Aiming to be part of change from within

Koh feels Govt is already moving in the direction he thinks is right

As he dashes from house to house, ringing doorbells, shaking hands and handing out fliers, two things quickly become clear about Dr Koh Poh Koon.

First, the 40-year-old People's Action Party (PAP) candidate is still very new to the world of politics and second, that he is in a real hurry to establish himself in Punggol East.

He tends to run, not walk, between houses as he tries to connect with as many of the 31,649 voters as he can. The relentless pace is possible because Dr Koh is something of a fitness junkie, with his grassroots volunteers often finding themselves trailing behind him.

Almost everything about his journey into politics has been on a compressed schedule.

Invited to tea with the PAP in the middle of last year, it seemed that the original plan was to field him in the next general election.

But last month, after former Speaker of Parliament Michael Palmer resigned, he was asked to consider running. He got the confirmation on a Saturday a few weeks later and by Wednesday, he was introduced as a candidate.

His friends tried to dissuade him, fearing a tough fight and that he would have to toe the PAP line on policies that he disagreed with.

To him, however, the PAP government is a good one that has already set in motion policy changes since the watershed 2011 polls.

"If the Government is already in the midst of change and it is moving in a direction that I think is the right direction, then it's better to be involved in the process of change from within," he said one Saturday night after a long day of campaigning.

He is candid, sometimes to a fault, prompting his wife to pronounce him "too straight" for politics.

Indeed, Dr Koh is frank enough to say that he believes Singapore should have more single-member constituencies, so that the seat will be better earned through a fight.

"That's not to say that in a GRC the engagement is going to be less, but that can be something that theoretically people can leverage and say: 'You keep riding on the shoulders of giants, then you sit there and do nothing, you will still get in.'"

Indeed, despite being a political greenhorn, he has spent a large chunk of his campaign ploughing a lone furrow. PAP heavyweights have dropped by to support him but he still does most of his walkabouts in small groups.

But he stresses that "this is me" is not the message he is trying to send. He explained that he had said it in jest earlier when asked about a slogan.

Still, his straightforward nature comes across to the residents he encounters.

"He's quite forthcoming," was the impression teacher Gopal Bahavani, 36, had.

His first rally speech last Friday was polished and confident and generally well-received. Businessman Raymond Pang, 42, said: "He has the calibre and is willing to stand up and be counted. He could achieve more besides being an MP."

Few in the PAP were surprised when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong indicated that Dr Koh could be an office-holder in the future.Party activists who pounded the ground with him think he is friendly and sincere while his former colleague at the Singapore General Hospital, PAP MP Chia Shi-Lu, said he is "a straight talker with no airs".

His busy campaign schedule means that Dr Koh is not keeping up with his rigorous fitness regimen. He used to run 10km on Sundays and do 30 chin-ups daily before he showered, on the bar he mounted in his toilet.

His family - wife Jessica, a gastroenterologist, and two daughters aged nine and four - have largely shied away from the limelight, save for turning up at his rally.

On a drive to his party branch last Friday, the two doctors talk about what they normally do, exchanging medical notes and discussing the schedule for the week ahead. When they pull up in a carpark, he thanks her, reminds her to drive safely and gets out of the car. Before he shuts the door, he pops his head in and kisses her.

And then he is off and running again.

Additional reporting by Rachel Chang