Singapore People's Party: Ravi Philemon

Spurred on by humble background

Mr Ravi Philemon (standing), the Singapore People's Party's candidate for Hong Kah North SMC, on the campaign trail. His humble family background fuels his desire to ensure social mobility for Singaporeans.
Mr Ravi Philemon (standing), the Singapore People's Party's candidate for Hong Kah North SMC, on the campaign trail. His humble family background fuels his desire to ensure social mobility for Singaporeans.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

As campaigning kicks into high gear, The Straits Times spotlights some candidates to find out how they interact with residents and what drives them. Today, we talk to Cheryl Chan from the PAP and Ravi Philemon of the SPP.

By the year's end, Mr Ravi Philemon hopes to master the skill of riding a bicycle.

Growing up, he never had a bicycle as his family was too poor to buy him one. His four cousins, whose family he was living with, had one, but they did not share it with him.

It is one of the enduring memories of his childhood that fuel his desire to ensure that every child has opportunities while growing up, and adults can get good jobs that can give their children a better life.

A desire to entrench the social mobility ladder that has helped people like him climb out of a disadvantaged past is also the reason the Singapore People's Party's (SPP's) candidate for Hong Kah North SMC gave for wanting to protect the rights of Singaporeans.

And though the bulk of what he hopes to achieve in politics is tied to pushing back the Government's immigration policies, he stresses he is neither against the People's Action Party nor anti-immigrant.

AIDED BY POLICIES

I come from a disadvantaged family and policies were in place that helped me to rise up the social mobility ladder from store hand to the director of a welfare agency.

MR RAVI PHILEMON

Instead, Mr Philemon, 47, sees himself as an opposition candidate looking for a good middle ground.

Entering politics has been a long time coming for the sociopolitical blogger, who said he first entertained the idea when he completed national service: "I was 21, just fresh out of my NS and deciding which job to go into. I remember a conversation with my best friend then, and telling him I should probably try and run for elections."

But he went into the social services sector to help others like him who came from a disadvantaged background. He grew up "practically homeless", living with his relatives because of an absent father.

At one point, his mother held down three jobs to support him and his two sisters, who both stayed in a hostel for girls. "I come from a disadvantaged family and policies were in place that helped me to rise up the social mobility ladder from store hand to the director of a welfare agency," he said.

His 25-year stint in the social services sector even took him to the United States and Canada for about four years, before he returned in 2008 to care for his ageing mother.

But Mr Philemon did not recognise the Singapore he returned to. It was overcrowded, there were homeless people, and even "the chatter is different", he said.

He did not run in the 2011 elections, but was campaign manager for lawyer Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss, then a member of the National Solidarity Party (NSP). He formally joined the NSP about a year later, but switched to the SPP this March after a failed attempt to become its secretary-general.

Last month, Mr Philemon quit his job as director of voluntary welfare organisation Operation Hope Foundation as his employment contract bars him from contesting the elections. But the father of two began preparing for the elections before that, walking the ground two or even three times a day since July.

With the polls a week away, he has changed tack, eschewing door-to-door visits and covering void decks, coffee shops and playgrounds to shake as many hands as possible. His volunteers are unabashed about name-dropping well-known SPP leader Chiam See Tong: Residents may not be familiar with Mr Philemon, but now they know he is "from Chiam See Tong's party", and that he is

"Chiam See Tong's candidate".

"I just saw you here two days ago," said retiree Frankie Yap, 65, who was chatting with friends at a playground when Mr Philemon approached. When Mr Yap first heard that a "Ravi" was coming to contest Hong Kah North, he had mistaken Mr Philemon for human rights lawyer M. Ravi. "I've seen him here so often in the last few days that I'm not confused any more," he added.

It is also a family-run campaign: his communications executive daughter Jewel, 21, serves as media manager, while shutterbug son Jeremy, 20, documents the campaign, one photo at a time. They also help their dad take care of campaign logistics with volunteers. His wife Catherine, 46, is an administrator.

For Mr Philemon, this election is about rebalancing Singapore society towards "Singaporean families like mine": He is a fierce advocate of a Singaporeans-first approach to jobs, as well as more controls on population growth.

"It shouldn't just be a level playing field: There should be a home-team advantage," he said.

On this count, the year-old Fair Consideration Framework the Government introduced to get companies to look for suitable Singaporeans before hiring foreign professionals just "doesn't cut it", he said.

He said his Canada employer had to "prove to the government" there were no local takers for his job.

Mr Philemon also wants to champion greater control over home ownership for non-citizens. Tweaks he has called for include restricting permanent residents to buying resale flats valued above $600,000 and stipulating they can resell their flats only to citizens.

But he stressed that he was neither a xenophobe nor anti-government. Throughout the interview, the word "balance" came up frequently. "I believe you can't go to either extremes: It's not good for society," he said in reference to the polar extremes of conservatism and liberalism. "Between the two extremes, there is a middle way and you have to find that middle way."

While new to politics, Mr Philemon is no stranger to controversy. In 2013, after the haze crisis, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim cited him as one of five examples of a "minority who see fit to spread rumours, distortions and false information".

Mr Philemon had shared a post on Facebook quoting a friend who alleged that N95 masks being brought into Singapore were not for the public. He maintains there was no malice or intention to mislead. "I think I was the only blogger to have been mentioned in Parliament," said the former chief editor of sociopolitical website The Online Citizen. But he acknowledged the need for greater care in his postings: "I realised that more people are noticing me, and my sphere of influence has grown bigger."

He has no illusions that the fight will be easy. His rival, Senior Minister of State Amy Khor, was the best performer in the 2011 elections, with 70.61 per cent of the votes.

But he has an unshakeable confidence that he can better the score that his predecessor, SPP founder Sin Kek Tong, achieved in 2011.

"I have this inner sense of knowing what's right and what's wrong, what's fair and what's unfair," he said. "I can appreciate the anxiety and despair of those that may not have as much as others, because I come from a similar background."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2015, with the headline 'Spurred on by humble background'. Print Edition | Subscribe