Banking on her heartland girl charm

Lee Li Lian is a woman in a hurry as she strives to connect with residents. As the campaign reaches its half-way mark, The Straits Times reports on how the candidates connect on the ground

Walking briskly in black kitten heels, Ms Lee Li Lian cuts a striking figure as she clicks her stilettos around the Housing Board blocks in Punggol East.

She looks residents straight in the eye while smiling and greeting them in English, Mandarin or dialect.

She shakes each hand firmly, sometimes paired with a pat on the shoulder.

But she is a woman in a hurry. Alone among the four candidates, the Workers' Party (WP) contender has set herself the goal of visiting "100 per cent" of the 127 Housing Board blocks in Punggol East.

"I really have to get going," she said, when stopped by The Straits Times during her house visits last week.

Yet, despite the race to hit 127, the 34-year-old sales trainer has been able to maintain an air of calmness.

At the WP's first rally last Saturday, while other speakers were seen flipping through notes before they spoke, she sat serenely as camera lights flashed.

When she took the podium, she did not refer much to her script when she spoke up on behalf of young families.

But it is her heartlander girl charm which many have noticed.

At a foodcourt last Friday, an old man came up to her, shouting "Ho seh liao!" while miming a hammering motion.

With her trademark gap-toothed smile, Ms Lee laughed and said: "Gam sia, gam sia!" (Hokkien for "thank you").

Of the four candidates, Ms Lee comes closest to the main demographic being courted in the ward. A large number of Punggol East residents are young, middle class white-collared men and women.

She has opened up about her wish to start a family and the factors that couples like her and her husband must consider, such as rising costs and childcare.

She has also blogged previously about suggestions like legislating paternity leave and giving single parents the same public housing benefits as married ones.

When the WP team stops for a meal, young to middle-aged women with children in tow frequently approach Ms Lee for a photograph, addressing her familiarly.

Later, as the team goes past Rivervale Primary School just as school ends, they get stuck in a crowd of parents and excited children as she is kept busy shaking hands and posing for photos.

Many remember her from her previous run in the 2011 General Election.

Some residents, however, wish she would do more.

Civil servant Hardy, 43, thinks the WP has done a good job and likes Ms Lee's agenda.

"But if she could bring up education for special needs children, that may make up my mind," said the father of three.

But while Ms Lee is comfortable and open with residents, she is more guarded with the media.

In line with the WP's usual practice, Ms Lee has kept her campaign low key, declining to allow media coverage of her house visits to protect residents' privacy.

She is supported by a tight- knit group of volunteers, including husband Jacky Koh, 36, a telecommunications consultant.

But Ms Lee is usually the first face residents recognise when the blue-clad team appears. She keeps her smile on throughout the day, never seeming to flag.

Ms Lee even powered on ahead of party leaders at a recent market visit, instead of having them flank her. But WP leaders Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim seemed happy to let her run her own show, walking leisurely in the background while greeting residents.

At last Saturday's WP rally, Ms Lim asked voters to elect another woman opposition MP.

"She can do something which I can't do," said Ms Lim. "She can run in high heels!"