GE2015: On the campaign trail with PAP's Rahayu Mahzam

As campaigning for the Sept 11 polls comes to a close, The Straits Times spotlights some candidates to find out how they interact with residents and what drives them.

Ms Rahayu Mahzam, People's Action Party candidate for Jurong GRC. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - There are four things Ms Rahayu Mahzam hears from residents every day on the campaign trail.

The first: "You're so cantik (Malay for beautiful)!" The second: "Wah, you're so young!" The third: "You can speak Mandarin?"

And the last: "Will you take care of us like Madam Halimah did?"

The People's Action Party (PAP) new candidate for Jurong GRC blushes at the compliments. But to the final question, the petite civil litigation and family lawyer replies firmly: "If you give me a chance and vote for me, I will."

Ms Rahayu knows that she is stepping into big shoes, if her team beats out Singaporeans First's. She is the PAP's candidate for Bukit Batok East, which Madam Halimah Yacob represented for 14 years before she was sent to co-anchor the newly formed Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC.

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On the ground, Madam Halimah makes house visits twice weekly: a time-consuming activity that most MPs do about once a week. She was also known for her fiery championing of issues such as the needy in Parliament, before she was promoted to Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports, and then, to Singapore's first female Speaker.

So, Ms Rahayu has been focusing on house visits, which were favoured by Madam Halimah. "I'm trying to keep to her style so that residents don't get confused," she says.

Madam Halimah's strength was in one-on-one interactions, adds Ms Rahayu, one she believes she possesses too. "Maybe it's because I'm an open book so people reciprocate, but I love having small, personal conversations."

And if elected into Parliament, she intends to speak out on social mobility matters, saying she is aware of the dangers of young people growing up in an environment where they think there is a limit to what they can achieve.

It is not an abstract concept for the daughter of a security officer and a civil servant. When studying in Raffles Girls' Secondary, an elite secondary school, Ms Rahayu often felt she was not as smart as her peers. It was only in Secondary 3, when she realised that she and the batch's top student received the same grades for a chemistry exam that she went through a paradigm shift and became more confident.

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"I know this sort of change does not come that easy for everyone, but I want to work on giving young people the same confidence, regardless of their financial or academic status," she says.

Ms Rahayu, who resigned as a deputy registrar at the Syariah Court to join politics, has already spoken to her current employer about having flexible hours and a lighter workload, at least for the first year if she becomes an MP.

"My boss is very understanding. He knows if we win, it'd probably be difficult adjusting to this new life," she tells The Straits Times.

She and her husband of four years, a civil servant, would also have to put their plans to have children on hold.

So why join politics? "I suppose it would have been much easier to not do anything, maybe just make a few comments and criticisms about policies once in a while," she says.

But Ms Rahayu, who was first asked by the PAP to run for the 2011 General Election, has thought long and hard about this. "My parents have imbued me and my two younger siblings with a sense of responsibility for community since we were kids. We all did volunteer work in some way or another.

"Politics gives me a larger platform to reach out to people, both locally and nationally."

That does not mean a political career was evident when the self-declared introvert was younger.

She intentionally joined the drama and debate clubs "just to get myself out of the comfort zone".

It has paid off: She has an easygoing manner with residents, and seems to be well-liked by older ones, some of whom caress her face with maternal care after she knocks on their doors.

"Of course, nothing prepared me for my official introduction (as a candidate), when I walked through the door and saw a million camera lights going off," she jokes. "It was a little intimidating."

She still has the occasional moment of self-doubt.

"Sometimes I wonder if I have done things the right way, like whether I have explained a policy to a resident as easily as I could," she says. "But I try not to beat myself up and just do better the next time."

Her running mate, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, has also been an inspiration. "He has such a great mind and is respected internationally, but he has no difficulty in explaining why the cost of living appears to be so high to an aunty in a coffeeshop."

Besides, the gruelling pace of campaigning gives her little time to worry about her insecurities - walkabouts take place at as early as 7am, and door-to-door visits go into the wee hours of the morning.

By the third day of campaigning, she had to switch from a pretty pair of flats to a much sturdier pair of Asics sports shoes. "I was a little vain, and my knees were starting to buckle from going up and down the stairs," she says with a laugh.

Asked if she thinks she is being fielded as token diversity to represent the Malay-Muslim woman, she says representation for such a group is necessary.

But, she quickly adds: "That's not to say that all the women, Malay-Muslim or not, don't deserve to be in there on their merit. They do."

If elected, she will find her style and footing as an MP over time, she says.

With a smile, she says: "I can't say I'll be exactly like Madam Halimah. I'll be Rahayu."

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