The battle for Bukit Panjang

Singapore GE2020: Paul Tambyah wants to see change in economic policies

Singapore’s largest single-seat constituency, held by the PAP’s Teo Ho Pin for the past 14 years, has unexpectedly become a hot seat following his retirement. The SMC’s 35,497 eligible voters must now choose between PAP parliamentarian Liang Eng Hwa and opposition heavyweight Paul Tambyah. Clement Yong profiles the two candidates and asks them why they should be elected.

Singapore Democratic Party candidate Paul Tambyah meeting people in Bukit Panjang yesterday. He says he is keen to speak on behalf of residents there as the area brings back memories of his childhood days.
Singapore Democratic Party candidate Paul Tambyah meeting people in Bukit Panjang yesterday. He says he is keen to speak on behalf of residents there as the area brings back memories of his childhood days. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Professor Paul Tambyah has acquired a higher profile in recent months because of the coronavirus pandemic. But the infectious diseases specialist views his medical expertise as just one of the ways he can serve the country.

The professor of medicine at the National University of Singapore (NUS), who has appeared on TV and radio programmes as an expert voice on the outbreak, said: "I mean, frankly, you are electing an MP, you are not electing a doctor.

"It may be beneficial, but you know, this virus is going to die out, the epidemic is going to be over."

More importantly, Singapore's economic policies need to change, he said in an interview with The Straits Times on Wednesday.

The 56-year-old, who is married with no children, said: "The issues that are facing Singaporeans are going to be that the whole world has changed...We need to have a new way of looking at economics, looking at people, looking at distribution of wealth."

An opposition heavyweight, the chairman of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) sprang a surprise on Nomination Day on Tuesday when, in a late tactical move, he left his party's team in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC to contest the single seat of Bukit Panjang.

On his walkabouts, he has focused his message on SDP's Four Yes, One No campaign slogan: yes to suspending the goods and services tax until the end of next year; yes to retrenchment benefits for workers laid off owing to the economic impact of Covid-19; yes to a $500 monthly payment for 80 per cent of retirees; and yes to putting the people's interest first.

The One No is to reject raising Singapore's population, fuelled by immigration, to 10 million people.

Prof Tambyah said his desire to see a fairer society is shaped by his parents, who both worked tirelessly to help society.

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His father, a diabetes specialist, helped set up a department in a public hospital and waived charges for patients who could not afford them.

His mother was a pioneer social worker, he said, who fought for the certificate of entitlement for ambulances to be waived, and for the rights of the disabled. "What we were rich in was actually values...I grew up in an environment where social justice was part of daily conversation at the breakfast table."

He said he had tried various non-parliamentary means to shift the needle on social issues, but had found it impossible.

On the issue of healthcare for Singaporeans, he said he used to go to every one of then Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan's feedback sessions, but his general experience with official channels is that "they listen politely and then they ignore you".

"Singapore has some of the world's best doctors, nurses, allied health professionals. We have access to the latest technologies, the latest drugs, but the trouble is the healthcare financial system is a complete mess," he said.

"You need a PhD to negotiate the healthcare financing system."

After writing countless opinion pieces, he decided to "get to the policymakers where it counts".

"In Singapore, the only place you can force a minister to answer a question is in Parliament," he said, adding that well-meaning individuals in the PAP - including one or two MPs in the recently dissolved Parliament - have tried to change the Government's approach but failed because the PAP is just "too big of a behemoth".

"What is one or two against 89, 93 people when the fundamental philosophy is very market-driven?"

He hopes people understand that the PAP is not Singapore.

"Our Parliament sticks out like a sore thumb as the least diverse among all the Westminster democracies - 70 per cent of the people accounting for more than 90 per cent of the seats.

"There is a lot of talk around Non-Constituency MPs, but (an NCMP) does not have a base, you do not speak for a district or a group of people."

Prof Tambyah said he is keen to speak on behalf of the residents of Bukit Panjang, an area that brings back memories of his childhood days.

He grew up close to what was then called the fourth mile, and recalls visiting an A&W drive-in as a child.

"It was very rural at the time. I'm showing my age because I remember we would put the food rubbish in a special container.

"These young people would come to the alley at the back of the house and they would collect it as swill, which is for the pigs in the farms in Punggol and Chua Chu Kang."

Bukit Panjang is now a modern estate but "with all ageing estates, you see many issues we need to deal with".

During his walkabouts in Bukit Panjang, Prof Tambyah has surprised many by speaking Mandarin. He is grateful to his parents for encouraging him to pick up Chinese as a student.

But it was very difficult, he said, because no one in his family or among his relatives spoke the language.

"My mother went to a Nanyang kindergarten and said, 'Who's the fiercest teacher of the lot?' and she said, 'Can you come and do tuition for my son and daughter?'

"I still use conversational Mandarin a lot in the hospital."

Recently, Prof Tambyah was appointed to lead the International Society of Infectious Diseases as its president, beginning in 2022.

He is the first Singaporean to head the society, which has more than 90,000 members from over 155 countries and helps governments and non-governmental organisations prevent and manage infectious diseases outbreaks.

At home, his political goal is to change the direction of overall government policy, but municipal issues will not be neglected, he said.

"We want projects that do not come from the top down.

"They have to be projects the residents talk to us about, that they themselves want to be involved in and that they feel are necessary, and that's the way we are going to run the town council, if elected."

As for his job, he would negotiate his position with the NUS for a more "leadership, mentorship role" that would reduce his work load. He added: "I'm actually due for sabbatical, so there's a lot of room for negotiation. One of the worst things in an academic institution is when you have old guys holding on to power."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2020, with the headline Paul Tambyah wants to see change in economic policies. Subscribe