SINGAPORE: I first interviewed Louis Ng in 2015, mere months before he was introduced as a political candidate for the People’s Action Party (PAP).
Later that year, he contested in Nee Soon GRC as part of the PAP’s five-member team led by Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam.
Now, as I sat down with Mr Ng again, I looked for signs of change – maturity, political savvy, perhaps even weariness.
The truth is the 40-year-old does not seem to have changed much.
Even before he became a Member of Parliament, Mr Ng was comfortable speaking up about issues he felt strongly about.
The only perceptible change is that today he is able to raise a wider range of issues than before he became an MP.
THE ISSUES CHOOSE HIM
Three years ago, his focus was chiefly on animal rights in his role as founder of the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES).
Today, the issues he raises in Parliament have included the plight of single parents and whether there should be restrictions on smoking within homes to protect neighbours from secondhand smoke.
Indeed, when I ask him what the transition from animal rights activist to politician has been like, he replies swiftly that “there wasn’t much of a transition”.
“As an animal rights activist, it really wasn’t just about the animals for me, but it really was about changing people’s mindsets, about mobilising people to step forward to help the animals.
“So I brought the same skillsets into politics, which is again about mobilising people to step forward, to serve the community, about explaining our policies, about changing mindsets.”
To listen to the full interview, click here.
However, the effort to widen his focus is clearly more deliberate.
“I was understudying (Deputy Speaker and MP) Charles Chong before I became an MP. My last posting was at Joo Chiat and I always remember he told me, 'Louis, make sure you don’t just talk about animals in Parliament'.
“I realise as an MP, my focus just can't be on a single issue. I'm here not just to speak up about issues that I'm passionate about, but more importantly, about issues that Singaporeans are passionate about.”
He still raises animal welfare issues in Parliament and remains CEO of ACRES.
But when it comes to other issues, he says he doesn’t choose. The issues choose him.
“For example, in my meet-the-people sessions and my home visits, one of the first few issues that came to me was the single-parent issue. I had divorced and single unwed mothers and fathers come to me about what they have gone through, all the difficulties they are facing.
"Sometimes, they feel stigmatised and discriminated against and have difficulties when it comes to housing. Then I started to look into the policies and of course I met up with (gender equality advocacy group) the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) and we really looked into the issue.”
In September last year, Mr Ng called for a reform of the public housing policy for single parents.
In his petition to Parliament, he asked for unmarried parents and their children to be recognised as a family nucleus so that they could be eligible for public housing schemes. The petition, which was signed by seven single parents, also called for the removal of debarment periods which prevent divorced parents from renting flats from the Housing and Development Board (HDB) or owning subsidised flats.
Aware submitted a statement supporting the petition and also made several suggestions.
The petition was turned down in November with the Ministry of National Development saying it had no intention to amend the law and introduce exemptions for unmarried and divorced parents.
However, in March this year, it was announced that divorcees can now buy or own a subsidised flat immediately upon ending their marriage, rather than having to wait three years under previous rules.
Mr Ng attributes the change to persistence.
“Try and try again. Let's openly debate these issues. Honest disagreement is often a sign of progress. And that’s what I aim towards. As long as we try, we never lose.”
Next on his list is the issue of younger, single parents.
“It’s really about the single unwed parents who are under 35 because they fall into this horrible hole. For those above 35, discrimination aside, they can still get housing under the singles scheme even though they have children.
“The under-35s really have no option other than staying in a shelter with their kid or trying to rent a room or if they have enough money, try and rent a whole unit. I met a single unwed mother who has been sleeping in a lorry with her child. I've managed to get her rental housing now, but she had to come to me for help. Why don’t we just level that playing field for them so that they can qualify for some housing?”
I remark that the policies concerning single parents have been slow to change because of worries that legitimising single parenthood may erode the traditional family unit.
However, in 2016, the Government made some moves towards equalising benefits for single parents by extending to them the full 16-week maternity leave that married mothers enjoy. The children of single parents also now have access to a Child Development Account, a savings scheme to pay for childcare and healthcare costs.
“Now that we have eased some of our policies, there hasn’t been a huge jump in single unwed parents. It’s not true that everybody is going to have babies all of a sudden because the policies are now level. That hasn’t happened and I don’t think that will happen.
“Remember also that there is a child involved and I feel very bad when they come to me at the meet-the-people session. I actually ask the kid to step aside because I have to explain to the mother or the father that actually, under our housing policies, you are not considered a family and that’s why you don’t qualify for a HDB flat.”
CONSULT THE PUBLIC ON MINISTERS’ SALARIES AND MPS’ ALLOWANCES
While he claims the work he does in politics today is essentially similar to what he did before and continues to do today as an animal rights activist, one thing has certainly changed – his salary.
“At ACRES, I started with S$500 a month for a few years. I think my last-drawn salary there before I joined politics was S$3,460. Now I think it’s S$2,500. S$3,460 included the performance bonus, transport allowance, meal allowance, so we removed all that and now I just get a basic salary at ACRES."
But my intention in raising this question is to discuss how much his monthly income has been boosted by his annual MP’s allowance of about S$200,000 and how that has changed his life.
“On S$500 before, I had enough to eat. We would buy really cheap furniture and we were under all the low-income grants, but my wife and I were happy as we were doing something that we had always wanted to do.”
His wife works with him as Group Director for Advocacy at ACRES.
He claims that in spite of his MP's allowance, they remain frugal although they don’t have to scrimp and save as much as before.
“I dress in the same types of clothes every single day. That comes from my dad. He never wore branded clothes. We don’t go on fancy holidays. I think we live and I always remember his philosophy that there's beauty in giving more than receiving.”
I use this opportunity to ask him about concerns in some quarters that ministers’ salaries and MPs’ allowances are excessive.
“The key is we have to be transparent with what we get. Whatever I do should be subject to public scrutiny. Also, salaries are determined not by us, but by an independent committee. I think transparency and independence are important.”
However, he also thinks the public should have a say in the debate over salaries.
“We debated it in the White Paper and of course the MPs will seek views from the public. But I think we can add a stronger component of public consultation into this whole salary debate. So, not just an independent committee that sits together to decide, but why not an independent committee that also takes views from the public on what they feel should be the right amount, and then present that to Parliament, and then for the MPs to debate this, perhaps for the next White Paper.
"After all, the public and taxpayers contribute to ministers' salaries and MPs' allowances and they should be consulted like how we do public consultations on Bills introduced in Parliament. The key now is to make sure people are heard and feel that they are involved in the decision-making process. The policy-making process has to involve the public."
He feels that so far, people have not felt like they are a part of this process and some think of it as a case of "own self check own self".
I put it to him that it is possible that many members of the public would say that MPs and ministers should be paid less than they are now.
"Let's put it to a debate. It's not going to be easy. We’re so polarised now. The views might be very diverse and the committee might not agree with some views. But they should be incorporated into the committee’s report, presented in Parliament and debated before a final decision is made. I believe it will make this process more robust.”
Concerns that lower salaries could affect the Government's ability to attract the best talent should be similarly debated, he says.
I ask him what factors he thinks members of the public should consider as they form their opinions on what’s appropriate.
“Understanding the job scope of the MPs or the ministers so that you can gauge how much you feel we should be paid," he says.
I remark that inevitably some will be sceptical about whether public consultations, even if conducted, will really influence decision-making.
"They should factor in the final decision. I'll give you an example. I'm currently working on a Bill for the Wild Animals and Birds Act. I've been putting it through a public consultation. For some of the proposed amendments, I didn't get majority support. As an MP, I then have to change my views to suit society's views as well. Now, I'm going to tweak it and put it back into public consultation. We must go through such processes."
HAS HE SOLD OUT?
While it seems Louis Ng has comfortably settled into his role as an MP and is carefully balancing this with his position as the head of an animal rights advocacy, when news emerged that he would be entering the political sphere three years ago, fellow activists on the ground had wondered what his agenda was.
After all, activists are supposed to be the establishment’s watchdogs rather than joining the establishment.
Some wondered if he was selling out.
"Judge me by my actions over the last three years. I have delivered on my promise. I'm here to speak up, to speak my mind, to listen with my heart and my ears. And that’s what I fully intend to do. That’s my promise to the people and that’s what I've done.”
He clearly wants to continue to straddle both spheres – politics and civil society.
“We talk about diversity in politics, but civil society should be equally diverse. There should be people that are purely civil society activists. I think there are people that should straddle both. But you have to remember that ultimately we are on the same side. We all want what's good for Singapore. We all want what's good for the progress of this country.”
His approach to activism, both in civil society and politics, has gradually transformed from being confrontational to collaborative.
“The turning point was when I started grassroots work through Minister Shanmugam. He sat down with me at the ACRES gala dinner in 2008. He showed me the way where maybe with confrontation, we could get a lot of publicity, but at the end of the day, what are we achieving? He asked us to try a more collaborative approach. I realised we must also try to find that middle ground. If we push and push and we refuse to move on our stand and the Government refuses to move as well, then it’s a stalemate.
"And we tried it, and it worked in the sense that we managed to get quite a lot of policy changes through a lot of the dialogue sessions, through a lot of engagement, closed-door meetings with the ministries, with the agencies. I saw that was the way forward. We can be more collaborative, but at the same time we still can be critical, but criticise constructively.”
He gives me an example of where this approach has worked.
“When we did our rescue work at ACRES, we came across cases of pythons in buildings. There was one case of a python in one of the hospitals. The police used their patrol car to run over the python. I could have gone all out to criticise and say the police should have done things better. It’s an endangered animal, and it’s non-venomous.
“But instead, we went to the police and we realised that actually our officers weren’t trained at the academy to catch pythons. They were scared at that point, and so we offered them our help. It was a win-win situation where now when you call the police, if there's a python there, the police activates ACRES. Sometimes they cordon off the area and our guys go in to rescue the animal.”
However, there have been cases where neither collaboration nor confrontation worked.
"For instance, ACRES' campaign to get Resorts World Sentosa to release its dolphins. We went through many years of campaigning, but the dolphins remain there. But our commitment is that we will continue to raise awareness about this issue. Many people have told me that it looks like we have lost. But my answer always is that we never lose. At least our campaigns have raised awareness and we continue to do this to hopefully see change take place in the future. It's the same with policy issues."
While doing grassroots work, he realised he could apply his activism to a wider range of problems within the community.
“I feel if I have the opportunity to serve, to really help to shape policies, I should enter politics and start speaking up about all these issues.”
But is that really the best way to effect change in Singapore? Shouldn’t civil society groups have a role to play too?
I put it to him that the Government could change its perceptions and be more receptive to such groups as well. Their concerns and ideas should not be negated simply because they are not in politics or adopt a confrontational approach at times.
“Absolutely. We should welcome the naysayers. I think through criticism we can become better.
“Although I encourage civil society groups to be collaborative, sometimes I think in these heated debates, we tend to forget that civil society activists who speak up so passionately, who sometimes look very angry in the media, are angry and passionate because they care and they might even have a better perspective on particular issues.
"I think we should be worried when people become silent because that might mean they’ve become apathetic or just given up.”
But he concedes that at times, speaking up has garnered him negative publicity.
Earlier this year, he raised a concern in Parliament about public officers who dare not speak up for fear of getting into trouble.
"They fear that they will be labelled as troublemakers and that their bosses will get angry. They fear it will affect their appraisal and their promotion," Mr Ng said at the time. "We now need to make sure that they don't work in a system where they feel they need to be silent, where they feel they need to be 'Yes sir' men or women and where they feel that nothing will change even if they speak up."
His comments drew a sharp rebuttal from Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung, who led public service innovation efforts.
Mr Ong said that where public service has fallen short, it will address the problem, but when generalisations that tar the entire service with the same brush are made in public and worse, further spread through media, it does not do justice to officers and it discourages and undermines improvement efforts.
He also urged Mr Ng to do his part.
"If some civil servant tells you they dare not speak up, you can assure them from your own experience that you've always spoken up and never got into trouble. If they feel the system does not allow them to make a difference, ask them what is it you want to change,” said Mr Ong.
When I ask Mr Ng about this, he says he accepted the Minister’s feedback.
“I accept it fully. Let's work together and I can improve. Did I overgeneralise? I would say, yes. But I spoke to over 100 civil servants and since it was a concern I heard, I thought I should follow up. But I agree and I think we can move forward together.”
He says he is heartened by the changes that Mr Ong said have been taking place.
Agencies conduct regular employee engagement surveys, and many carry out regular 360-degree feedback initiatives to better develop public service needs.
There are also systems in place such as a Public Sector Transformation Award which recognises officers who display "constructive discontent" and make the effort to effect transformative change.
DISPEL THE FEAR OF SPEAKING UP
However, is there scope for the Government to do more to dispel the fear of speaking up, not just among civil servants, but also the public? Can it do more to show that it will not be heavy-handed in dealing with dissent?
“I always say that if you keep within the legal limits and are constructive, you shouldn’t fear speaking up. But if you choose to go beyond the legal limits, if you choose to be defamatory, then of course you’ll get into trouble. I'm an example of someone who has spoken up and never got into trouble.”
I remark that some would see Mr Ong’s sharp rebuttal to his comments in Parliament as “getting into trouble”.
“I can see where that’s coming from. I think a lot of people said, 'See, he spoke up and he got scolded. Case closed.' But I don’t view this as a singular thing. I spoke up and I shared my constructive criticism about the Government. The Government and the Minister should have his chance to speak up about my speech too and constructively criticise it."
He reiterates that there needs to be openness on both sides.
“But also the Government needs to realise that policies cannot improve if we don’t have people telling us that we’re wrong, people telling us that we could have done this better, people telling us a policy doesn’t work on the ground. If you close your ears to these views, then Singapore can't get better.”
SCORING POLITICAL POINTS
We continue talking about some of the issues he has tried to tackle as an MP in the past three years.
At times, it seems that his actions and initiatives are designed to score maximum political points and make the news.
Just a few months after becoming an MP, he announced that he would be trying out different jobs to "gain some first-hand experience".
This initiative saw him work as a cleaner, a cardboard collector and a private-hire car driver among other occupations.
When I express my scepticism about his motives for doing this, he claims it was a sincere effort aimed at improving his understanding of issues.
“It has shaped a lot of my thinking in terms of the speeches I've shared in Parliament about why some of these groups of people need help. For example, I worked with Hanif, a town council cleaner for a day. And from there, I realised what these migrant workers go through. How they come to Singapore, some of them for a 10-year stretch and never see their families.
"That led to me speaking up a lot on migrant worker issues. That led me to a shift about how in town councils, we need to look after our cleaners to make sure that their welfare is looked into more.”
He claims the various experiences have fuelled community projects for various groups in his constituency.
Project Hearts is one of them.
“We’re doing monthly outings, mentorship, also trying to build a new children’s corner at my void deck, setting up a soup kitchen there. But really bringing in more holistic help rather than always focusing on just dollars and cents.”
But I point out that often dollars and cents matter.
He concedes this and points out that there are also community scholarships and tuition progress for less privileged children in his constituency.
He also feels the Government can do more to help.
“I think the Government can do more and is doing more. One of the major changes is streamlining assistance schemes so that the people that need help will get help more quickly.”
“I DON’T THINK 'WAYANG' SHOULD BE PART OF POLITICS”
I ask him about other instances where he has been accused by some as trying to merely score political points.
He once made the news for a speech in which he called for parental leave to be extended for parents who have pre-term babies or those who have multiple babies.
As he talked about his personal challenges in caring for his own pre-term newborn twins, he was seen fighting back tears.
This led to some netizens questioning if an MP would only speak up if he or she is personally affected by a particular issue. Others wondered if he was doing it to soften his constituents’ hearts and gain sympathy.
Singaporeans often refer to it as “wayang”, or putting on an act.
“I don’t think wayang should be part of politics. Sometimes we do choke up in Parliament in delivering the speeches. I urge everyone to see what the context is. Some of the things I've shared in parliament are very personal. I share it so that policies can change. The change in policy on parental leave for example, won't benefit me since I had my kids already. It was really for the benefit of future parents. I was sharing the experience of how difficult and how painful it has been for me and my wife so that others won't have to go through that same experience.
“But ultimately, everybody has their own views and everybody is entitled to criticise. As an MP, I should be open to public scrutiny, open to criticism. Again, I think that would make me a better MP, a better person. At the end of the day, I'm not here to do what's popular, but I want to make sure what I do is right. And that’s most important to me.”
As we talk more about his career in politics, he says that while he is concentrating on this and his work in animal welfare, he is already putting in place a succession plan at ACRES.
“I've run ACRES for 17 years already. I don’t think it’s healthy for someone to be there and to run it for so many years. It’s now time to make sure I have a succession plan and train the younger generation of staff members who will hopefully take over. For an organisation to sustain in the long term, there need to be fresh ideas and fresh leadership as well.”
For now he has no other career plans except to “focus on being an MP”.
One would think that the effort Mr Ng puts into raising parliamentary questions and staying in the limelight indicates that he has larger political goals. But even if he does, he is not about to admit it. When I ask about his political ambitions and how far he would like to go, he says he is happy with the status quo.
“I'm very happy just speaking up and asking questions. I've never had any big ambitions. It’s about being in a position where I can help to shape policies and to speak up for people. That is the most important thing for me.”