GE SPECIAL

Singapore GE2020: PAP's Marymount candidate and S'pore's first woman general Gan Siow Huang goes from protecting country to serving its citizens

People's Action Party newcomer Gan Siow Huang is up against third-time candidate Ang Yong Guan of the Progress Singapore Party. Both served in the SAF and now take the battle to the newly created single-member constituency of Marymount

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Two military veterans - the People’s Action Party's Gan Siow Huang, Singapore’s first female brigadier-general, and the Progress Singapore Party's Dr Ang Yong Guan, a psychiatrist and retired army colonel, will go head to head in Marymount SMC.

Flanked by party activists, Ms Gan Siow Huang strode briskly from table to table at a coffee shop in Bishan Street 22.

At first glance, Singapore's first woman general cut an imposing figure. But the 45-year-old paused often, bending down and chatting warmly with the patrons, even asking some for wefies.

It was two days after Nomination Day, and various memes had popped up after Ms Gan's speech that day - delivered in a commanding tone as she stood ramrod straight. Netizens had a field day with her "war-like" manner.

Asked what she made of the reaction, Ms Gan let out a chuckle.

"I laughed," she told The Straits Times at an interview later in the week in the newly carved out Marymount seat where she is contesting. "Singaporeans are quite creative. It is good that we always inject a dose of humour in our lives, right?"

She later explained her Nomination Day mien in a video to residents, saying that she had wanted to underscore how serious she was about serving them.

In person, Ms Gan is chatty, sometimes even cracking wise.

The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has long been a hunting ground for the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) and Ms Gan, though a trailblazer in her own right, follows a long list of men plucked from military service to enter politics. But while it might have seemed a natural progression, the decision to leave the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF), where she had spent more than half her life, was in fact a struggle.

"It was very painful to leave the air force and my friends there. For my family as well - I know I'll be even busier than before," said the mother of three girls aged 17, 13 and eight. Her husband Lee Jek Suen, 46, is a former naval officer and now holds a corporate job at Jurong Port.

Ms Gan Siow Huang reaching out to residents at a coffee shop in Bishan Street 24 last week. She has been touted as among those slated for higher political office, if elected.
Ms Gan Siow Huang reaching out to residents at a coffee shop in Bishan Street 24 last week. She has been touted as among those slated for higher political office, if elected. ST PHOTO: SHINTARO TAY

In March, Ms Gan resigned from her role as chief of staff - air staff.

She then joined the National Trades Union Congress' Employment and Employability Institute in April as deputy chief executive officer, before she was announced as a PAP candidate last month.

She has been touted as among those slated for higher political office, if elected.

She was coy about when she was approached to join politics, but said it took quite a while before her mind was made up. "I never really had that 'aha' moment. Politics wasn't something that I grabbed at when the idea first came and I certainly didn't go looking for it.

"But I feel that for Singapore to continue to be strong, we need good leaders. It cannot always be, 'Not me, leave it to somebody else', right? I believe I have the right values and I have the abilities to contribute to the PAP team and to keep Singapore strong," she said.

"I told myself I should have the courage. I should be bold and if I believe I can make a difference, just do it."

PIONEER IN MARYMOUNT

Ms Gan is only the PAP's second woman political rookie to be fielded in a single seat since 1988, when the group representation constituency system was introduced. Ms Cheryl Chan stood in Fengshan in 2015.

Asked about her unexpected candidacy in Marymount instead of Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, where she was spotted on walkabouts, Ms Gan sidestepped the question, saying: "Where did you think I was going? I was here too."

Back in 1993, she was one of the first four women to receive the SAF Merit Scholarship - previously awarded only to men - and studied economics at the London School of Economics. She started out as an air traffic controller in the air force and later commanded the RSAF's 203 Squadron and the Air Surveillance and Control Group, before becoming the SAF's chief recruiter.

In 2015, she made history by becoming the first woman to become brigadier-general. She later became the RSAF's head of air intelligence and director (special projects).

The shift from the hierarchy of the military, where subordinates snap to attention, to the hurly-burly of political life can be difficult. But Ms Gan said the transition has not been an abrupt one, citing her eight years volunteering with Girl Guides Singapore - she was appointed its chief commissioner in May - and her grassroots work from last year.

"It is not alien to me, working in the civilian or social sector. I would say I am quite well-prepared. Doing voluntary work and working with the grassroots here, these have been valuable experiences for me to understand how things work outside of the military."

What she remembered most during her 27 years in the military were the people she had worked with. "Helping them to grow to become leaders. That, to me, is the most satisfying."

She said women in particular faced a sense of self-doubt, and she urged them to take the plunge, whether in politics or at the workplace. "Can you imagine if at 18 years old, I didn't join the SAF? I think I would be in a very different place now."

LATE FATHER'S ROLE

It was Ms Gan's late father, a cabby, who had backed her decision to sign on with the SAF when she was a teenager out of Victoria Junior College. She wanted to do so as she thought it would be "very challenging" and "purposeful".

"My mum was like, 'Why?' She was afraid I might not be up to it, that it might be too tough for girls," she said. "But my father was very different. He said, 'Go try, go for it. If you don't try, you don't know.'"

He died of a heart attack last year at 71. Her 67-year-old mother is a housewife. Her parents-in-law are cancer survivors in their 70s, and Ms Gan said an issue she hopes to champion, if elected, is support for the elderly and their caregivers.

"Jobs" is another word never far from her lips. Her opponent, Progress Singapore Party's Dr Ang Yong Guan, 65, has long campaigned for employment priority for Singaporeans. Ms Gan said that in a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic, Singaporeans should come first.

"Maybe the jobs (available) do not suit their expectations in terms of salary, lifestyle, working conditions, or working hours. It is time for us to try to build a bridge, understand the barriers for Singaporeans to enter these jobs and try to lower them," she said, adding that the crisis is a chance to redesign jobs.

The battle between Ms Gan and Dr Ang has been pitched as one fought between a former general and a former colonel, with Dr Ang having served as the SAF's chief psychiatrist for 17 years.

But despite having less political experience - Dr Ang has contested two elections and boasts extensive grassroots experience - Ms Gan is unfazed. "Yes, I'm new, and I'm willing to work hard. But I'm not in this alone, we have a great team."

Echoing what she said when she was officially introduced as a candidate, Ms Gan said she hoped voters can look beyond labels.

"I always want to go back to why I do what I do. In the SAF it is about protecting the country.

"Now that I am in politics, if I become an MP, it is about protecting citizens, it is about serving the residents, and I think that is a meaningful cause that will be a source of strength for me."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 06, 2020, with the headline PAP's Marymount candidate and S'pore's first woman general Gan Siow Huang goes from protecting country to serving its citizens. Subscribe