'We are a misunderstood place': New MP Carrie Tan on Yishun, politics and her tattoos
In the second of an occasional series of interviews with new MPs who entered Parliament after the 2020 General Election, the PAP's Carrie Tan speaks about her journey from founding an NGO that helps lower-income women to entering mainstream politics.
SINGAPORE: Nee Soon GRC Member of Parliament Carrie Tan was surprised to be invited in 2018 for tea sessions with the People’s Action Party (PAP) - a precursor to becoming a candidate for the party.
The founder of Daughters of Tomorrow (DOT), a non-governmental organisation that helps lower-income women, felt that she had been quite critical of the Government. But she thought this would be a good opportunity to speak out for the underprivileged to the ruling party.
“I feel like I need to help them understand certain things that I'm seeing, and certain issues that they may not have had the opportunity to deep dive into,” she said. “Every single tea session for me was an advocacy moment.”
Along the way, she met different ministers and MPs, and became convinced of “their conviction and their intention to really do good by Singaporeans”, she said.
One deciding factor was that when she spoke her mind, she felt that people listened.
“I think one of the key considerations I had was ... Do I have to be not myself? Do I have to kind of fit into a certain box in order to get onto this process? I was a bit sceptical,” she said.
“But it was very encouraging, because every step of the way, I was very honest. I shared my views, and people listened, and they were receptive to what I had to share … (and) I guess in the end, I felt like: Can lah!”
She said that in her years of trying to solve the issue of poverty, she had seen that the challenges low-income families face are “multi-faceted”.
“Being in politics gives me a wider platform to take a more holistic approach to looking at some of the things that society needs to probably shift or change in order to provide better scaffolding and stepping stones for the poor among us,” she said.
“WE ARE A MISUNDERSTOOD PLACE”
Seven months on from the 2020 General Election, the Nee Soon South representative seemed quite at home at an Yishun Ring Road coffee shop having crispy prata and a barley drink.
Sitting along a busy thoroughfare flanked by two coffee shops, the interview was interrupted a few times by residents saying “hi” to their MP.
When Yishun’s reputation as a magnet for cat killers, murders, petty crime and bad news in general is brought up, she bristled: “I love Yishun, I love the people here. We are a misunderstood place, okay.
“We have the most charming, loveliest people. So many do-gooders,” she effused, gesturing at the people having their dinner or drinks.
“You see the coffee shop uncles. They will like from here shout across to there. It's very kampong, I love it.”
She admits that there are residents who compare her to former MP Lee Bee Wah, who was MP there for 14 years, and was affectionately known as “Hua Jie” or “Sister Flower” among Yishun residents.
“I think there's only natural and normal. There are different kinds of residents, some of them will compare and say: Hey, you know, last time Dr Lee used to do this this this, that that that ... I can learn from that,” she said.
“Then there'll be other residents who say: Don't worry, just be yourself. We support you, just to do what you do.”
A NEW SOCIAL ENTERPRISE
The little changes that Ms Tan has started to make can be seen in a banner with bright pink lettering advertising her weekly house visits. It reads “Bringing care to you on …” followed by the days and times, and the hashtag #Carriecares.
At her division, Nee Soon South, she has changed the language of the reminder notices for residents that fall into arrears for conservancy charges.
“We've adopted a much more supportive stance to say that if you're meeting any kind of financial hardship that's causing you to not be able to pay your bills, please reach out to us ... Don’t bear this alone,” she said.
The town council is also making an effort to reach out to these residents to ask them if they need support, and referring them to support agencies, she said.
Ms Tan, who has stepped down as the head of DOT, also plans to pilot a new social enterprise, called RISE Community, at Yishun. While she’s known as an advocate for women’s issues and gender equality, she now wants to reach out to men.
“I spent five, six years of my life building up an engine to enable the women. This is like the next step where I'm looking to do more work to enable men,” she said.
The details are under wraps, but she said the NGO will reach out to men who have lost their jobs or are in danger of losing them, to help them develop better coping mechanisms and create a supportive community for them.
There are many initiatives for people to gain new skills and match them to jobs, but she thinks that the ability to embrace such opportunities requires a mindset change. “I think we underestimate the extent of mental emotional toil that poverty has on people. We expect them to just pick their feet and then ... find a job the next day.”
More would be shared later this month when the initiative is launched, she said.
When asked about her thoughts on the 2021 Budget that was delivered on Feb 16, she expressed concern about the fast pace at which Singapore’s economy is transforming.
“Although it is necessary, I do find that we should consider putting more resources into helping those who are further behind at the lowest or lower income groups, who may find it harder to catch up,” she said.
“I think that the cost of not mitigating the crisis that the lowest income groups are facing, that may come to bite us in the future, because then it will create consequences in terms of their mental, emotional and physical health.”
ACTIVIST OR MP?
With her salt-and-pepper hair, activist background and tattoos, Ms Tan is not in the usual mould of a PAP MP.
When asked about her tattoos (there are three), she shared that the kite tattooed on her wrist symbolises “letting go”, and was inked in 2013, when she pivoted her social enterprise to a charity.
“That was the best decision I made - to really scale up the work. Kite - you have to let go to fly further,” she said.
Does she still see herself as activist or is she more of an MP these days?
“These are just job titles,” she said as she listed her various roles these days as grassroots adviser, parliamentarian, Nee Soon town council vice-chair and continued involvement in her social enterprises.
“At the end of the day, I'm serving the people, and I'm passionate about moving certain causes.”
In the course of the conversation, she reflects that her views have evolved in the process of being initiated into politics and after talking to more people from different age groups, and with various cultural backgrounds and beliefs.
“Being an activist, I can also sometimes have certain rather idealistic views about certain topics,” she said.
“I definitely grew in my understanding and perspective of the diversity of opinions people have about different issues … having understanding and mutual respect in society is very important, and I think I have faith that in Singapore, we are a society where we can agree to disagree on things.”