as a potential solution to the emotive issue of immigration.

It is one close to her heart, given that she is married to a Beijing-born new citizen, an IT entrepreneur, 37.

Ms Sun, who also goes by the name Soon Sher Rene, has also been the target of xenophobic comments online due to her hanyu pinyin name.

On hindsight, she admitted, that "it might have sounded naive" that she never considered that the backlash would have occurred just from her choice of name. She had offered her hanyu pinyin name when she was introduced as a candidate as "it didn't cross my mind, if I had given this name and not the other, it would have been different".

The incident, she realised after some reflection, boiled down to the importance of economic growth.

"When economic growth slows, the pie is a lot smaller. So when someone gets a slice at your expense, you feel robbed. I thought, there must be an underlying reason why netizens felt that way. They must be feeling that new immigrants were seizing opportunities from them.

"For me, the takeaway was that we should try to make the cake bigger and allocate the slices fairly," she said, adding that she hopes to push for innovation and technology advancements here to help firms become more nimble.

When asked if she thought her husband, who received his Singapore citizenship six years ago, would handicap her, she said: "I don't want to guess how big the impact is.

"I think at the end of the day, I hope that people will understand that I am Singaporean and my husband is too. We are a Singaporean family, rooted here, and we want to do our bit for the country."

She added: "I cannot control what people think, but I hope they can look upon us fairly."