Grace Fu: 'It's harder on the spouse of a woman MP'

In part 2 of this Supper Club interview, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu talks about staying optimistic about why being a woman and a People's Action Party politician can sometimes be the worst of both worlds.

Q: How has politics changed since you entered the fray in 2006?

It's just tougher to recruit any good candidates, men or women. First of all, expectations of an MP are just higher. In the past, someone who is intelligent and capable, people accept him even if you're not very communicative or extroverted. But these days, constituents also like you to be down-to-earth, friendly, communicative, able to inspire them.

On the other hand, the demands on the candidates in terms of the exposure, the loss of privacy, especially for the family, is more severe now. One MP mentioned that when his child did well and received a prize in school, his friends said, it's because you're an MP's child. It's now become very open, very public and apparent because of social media. Things get amplified and circulated much more easily. There was probably civility and greater respect for each other's privacy in the past.

Q: Does this impact you in real life, or just on social media?

There are moments that my children will allude to me (how it has impacted them). Like when certain policies are not taken well on the ground, I find my children being affected. His friends will give them feedback, make comments, say that your mum is doing this silly thing again. I don't think it's a nice feeling for my children. I don't think you can totally isolate or protect them. I just have to tell them, take it in your stride and be tough about it.

Q:What have you had to give up in this line of work?

I would say the only thing really is personal time. My privacy. It's part of being a public figure and I knew that when I was making the step to contest.

If you don't have a lot of bad habits, it's not a problem. I don't really mind not going to the casino. My vice was to take an afternoon off and go shopping, which I don't have the time to do now. Even if I have time on a weekday, it can sometimes be misunderstood. Actually, immediately after the (2011) elections, that's what happened to me. I had a meeting at 7pm, and I was in Raffles City before that, so I thought I can shop for two hours before my meeting. And a woman actually came up to me and say, oh now you have time to shop ah? At this hour? Like (she was saying) after you're elected, you still have the time? I am a purposeful shopper now. Just go straight to the shop and get what I want. So I'm very outdated on what's the latest trends.

Q: What do you do to unwind?

I'm rather addicted to running now as I've discovered this joy of running overseas. The new cities I go to, if I can find an hour and a half to just run, I enjoy that a lot. I started running before joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (where she is Second Minister), but the MFA job allows me to travel a bit more. Running has given me a way of seeing the city. The fact that you are able to run in a different climate, different environment, it's very refreshing. I did a run in Hamburg, around the lake. It was very cold, but very nice, you don't perspire, you don't feel yourself being dragged down by the humidity.

Another time was on my own visit to Hokkaido, near the city. It was raining. I found myself the only person running. It was a very nice feeling, a good experience.

In Singapore, I run in the Botanic Gardens as it's near the MFA building. You do bump into people there, I've met some permanent secretaries running there.

I ran my first 5km when I was 40 years old. I used to hate running. But I started when I was in PSA Singapore to support a charity called Milk Run. My target is now to run 20km the year I turn 50, which is in a few months time.

Q: Do you watch movies, read fiction for fun?

I watch my movies on planes. I don't read for fun, I read to learn about the job. Right now, there's a whole stack of books waiting for me, on European Union history, ASEAN history, all the articles written by diplomats over time.

MFA has the steepest learning curve. It's multi-faceted. You have to understand the history of these organisations and their dynamics. Why EU is like that, but ASEAN is not. Now we are working on the EU Free Trade Agreement, so I'm reading about their constitution. Who has the voting power, who influences what, who you should lobby.

The last fiction book I read was five or six years ago, by the Taiwanese writer Lung Ying-tai, who is now the culture minister. It was called Letter to Andrew, a compilation of letters between her and her son who is of mixed heritage.

I'm into calligraphy now. I've been doing it intermittently, practising it. I learnt it from a master, who left his wares in my office. It's there permanently, and so it's easy for me to pick up and practise. I find it quite calming, it's almost like meditation. When you are tired or stressed out, you have an hour on it and you can lose yourself in the process.

Q: What were your political high and low points?

My high point was to win the election in Yuhua single member constituency (SMC) in 2011. I went into it with trepidation, you're not sure if you're campaigning correctly. My first election in 2006 was a walkover, so you're not sure what the support level is. And I used to be in a GRC, now you're on your own. It's a real reflection of your performance as an MP. So obviously it was quite a stressful period of time.

Q: Did you ever seriously consider that you might lose?

Yes, why not? When you are at the counting station, and they just pour out the ballot papers, you can't tell who has the upper hand. I remember it was so scary. When they separate the ballots, sometimes the piles are almost the same height.

As for my low point, I was really, really disappointed when we lost Punggol East (to the Workers' Party in the January by-election.) To lose it with that margin, I just felt it was a real setback for the party. I personally thought (PAP candidate Koh) Poh Koon was such a strong candidate, maybe too strong. For him to lose with that margin, it was just disappointing.

Q: Why do you think the PAP lost so badly?

I suppose it was a whole host of reasons that we can attribute it to. The party's performance, or the candidate's performance. How she (Workers' Party winning candidate Lee Li Lian) came across as the girl next door and therefore more able to relate. These are all possibilities, we never really know the reasons.

One of the problems was that Poh Koon did not have enough time to make himself known to the people. If you know him personally, most people would say he's a nice man, but it's just hard within that short period of time to get as many people to know him as possible.

Q: How is the PAP's recruitment, especially of female candidates, for the next GE?

The pool of candidates is getting smaller, and that pool will have more concern than before about how this impacts their personal life. Now we have to really look for different qualities. Now we need them to have it all

Entering politics has always been tougher on women, I think. Not just the criticism but the fact is that it's harder on the spouse of a woman MP. To agree to it, to accept the fact that your wife is going to be out most of the time and you have to assume a big part of the responsibility at home. A simple example is that there are some female MPs who are still doing the marketing. Because it's something they have always been doing and they don't want their families to be affected too much by their decisions. You have to try as much as possible to give normalcy to your husband and your children.

Usually, you don't get netizens criticising how a male MP looks. I just think that it's easier to criticise a person based on their looks and women tend to attract that sort of criticism, although we're not here to contest on looks. Anyway, I think it's a lot more visual these days than in the past. In the past, there aren't cameraphones aimed at you all the time. The most that an MP or minister appears is the day after the event in a photo in the papers. It didn't matter as much how you came across in the media. But now, the demands, the expectations, that you look good on TV, that you're able to communicate, is just that much more.

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