Lee Bee Wah: Feisty MP who spoke up for residents, defended policies

Twenty-three MPs - 20 from the PAP, three from the WP - with between one and 10 terms in Parliament stepped down ahead of GE2020. The Straits Times speaks to five of them.The Straits Times speaks to five backbenchers who recap the highs and lows of their time as MPs and their plans after politics.

Former MP Lee Bee Wah (right) tearing up while greeting residents at Block 848 Yishun Ring Road on July 5. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO
Former MP Lee Bee Wah (right) tearing up while greeting residents at Block 848 Yishun Ring Road on July 5. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

When Ms Lee Bee Wah went on her usual walkabout at a market in Yishun on July 5, she was greeted by residents who pleaded with her not to retire and to stay on as their MP.

Ms Lee, 59, who represented the Nee Soon South ward for 14 years, teared up as she thanked the residents, saying she would "never forget them".

"The last 14 years have been very memorable. I made a lot of friends. They became my family members," she said.

First elected in 2006, Ms Lee - one of the most colourful People's Action Party (PAP) backbenchers in recent memory - has, over the years, stirred strong feelings among fans and critics alike.

Known affectionately as "Hua Jie" (which means "flower sister"), she was a grassroots MP to be feared, as she refused to take "no" for an answer, badgering ministers and public servants to secure estate improvements sought by her residents.

She was also a feisty defender of government policies against opposition attack. Her speeches during Parliament debates on the Budget stood out, including one last year when she told a story entitled Si Gui Kia, a Hokkien phrase which means "ungrateful brat".

In it, she portrayed the Government as a generous grandfather ("Ah Gong") who cares for his ungrateful grandson ("Ah Seng"), the latter representing Singaporeans who failed to appreciate government largesse.

That earned her brickbats from those angered by the comparison and who replied online that the Government was not their Ah Gong and they were not ingrates.

She also went on the offensive against the opposition's call to voters to elect more non-PAP MPs. She said it was she and not an opposition MP who stood up in the House and argued for a childcare centre to be built in every Housing Board precinct, and for more sports facilities and covered linkways from HDB blocks to bus stops.

She also championed issues concerning traditional Chinese medicine and the construction industry, she told reporters trailing her and PAP new face Carrie Tan, who is part of the Nee Soon GRC slate.

She said she made her MP job her "No. 1 priority". "I heard somebody say that after the daytime job, how to do an MP job at night? Tiring. That's why you need a full-time MP," she said. "You ask my residents, I am here almost every day, every night. I don't have free nights at home."

Referring to Ms Tan, who takes over from her in Nee Soon South, Ms Lee said: "I am glad that I have Carrie, 38 years old, young, energetic. Give her a chance, and I will mentor her."

Among those who turned up to thank Ms Lee was Ms Jo Lee, a resident in her 50s who has lived in Yishun since 1986. She said Ms Lee helped her when she received threats and had to install closed-circuit television cameras in a place she was renting out. The MP took 10 days to resolve her problem.

"She is a very nice person, and she has a very big heart," said Ms Jo Lee, who gave the retiring MP a thank-you card.

A group of five friends, all residents of Nee Soon GRC, created a memory board on which they mounted pictures they had taken with Ms Lee, thank-you messages and handicrafts. Ms Cyndi Tay, 47, who led the effort, said: "This is a memory for her. She has contributed to us for 14 years, is very kind to the elderly and raised funds to help children. She is a very special MP."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 23, 2020, with the headline Lee Bee Wah: Feisty MP who spoke up for residents, defended policies. Subscribe