Since entering politics in 2011, Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Low Yen Ling, 40, has been taking on one new responsibility after another. The mother of two young sons was appointed Parliamentary Secretary for Social and Family Development last year, added the Culture, Community and Youth portfolio in April this year and became South West District Mayor last month. She tells Charissa Yong that the toughest part has been sacrificing time with her boys, aged seven and nine.
What is it like for you as a working mother?
My husband (a 43-year-old engineer in a multinational corporation) and my mum (aged 63) are my pillars of strength. My dad (she did not wish to name her family) passed away four years ago.
Juggling my commitments is indeed challenging, and I continue to try to achieve a good balance. But no matter how busy I am, I try my best to make time for dinner with my family at least twice a week because mealtimes are very important for us to talk about anything under the sun, for the children to share with us interesting things that happened or what bothered them.
Since mid-last year, I've promised my two boys, who are now nine and seven years old, that for every time I can't be home to tuck them into bed, to kiss them goodnight, I will write them a love note and leave it on their desk.
There were many occasions in the last three years when I had to go home for a change of clothes before dashing out for my evening events or constituency work. My two boys will ask me, "Mummy, can you stay home and not go out?" And of course my heart aches every time they ask me that. Which is why I constantly reassure them of Mummy and Daddy's love for them and how much they matter to us.
What more do you think can be done to help working mothers in Singapore?
The first thing is flexible work arrangements. It would mean telecommuting, flexi-time, part-time arrangements, but these are not very widely practised in companies here. For this to happen, we really need the strong support of employers.
The second one is about encouraging greater shared responsibility between parents. To encourage our daddies to be more hands-on, the Enhanced Marriage and Parenthood Package last year had the announcement about parental leave (working fathers are entitled to a week of paternity leave, and to share a week of their working wife's maternity leave). And I do see daddies being more hands-on.
The third is that the majority of working mums need to place their children in childcare. This is why in MSF (Ministry of Social and Family Development), we place a lot of emphasis on creating 20,000 childcare places by 2017. And by then, it would mean there should be enough places for one in two children at the preschool age (up from one in three, now).
We've also implemented various initiatives to make sure that childcare services are accessible, affordable and of good quality.
PM Lee announced the new Municipal Services Office (MSO) last week, and cited the inefficiency of clearing a piece of litter in your constituency as an example of why it is needed.
But some ask why it takes so many office-holders - you, the PM, and Minister Grace Fu who will head the office - to pick up a fishball stick.
The example may appear to be a small matter, but the important issue at hand really is how well-defined lines of responsibilities can sometimes lead to unintended inefficiencies.
I was very heartened by the Prime Minister's announcement of the MSO. I see this as the Government's determination to make sure that issues do not fall through the cracks - onto everyman's land but where no single agency is responsible.
But why the need for an entirely new office to be created?
I'm just using this as an example: My residents asked for a service ramp link to a bus stop. I raised it with the town council.
And the town council looked into it and said, because it's connected to the bus stop, it's necessary to work with LTA (the Land Transport Authority).
So LTA got into the picture.
Then LTA looked at it and said ah, I need to work with HDB (the Housing Board), because building of service ramp links is done by HDB. So I got HDB involved.
And guess what? HDB said, ah, we need to bring in PUB (the national water agency) because there's a drain underneath. So as we're speaking, this whole thing has not moved beyond the idea stage.
In the last slightly more than three years, I've encountered many such experiences. To come to an effective solution, I've often had to set up interim task forces involving multiple agencies.
The task-force approach is critical because it gives us a common platform to discuss an issue that cuts across different agencies. This allows us to be on the same page and understand each other.
My experience in all these task forces is: it's not about fixing the symptoms of the problem. It's not about picking up the litter. It would have been very easy to pick up. But the task-force approach is very effective in going beyond the symptom to address the root of the issue. And I believe this will lead to quicker responses, and sustainable solutions for our residents.
PM Lee said earlier this year that without the bilingual policy, there would be a generation today of Singaporeans who cannot read Chinese or speak Mandarin. You're a member of the Committee to Promote Chinese Language Learning. What do you think?
Since bilingualism was made a cornerstone of our education system and after many years of the Speak Mandarin campaign, I think fellow Singaporeans now have a better appreciation of the importance of Chinese.
And for many Singaporeans, the foundation they had in Mandarin in their school days actually gives them an edge when they go to China.
As chief executive officer of Business China (from 2011 to 2013), I spoke to fellow Singaporeans who ventured into China. A lot of them tell me that although they stopped speaking Mandarin on a daily basis after they joined the workforce, because they had to be immersed in Chinese in China, they found it quite easy to regain the proficiency in their language, and it serves them very well when they navigate China.
What we can do more of is work with community stakeholders like the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations (SFCCA) and the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI), as well as Business China and others. We can do more to promote the love and use of Chinese language and create more opportunities to appreciate Chinese culture.
There are also many ways for us to gain access to interesting Chinese content and stay in touch with the language. You can shop at the Taobao site, you use the Baidu search engine instead of Google. There's "Song of China" (a talent search TV programme), on which (Singapore singer) Tanya Chua is a judge.
We need to support and encourage parents to create a conducive environment at home for the family to use their mother tongue in a fun, interesting and hip way.
How do you teach your children Chinese?
I am the Mandarin tutor at home. When I'm at home, I'll speak to them in Mandarin. When my elder boy was two years old, his Chinese twang sounded really strange. Like, (for the word for "ear",) instead of er (third tone) duo (first tone), er (first tone) duo (second tone). I said, oh dear!
Knowing that he loves song and dance, music, I got a Chinese DVD, and he danced to the tune of San Zhi Lao Hu (Three Tigers, a children's song about tigers which teaches the terms for parts of the body), and there were words and visuals.
I believe that when it comes to languages, it's about listening, reading, speaking and writing on a regular basis. Hopefully daily.
You grew up in humble circumstances and your family had a lot of past difficulties. How has this shaped you?
My parents taught me values of integrity, hard work and determination through example. My father took 10 years to pay off a debt (rental arrears from the three tailor shops that he had) of $100,000, 30 plus years ago, and did not crumble under the pressure.
He took pains to pay off everything because he told me, at the end of the day, it's integrity that really matters.
Only when we were debt-free did my parents get the means to buy their first HDB flat for the whole family (of four - her parents, elder brother and herself) to live together. That was when I was 10 years old. I saw first-hand how the burden of debt took a toll on my dad's tailoring business and how it can affect lives.
But because of that crisis, my family grew stronger. My mum stood by my dad. My grandmother stepped in to look after me, took me home when I was 40 days old. She took care of me till I was six years old. Probably because of this, family means a lot to me.
That motivated me to change the Edusave awards ceremonies in Bukit Gombak since last January from a mass ceremony to small and intimate sessions. I encouraged the students to reflect on how their parents supported them and to express their appreciation to them, their loved ones, through simple gestures of a warm embrace or just presenting a card.
Little did I realise the emotions that would come along with it. There were tears of joy. The parents cried, some of the students, after reflection, also cried, and I also cried along with them.
This article was first published on August 23, 2014.
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