Lunch With Sumiko

Lunch With Sumiko: With Lee Bee Wah, what you see is what you get

In person, MP Lee Bee Wah is less strident than her public persona, but no less passionate about her MP role

Ms Lee Bee Wah when she got married at 27. The only time she has ever worn full-blown make-up was on her wedding day. Ms Lee Bee Wah is into her 12th year as a Member of Parliament. It is a role that she relishes and she says she spends an average of
Lee Bee Wah, a civil engineer, has been a People's Action Party MP since 2006 and is easily one of the more outspoken and colourful politicians around.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Before she got married, Member of Parliament Lee Bee Wah made certain things clear to her husband-to-be.

She will have to continue supporting her family in Malaysia and sending money home.

She needs her personal space because she has many friends and intends to keep them.

Don't expect her to stay home to iron and cook.

And she doesn't wear make-up.

"I cannot pretend to be somebody else, so I told him, 'What you see is what you get. I don't wear make-up one you know. So is this what you want or not?'"

She laughs at the memory of this, her eyes crinkling in a face that has nary a pat of powder or lick of lipstick.

You don't wear make-up, I ask.

I don't, she says.

Even when in Parliament?

I don't, she repeats and laughs.

Opening of Parliament, perhaps?

No.

"I don't know how to wear make-up," she explains. And when she was younger and had to support her siblings, she felt cosmetics were a waste of money.

But she doesn't judge women who do. "That's personal choice, lah. Of course if you wear make-up, you will be more presentable."

She does have to put on warpaint when she does TV interviews, but feels uncomfortable in it. The only time she has ever worn full-blown make-up was on her wedding day.


Ms Lee Bee Wah when she got married at 27. The only time she has ever worn full-blown make-up was on her wedding day. PHOTO: COURTESY OF LEE BEE WAH

I ask if she has a photo of that with her and in fact she does. She scrolls through her phone and finds it. She looks very ladylike in a frothy wedding gown. She laughs.

"Doesn't look like me, yah?"

Lunch with Ms Lee, 57, is a lively affair. From her appearances in Parliament, I am expecting someone strident and even combative. But in person, she is warm and friendly, laughs and gestures a great deal and gives good quotes, even veering into descriptions of bodily functions.

She injects Mandarin and Hokkien into her English, which she cheerfully mangles (she learnt the language only in secondary school).

She has chosen to meet at Himawari, a casual Japanese restaurant at the driving range of Orchid Country Club in Yishun.

It is in her Nee Soon GRC ward.

She's early and already in the restaurant when I arrive. She walks out to lead me to the table.

Her assistant has also joined us for lunch.

We exchange name cards.

I've never seen anything like hers.

It's made up of six name cards joined to form a 12-sided accordion-like stack. The cards detail her various roles including MP, adviser to the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) and Singapore Swimming Association, past president of the Institution of Engineers, Singapore (IES), roles in various companies and her job as group director at engineering group Meinhardt.

Ms Lee, a civil engineer, has been a People's Action Party MP since 2006 and is easily one of the more outspoken and colourful politicians around.

She makes her presence felt in Parliament, tenaciously raising issues close to her residents' hearts.

She might rub some people - including civil servants - the wrong way, but that hasn't stopped her.

No request is too minor for her to bring up to the House, be it pigeon woes or how commuters at Khatib MRT station have had to suffer the morning sun. As a colleague who covers Parliament relates it, "she just whacks".

She orders a sashimi set and her assistant and I get the salmon don set. She eats at the restaurant quite often and notices that the waitress serving us is new.

In a motherly tone, she asks the woman how long she's been working there and finds out she's an Yishun resident, though not in her ward.

The waitress asks if she can approach her if she has a problem and Ms Lee says of course, but adds that if it's a letter that needs to be written, it will have to be signed by the woman's own MP.

Being an MP is the most important role in her life, declares Ms Lee. Her e-mail address starts with "mplee" and every mail signs off with the rallying slogan "Together we can make a difference!"

"MP's work comes No. 1," she says.

She appears to be a person of strong loyalties and is unabashedly partisan. When I ask if she is close to her parliamentary colleagues, she says: "I am friends with everyone except those from Workers' Party. I seldom talk to them."

When she was president of the high-profile STTA from 2008 to 2014, that was the No. 2 most important role in her life.

Third came her work at IES.

She uses the title Er, which stands for engineer, "to show support for the engineering fraternity".

"Unfortunately, my family last, lah," she laughs.

Her husband, Mr Soh Chee Hiang, 58, is an electrical engineer and manager at ST Engineering.

They have a daughter, 26, who is a Chinese-language teacher, and a son, 24, who is studying finance in Melbourne.

In 2014, she sold her engineering company, LBW Consultants, to Meinhardt. The agreement included allowing her to do her MP work without having to apply for leave. "That means having lunch here is MP work," she grins.

On average, she spends about 50 hours a week at her ward and regards residents as "extended family members".

"I can strike up a conversation very easily with strangers. They find that, 'Hey, this one is just like one of us, always come to coffee shop, talk to us'."

On most Sundays from 8am to 9.15am, she can be found at a coffee shop at Block 848 Khatib Central. She has worked out a code for whether she will be there. "You go to my Facebook. When I say, 'Good morning! Looking forward to having my favourite kopi-o kosong', that means I'm going down to the coffee shop."

She goes as far as to say that being an MP is the reason she checks her colon regularly.

In 2004, when she was 43, she had colon cancer. She had gone for her annual medical check-up and was chatting with the doctor. He asked if she had any medical issues and she said she would sometimes feel a pain in her abdomen.

"I thought it was my stomach that had problems because my father passed away from stomach cancer," she says. "I also always have a lot of air that comes up - sometimes so much so that even the rice that I take comes out together with the air.''

She shares more details: "If I don't do my business early in the morning, I will drink prune juice.

"So for that period, I drink three, four times a week. I told my husband, 'Something is not right'."

The doctor told her the pain was probably due to her colon or uterus. The latter had been checked through an ultrasound.

But as she had never had her colon examined, he got her to go for a colonoscopy. Doctors found she had early-stage colon cancer.

She had an operation the next day to cut away 22cm of her colon. She did not need further treatment.

At that time, she was studying Buddhism and that helped her through the episode. "Our master always says that everything is not permanent. I remember I asked myself, 'Although I know everything is not permanent, but my turn come so fast?'"

She now goes for regular colonoscopies.

"I have a responsibility to my residents, so I must go for regular check-ups even though I don't like the preparation. The solution is very yucky. But so long as I am MP, I will do it diligently because I owe a duty to my residents."

 
 

I am puzzled by this. I can imagine an MP being passionate about her role but the reason she gives seems rather excessive.

Um, shouldn't you be checking your colon for yourself or for the sake of your family, I suggest.

No, she stoutly maintains. "I told my husband, the moment I step down as MP, I don't want to do the colon test. Very yucky one."

I wonder if she worries about the cancer returning.

Life, she believes, is destined.

"You can't control destiny. If I can't do anything about it, no point fearing it, yah? We do our best - exercise a lot, do what we can, annual check-ups. The rest I think just leave it. Live life to the fullest."

She laughs again, then changes the subject. "How's the food?" she asks brightly.

Her can-do spirit has its roots in her childhood. She was born in Johor, the eldest of eight children to parents who were rubber tappers.

The family later moved to Melaka. They lived in a rubber plantation and meals were sometimes just porridge with soya sauce and chilli. There was no electricity, and water was from a well.

She went to a Chinese primary school in the village and did her secondary and pre-university education in Melaka town, with subjects in English and Malay.

She was offered a place to do science at the University of Malaya but she wanted to be an engineer.

The road from her home to school was made of gravel and pitted with potholes when it rained. "I thought, how to improve it? They told me that that is a civil engineer's job."

Her father urged her to go to Singapore. "It was because of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. My whole family - in fact many in our village - really admired, adored, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. That's why in my village, there are children named after Kuan Yew - Huang Kuan Yew, Lim Kuan Yew."

She was accepted to do engineering at the then Nanyang Technological Institute, now Nanyang Technological University.

  • WHAT WE ATE


    HIMAWARI

    1 Orchid Club Road, #02-02/03

    1 sashimi set: $23.80

    2 salmon don sets: $29.60

    Total (with tax): $62.85

"Being a very filial daughter, I obeyed, take my haversack and come to Singapore with the RM30 that he gave me."

The first year was especially difficult as her subjects were in English. She stayed at the hostel and gave a lot of tuition in maths and science to pay her fees. But she made friends easily and played badminton, netball and handball.

When she graduated, she worked in construction firms before setting up her own company.

She married when she was 27 and says her husband is straightforward like her, but quieter, and very supportive.

"Whatever that we discussed before marriage, he honoured," she says of what she had told him before they wed.

She was active in IES, which wanted to put her name up as a Nominated MP.

She sought the advice of her university friend Inderjit Singh, then a PAP MP, ended up helping in his ward and was later asked by the party to stand for election.

Now into her 12th year as MP, her energy doesn't seem to have flagged. You believe her when she trots out cliched phrases like how she wants to "serve my resident, serve my country" and that politics is about "giving back" to Singapore. She became a Singaporean in the late 1980s.

Of the next prime minister, she has her preference but says tactfully that Singapore is fortunate to have three or four choices.

 

Whoever becomes PM will be a good one because of the way the system grooms prime ministers.

She adds, helpfully and cheekily: "But at the ground, I can tell you what is their preference.

"A lot of my residents, I think, like Heng Swee Keat."

In the video interview later, though, she adds that besides those who support Mr Heng, the Finance Minister, there are others who support labour chief Chan Chun Sing and Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung.

I ask if she will contest the next general election that has to be called by 2021. She is not about to give up being an MP.

She says firmly: "99.9 per cent I am standing for the next GE."

Twitter @STsumikotan