PAP's Cheryl Chan: From volunteer to contender

Ms Cheryl Chan reaching out to shake a Fengshan resident’s hand during a walkabout in the estate. The PAP rookie politician is facing off against the WP’s Dennis Tan in the single-member constituency.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

As campaigning kicks into high gear, The Straits Times spotlights some candidates to find out how they interact with residents and what drives them. Today, we talk to Cheryl Chan from the PAP and Ravi Philemon of the SPP.

It is Day Three of the election campaign, and rookie politician Cheryl Chan and her team of activists from the People's Action Party (PAP) are on yet another round of home visits in Fengshan.

They walk briskly, going from door to door on the 11th floor of Block 124. One resident comes to the doorway of his three-room flat. His voice raised slightly, Mr Desmond Chia, 55, a retired auditor, launches into a spiel on why he will not be voting for her.

"It's not because you are not good," he says in Mandarin. "But there must be checks and balances in Parliament."

Ms Chan, 38, listens calmly, maintaining eye contact. Then, without missing a beat, she replies: "I respect your choice and I hope you can come to our rally."

Speaking to The Straits Times later, Mr Chia says the brief encounter left him with a positive impression of Ms Chan: composed, patient and willing to listen to different views.

"At the end of the day, it is about treating people first with respect and humility," Ms Chan tells The Straits Times in the first of two brief interviews, truncated due to her tight campaign schedule.

At first blush, the senior executive at a multinational gas and engineering company seems an unlikely pick by the PAP to run in single- member constituency Fengshan.

The petite woman is soft-spoken, even shy, she admits. She is a new face, though not new to the community, she argues, being a long-time grassroots volunteer.

So, not quite the person one might expect to defend the PAP's hold on what is anticipated to be a hot ward. Carved out from East Coast GRC as a single seat this election, Fengshan is also contested by Workers' Party's shipping lawyer Dennis Tan, 45, who seems more gregarious than Ms Chan.

One grassroots volunteer, however, describes Ms Chan as "quiet, but good at getting things done".

And Ms Chan says that even though she is a "quiet individual", she enjoys interacting with people.

Years of active community work have also helped her to overcome her shyness, as she recounts the numerous occasions when she would be required to sing, dance or be an emcee before a large crowd at grassroots events.

"As they say, practice makes perfect, right, after a while you just shed that shyness and you just feel you are doing things that bring joy to other people," she says in a second conversation, over the phone.

Ms Chan grew up with an older brother in a three-room flat in Kim Tian Road, near Tiong Bahru, under the watchful eye of "very strict" parents, who she would only say are SME owners.

Growing up, Ms Chan was constantly reminded by her mother to "become a positive contributor to society", which set her on the path of volunteerism 10 years ago.

An article on the PAP Women's Wing's webpage on less privileged children prompted her to write to the party headquarters. Ms Chan recalls that she was eager to find out how she could help: "I believe that in stepping forward, you shouldn't wait. If you can give, you give."

As she was then living in Fengshan, she was directed to the ward's MP, Mr Raymond Lim.

She began helping out at its weekly Meet-the-People Sessions, took part in community events and recently led a team to create a 609-page coffee table book, Memories And Dreams: Fengshan, which showcases the transformations in the estate.

Two years ago, Mr Lim asked her if she would consider entering politics. She took a month to decide, weighing two considerations.

"The first thought that came to my mind was, could I actually better the lives of my fellow Singaporeans," Ms Chan recounts.

She also felt that through politics, she could reach out to a wider group of people by helping to shape and implement policies, compared with what she could do as a volunteer.

Ms Chan calls one of the founding leaders of Singapore and former Cabinet minister Ong Pang Boon, 86, uncle. Mr Ong was married to her aunt Chan Choy Siong - the first woman to be elected to the Legislative Assembly of Singapore, winning the seat for Delta in the 1959 elections. Ms Chan's aunt, who died in 1981, was also an activist for women's rights.

Still, Ms Chan did not seek Mr Ong's advice before joining politics. "I entered politics not because of them, I have deep respect for both my uncle and aunt. When I first started, it was on the pure basis of volunteerism, until I was approached by the party."

If elected, she intends to cham-pion causes she believes in, such as helping the elderly and less privileged children.

However, she admits that being in the media's glare will take some getting used to. Strangers stare at her and one even asked if she was the person mentioned in the newspapers. "And I said, 'Yes, it's me," she says, with a chuckle.

Chances are, if elected, she will attract even more stares and greetings on her daily MRT commute from her home in Serangoon Gardens to her Orchard Road office.

She has had to cut back on personal time to juggle her professional career, grassroots work and family time. A single, Ms Chan says she will start her own family when the "right individual comes by".

For now, she is focused on wooing the hearts of the 23,427 voters of Fengshan.

This article was first published on September 7, 2015.
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