The fear fighter

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 17, 2013

BY HER own admission, Ms Hazel Poa is an unnatural politician.

She doesn't enjoy the sound of her own voice. She shies away from media attention. She has 80 per cent blindness in her right eye, which makes camera appearances and sports challenging.

Throughout school, she was quiet, hardworking, "never ran for Student Council nor tried to change anything", she adds.

She never imagined opposition politics was her destiny. But at 43, she's been twice elected secretary-general of the opposition National Solidarity Party (NSP) - the first woman since Independence to hold such a post here.

Her party members say her seeming meekness is her strength. NSP vice-president Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss, 49, says what distinguishes her is her even temperament. "Even in the most testy of situations, she never loses her cool. I believe her disposition is a result of self-discipline and courage," she says.

Party member Nicole Seah, 26, says: "She is one of the most nurturing and caring people I know. She has a gentle but convicted spirit in the way she leads the party. I look up to her tremendously."

What propelled Ms Poa into opposition politics was a four-letter word - fear. She wanted to do something about "the widespread presence of fear in our society and the impact it has on our lives", a fear of lack, failure, the unknown and of political reprisal.

What vexes her is that fear and stress have almost become a constant in most Singaporeans' lives. "I don't think that that's an issue that we should just accept as a fact of life and carry on as is."

One reason, she feels, is the ultra-narrow definition of success and talent, in monetary terms and academic results. "Everybody rushes head-long into this narrow path, trying to outdo each other in exactly the same areas, such that it becomes very competitive and stressful as a result."

The Government's stance against welfare and aversion to handouts also contribute to the general feeling of insecurity, she charges. "Because you can't control what happens in your life and the realisation that you only have yourself to rely on, there is a heightened level of stress that 'I must hoard up even more so that in case something happens, I will not lose my dignity'. People are actually looking for security and it exhibits in this fashion."

She advocates: "We need to rethink our mindset towards welfare, not treat it like a dirty word, but treat it like buying insurance, where everybody pays a premium to insure yourself against incidents that will make a big dent on your bank account. There will be lazy people who abuse it but what percentage is that? Do we create a system to guard against, say, the 5 per cent and impose that on the rest of the 95 per cent?"

She believes that widening social safety nets will contribute to greater community bonding. "At the same time, while we are asking Singaporeans to be more active citizens and take on more social responsibilities, let us also reciprocate and have the community also contribute to individuals, giving them that sense of assurance that we're in this together, when you have difficulties, we will help you. I believe that will foster a greater willingness in individuals to want to contribute to the community."

No PSLE schools

SHE speaks with a schoolteacher's elocution, constantly self-correcting, inhaling deeply between answers and taking pensive pauses. Her day job is co-owner of the SmartLab chain, which includes a school for O-level private candidates, six tuition centres here and a franchise centre in Indonesia, with a total enrolment of over 1,000 students aged 10 to 18.

Since taking over NSP's reins in 2011, the mother of two has also been busy drafting papers and organising public seminars on issues like housing and population policy, which are attended by up to 100 people. NSP also does walkabouts in Marine Parade, Mountbatten and Tampines on Sundays.

The topic that does get her visibly riled up is the education system which she feels stresses kids too much, too soon.

Her solution: Walk the talk. Offer parents who don't believe in pressure-cooker primary education an out, such as schools with no PSLE. A few primary schools could allow kids to skip the PSLE and go directly to secondary school, where they rejoin the race, she suggests. "For so long as allocation of secondary schools is still based on the PSLE score, that's going to be the primary focus because it has actual impact," she says.

Critics might say it's ironic that she, the owner of a tuition agency, arguably a contributor, if not beneficiary, should lambast school stress. To that, she retorts: "We offer a service that is required as a result of all this stress in the system. What we do relieves part of that stress by helping students cope. The stresses are caused by the effect, like what happens if they don't get good grades, not so much the tuition."

She also takes issue with the attempts of the Education Ministry to introduce values and character-building through classes and discussions. These, she feels, are better learnt through real-life examples of teachers and other students. "If they're serious about fostering this in schools, they need to ensure that school is an environment where those who exhibit such values are recognised," she says, adding that the way the ministry recruits and rewards teachers should reflect those values.

At privately run SmartLab, which has never revealed its turnover, her motto is "Believe in yourself". Apart from imparting knowledge, the chief mandate of the more than 30 teachers she hires is to build confidence. No comparison between students is tolerated. Nor any comments implying any student's inadequacy. Surveys are done to track students' confidence levels, which factor into their teacher's performance appraisal.She's now working on helping her less academically inclined charges set up thriving businesses before they leave school.

Two years ago, she started an event management company with a former tuition student, now in his 20s, which has since broken even and has three employees. "I think our belief in each other has made it work. He supplies his youthful energy and drive, we supply capital and experience," she says, adding that she is now helping three other former students spawn ventures.

Educating Hazel

SHE was a maths whiz who breezed through Pei Ying Primary, Ai Tong Primary, St Nicholas Girls' and Hwa Chong Junior College, looking out for those who floundered and helping them with their sums. "I just happened to be good in maths and sciences, therefore the system totally worked for me. But I could also see friends who were no less intelligent, just more inclined towards the arts, who struggled," she recounts.

Dad was a fish farmerturned-construction supervisor, mum a hawker and bus driver. Home was a zinc-roofed house in Sembawang for 17 years, till they moved to an Yishun HDB flat just before she went to Cambridge University on a Public Service Commission scholarship. She has a younger brother, now an economist.

At 18, she met her husband, Singapore Armed Forces scholar Tony Tan, on their inaugural bus ride from London's Heathrow Airport to Cambridge, became inseparable and tied the knot a year after graduating at 23.

She was admitted to the Administrative Service but lasted only four years in the Public Service Division and Finance Ministry, before she took a bank loan and broke her bond to do something "less structured" and "more unknown". "I never felt that I'd done something that I could feel proud of, I wanted to create something of my own."

Planning to become her own boss, she became an investment analyst at an insurance firm for two years, during which she did a distance-learning MBA.

At 28, she started her first venture, doing online human resource recruitment, in 1998. It folded within months, just like her next online retail business. It was her first "crisis of confidence", where she had to "manage her own self-esteem".

By the time she started SmartLab offering maths and science tuition in 1999 and made a go of it, it was her third attempt. "I learnt a lot more through the two businesses that failed than in the one that succeeded, so I passionately believe in the value of failure and mistakes, which as a society we give too little credit to," she says.

Her Cambridge first-class honours degree in mathematics drew the parents. Hands-on science experiments she conducted drew the kids. "The minute the laboratory apparatus comes out, their eyes light up." By 2001, both co-founders, her husband and another engineering-trained army scholar, Mr Vincent Lee, quit their jobs to come on board. Working seven days a week and developing their own content, they grew the business slowly.

Thirteen years of married life went by without the patter of little feet. In 2006, at 36, she and her husband adopted the first of two infants from Johor Bahru, "one of our best decisions ever".

Today, she lives in a four-generation home, with her grandmother, parents and sons, aged six and seven, in a semi-detached house in the Serangoon area.

In 2009, when her kids were just two and three, she joined the Reform Party (RP), a few months after her husband. Both quit RP in 2011 following differences with its chief Kenneth Jeyaretnam and contested in Chua Chu Kang GRC under the NSP banner in the polls later that year.

Ironically, it was having young kids that prodded her into the political fray. "When you become a parent, you start to think much longer-term, what kind of education they are going to go through and what kind of society will greet them," she says.

When she and her husband discussed how to safeguard their assets as he prepared to throw in his lot with the opposition, it was a "moment of self-discovery" for her as to "how much fear there is in society". As she confronted her own fears about opposition politics, which has seen several players overstepping the line and finding themselves sued and made bankrupt, she resolved to help others with their fears by taking the leap herself.

She relates a story of how when she was studying in Cambridge, she went skiing for the first time in Andorra with a group of friends. After practising on the beginner slopes, they stood hesitating at a steeper descent. She decided to try, landed safely, followed by the rest. "That tiny incident taught me two things. One, I can overcome my own fears. Two, when I overcome my fears, I can help other people overcome theirs."

Three and a half years after taking the plunge into opposition politics, she says her chief lesson is: "That I can be more than I previously thought possible.

"I don't enjoy public speaking but I think I've become better, forcing myself out of my comfort zone. I've found that I'm able to do things that I previously thought were beyond me."

Since then, the free-thinker's guiding principle has been: "Just to make sure that I am a little bit stronger and a bit more courageous than yesterday; that today I'm a bit better than yesterday."

The Long Interview will return in July.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 17, 2013

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