On the campaign trail - PAP: Chee Hong Tat

Stepping out of comfort zone to serve

Mr Chee Hong Tat, one of the PAP's candidates for the Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, singing Hokkien song Sim Tau Bak on the first day of a two-day concert in the constituency last weekend.
Mr Chee Hong Tat, one of the PAP's candidates for the Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, singing Hokkien song Sim Tau Bak on the first day of a two-day concert in the constituency last weekend.PHOTO: PEOPLE'S ASSOCIATION

As campaigning kicks into high gear, The Straits Times spotlights some candidates to find out how they interact with residents and what drives them. We start with former civil servant Chee Hong Tat from the PAP and consultancy firm chief Leon Perera of the Workers' Party.

Clasping a microphone in both hands, Mr Chee Hong Tat turned to face the crowd of 9,000 residents.

The former senior civil servant waved to them, took a deep breath - and spent the next four minutes singing lustily in Hokkien.

It may not seem like much but it was a step out of the comfort zone for the usually guarded Mr Chee, 41, who is more comfortable out of the spotlight than in it, and for whom dialects are a sticky subject.

The eldest child of a businessman and a teacher, Mr Chee was raised by his grandmother speaking Hokkien. As a student, he needed tuition in English.

"I spoke dialect when I was young to my grandparents and Mandarin to my parents, so my English was not so good," says the Chinese High School alumnus who credited his teachers there with helping him to improve his grasp of the language.


I chose to sing the Hokkien song, Sim Tau Bak (the phrase means "something that is important to a person"), at the Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC concert last weekend because I think it's meaningful. The song is about filial piety and gratitude for a mother's love, and I dedicated it to all mothers, and to my own mother and grandmother. They weren't at the concert, but I messaged a video of me singing to my mother. She liked it, she was very touched.


That was all he would say on dialects, the subject of the controversy that was stoked over a strongly worded letter penned in 2009, where he said it was "stupid" to advocate learning dialects. Netizens and political rivals latched on to it, saying there was a discrepancy between his words then and his actions three weeks ago when he introduced himself in Hokkien.

As the letter was written in Mr Chee's official capacity as principal private secretary of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, it likely reflected the views of Mr Lee, who opposed the use of dialects as he believed it distracts children from mastering English and Mandarin.

But as a long-serving public servant, he sidesteps the issue, and declines to say more on the matter.

Mr Chee's involvement in the public sector began when he took up a Public Service Commission scholarship in 1991. He graduated with double honours degrees in engineering and economics from the University of California at Berkeley.

He rose through the civil service ranks and last year was appointed second permanent secretary at the Ministry of Trade and Industry. He left last month to enter politics.

Close to two decades in the civil service seems to have left its imprint on the man, who chooses his words with care.

The father of four is determined to keep his family out of the public eye, revealing only that his wife is 41, and stays at home to take care of their son, 15, and three daughters aged 12, nine and four.

But he opens up over the course of encounters over several weeks and shares, for instance, that if elected and asked to take up office, he wants to encourage civil servants to "think like entrepreneurs".

Senior officers should lead by example, he says, adding that this was something he tried to do.

For example, during his time as chief executive of the Energy Market Authority, he encouraged his officers to slash the red tape required for people to install solar panels.

Some of the ideas did not work but in the end, they cut the application process from 27 days to a week. "This spirit of being willing to push the boundaries... is something I feel we need to bring more into the civil service," he says.

Mr Chee, whose track record has meant that he is viewed within the party as a candidate with ministerial calibre, has gone all out to meet as many residents as possible before they go to the ballot box.

"Hello, I'm Hong Tat," he greets residents and clasps their hands tightly with both of his, even bowing occasionally. "I'm new here and wanted to say hi."

Eschewing hard leather shoes for softer ones that offer more support, he runs from house to house when visiting the Inglewood private estate near Sin Ming Avenue.

In conversation, he does his best to find a personal connection with each of the residents he meets.

He reveals to the employees at a dry cleaner near where he lives in Bishan North that his wife is their customer, and chats about the civil service with a retired civil servant he meets in Inglewood.

When residents ask him about government policies, he explains their rationale, but is careful not to promise to moot policy changes he thinks are unsustainable.

"I don't want to mislead you," he says to freelance Web designer Jean Chan, 55, who asks whether her cohort of senior citizens younger than those in the pioneer generation can also receive more medical benefits.

"I don't want to give you the wrong impression that we have a lot of money to spend. A lot depends on our economic growth in the next few years," he says.

Later, Ms Chan says she appreciated his explanation: "He was sincere and sharp-minded. I hadn't heard that point of view and didn't know we were at that stage of development."

Mr Chee believes in the importance of a strong economy. He says: "That's the basis on which we can generate good jobs, and the resources to fund our security and social spending needs."

Another national issue he wants to champion is putting in place programmes and infrastructure for the elderly, given the rapidly ageing population in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC as well as in Singapore at large.

Returning to the subject of the civil service, he says: "You can be kiasu - you can be careful, prudent, take extra precautions and manage risk. But don't be so scared of mistakes that you're unwilling to try."

Asked about the brickbats he has received over what some saw as an overly aggressive fist pump in response to hecklers at the Nomination Centre, he says: "I'm new to this, so there's much for me to learn. I'll certainly try to improve.

"But what I hope is that voters will be able to judge, through their interactions with me, that I have the commitment to serve them and the sincerity to do what is good for the country and for the people."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2015, with the headline 'Stepping out of comfort zone to serve '. Print Edition | Subscribe