GE2015: On the campaign trail with SingFirst's Ang Yong Guan

Dr Ang Yong Guan (front), candidate for Singaporeans First Party, goes on a walkabout at 2 Tanjong Pagar Plaza on Aug 29, 2015. Accompanying him is 70-year-old party member Lim Oo.
Dr Ang Yong Guan (front), candidate for Singaporeans First Party, goes on a walkabout at 2 Tanjong Pagar Plaza on Aug 29, 2015. Accompanying him is 70-year-old party member Lim Oo. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

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.

SINGAPORE - A pasty man in tattered shorts leans unsteadily on his crutches as Dr Ang Yong Guan introduces himself as Singaporeans First party's Tanjong Pagar GRC candidate.

"I can vote?" the man asks timidly. The ward - helmed by former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew until this death in March - has never until now seen any electoral contest since it was formed in 1991.

"Yes you can vote!" Dr Ang replies, reaching out to grasp his hand. Both men break into grins, forging a brief but warm connection in the frenzy of hustings.

Politics is all about relationships, says Dr Ang. The portly 60-year-old psychiatrist, who spent about two decades in the Singapore Armed Forces before retiring as colonel, counts as its best gift the ties he forged with the thousands of men he cared for.

"When you build a relationship with your soldiers and your patients, you grow, and they grow," he says. "To me, the emotional growth is a continuous process. If I see somebody, my motivation is always to see how I can help, and how much I can learn from you."

How do you forge a relationship? With trust. You call him up and say 'come, let's talk'... If the engagement works out, you have won somebody over and you win the respect of the citizens. Then indeed the whole political process would have been seen to have matured.


It is a principle that has served Dr Ang well. The former chief of then psychological medicine branch in the SAF burst onto the political scene as one of the most high-profile opposition candidates in the 2011 General Election, alongside former senior civil servant Tan Jee Say. Both ran on the Singapore Democratic Party ticket in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC but lost to the People's Action Party team with 39.9 per cent of the votes.

Since then, former military officers and conscripts have approached him to pledge their support while he takes his Australian Shepherd out for walks. Others have followed him to SingFirst, which he formed last year (2014) with Mr Tan Jee Say after they left the SDP.

One of them is Mr Tan Peng Ann, 67, a retired colonel who was Dr Ang's former superior. Another is information technology consultant Wong Chee Wai, 44, a medic during his national service stint who recalls Dr Ang as someone who had a "a mentor-mentee relationship with all his medical officers". Both newcomers are being fielded in SingFirst's Jurong GRC team.

SingFirst is campaigning to "restore" the self-esteem of Singaporeans by putting their needs first. It wants to tighten the entry criteria for foreign professionals, give priority to Singaporeans in institutions and introduce a strong social safety net to make them confident about their future.

"We are not xenophobic," says Dr Ang, who is married to an educator. "We are not saying we don't want (foreigners). But everything being equal and if nobody wants to do construction work, for example, we will welcome them."

The SingFirst logo is a heart within a circle. It's about looking at issues with both heart and head, he explains.

Compared to the party's combative economics-trained secretary-general Tan Jee Say, Dr Ang - who is party chairman - functions more like the "heart" of the party. At the private clinic he runs in Paragon Shopping Centre, he specialises in treatment of stress-related disorders, mood disorders, as well as anxiety and personality disorders.

He talks earnestly about nurturing younger talent in the opposition ranks, though his four children, who wished him "may your dreams come true" in the 2011 polls, are wary of stepping into the limelight themselves.

Over at the party's office in Tras Street, his deep-throated chuckles fill the narrow hallway. At a recent press conference to introduce SingFirst candidates for the election, his eyes crinkled with amusement when a reporter asked about an erroneous Tamil translation of the party slogan, which was later corrected. "We embrace imperfection," he replied.

Dr Ang tells The Straits Times he worries about the apparent unwillingness to engage on the part of those who walk in Singapore's corridors of power.


Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, for example, who sued blogger Roy Ngerng over a post suggesting that he had misappropriated people's Central Provident Fund savings, could have chosen to engage Mr Ngerng instead of resorting to legal action, he says.

"A relationship could have been forged between the Prime Minister and Roy," he suggests. "You call him up and say 'come, let's talk'… If the engagement works out, you have won somebody over and you win the respect of the citizens."

Singapore, he observes, does not yet have "that culture of engagement that we see in a true democracy".

Meanwhile, he says he left the SDP with Mr Tan because of the "negative image" of SDP secretary-general Chee Soon Juan, who has been fined and jailed previously for acts of civil disobedience and until three years ago (2012) was a bankrupt as a result of a defamation suit.

Dr Ang takes a sombre pause. "It's very hard to shake off that negative image. So we decided that, in order not to have baggage, we start afresh with a new party."

He admits they joined the SDP out of convenience. The pair had decided to contest elections very shortly before the 2011 polls were called. "We had to make ourselves available to any party which we could align ourselves with."

But that election put him on a steep learning curve.

He recalls vividly the night of his first rally, prepared to speak in English but faced with an intimidating crowd demanding to hear a speech in Mandarin and Hokkien, and also complaining the speakers were not working.

"I was shouting," he recounts. "I was yelling at the top of my voice in Hokkien, in Mandarin and some English."

While most people actually liked his performance, others asked: "Is he okay?", he recalls with a giggle.

"That was the most memorable," he admits. But he learnt his lesson. That would be the last time he would do it again.