SINGAPORE: It was past nine in the evening but the day was not over yet for Dr Wan Rizal Wan Zakariah, the People’s Action Party (PAP) new candidate who is running in Jalan Besar Group Representation Constituency (GRC).
Earlier in the day, the 42-year-old had done a full schedule of market and house visits at the constituency’s North Bridge and St George’s Roads.
In the evening, he took part in a live chat on education at the PAP headquarters in Bedok, with Education Minister Ong Ye Kung as well as special education school co-founder and fellow Jalan Besar candidate Denise Phua.
Dr Wan Rizal was about to leave the PAP building when he was told that he had left his sports shoes upstairs. He laughed in relief, because he needed them for hitting the ground again the next day.
Party candidates have been on their daily campaign grind ahead of Polling Day on Jul 10, so there was nothing special about Dr Wan Rizal’s day. Not that he was complaining anyway.
“I was mentally prepared,” he told CNA on Friday (Jul 3), pointing out that he had done daily block visits while helping out in grassroots activities with former Members of Parliament (MP) Zainal Sapari and Charles Chong, both of whom are not standing in this year’s election.
“I was in two different constituencies. So when they did different days, I joined them both. I had an idea of what to expect. But of course, campaigning is a different thing altogether.”
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Next up on the agenda was a GRC meeting on Zoom at 10pm, so Dr Wan Rizal had to get home soon. He put his sports shoes and suitcase on the back seat of his car. Scattered on the front passenger seat were party flyers and candidate cards.
He has come some way from his years juggling work and family with volunteering at mosques, writing letters at meet-the-people sessions (MPS), and making last-minute preparations for a high-profile PAP convention.
So on the drive home, Dr Wan Rizal didn’t seem too frazzled by the rush. He couldn’t discuss the current campaign, so he touched on what he cares about as a political candidate: Social mobility through education.
These terms had quite often been spoken about by several new PAP candidates during their introductions, but like his fellow panellists during the party's live chat, Dr Wan Rizal knows a thing or two about education.
Dr Wan Rizal is a senior lecturer in sports and exercise science at Republic Polytechnic. Prior to that he had taken an unconventional route to achieving a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in sports science from the National Institute of Education.
He was from the Normal (Academic) stream in secondary school, and got his bachelor’s degree in physical education (PE) at 31 years old, in between two stints of five years teaching PE in primary school.
“I was an adult learner, and I think everybody must understand this whole idea of lifelong learning,” he said. “It’s not just you finish polytechnic, you go to do a degree. I wouldn’t say that’s a wrong mentality; there are other ways to do that.”
Dr Wan Rizal wants to help those who choose to spend years in the workforce before getting a degree, including letting them pick up and hone new skills along the way and get better support at the workplace.
He had tried doing his master's modules while still working as a teacher, but switched to a full-time programme after about a year because he couldn’t handle the workload.
“You work in the day, especially when you’re teaching and you start at 7am, and at 7pm I had to start my night classes,” he added. “I feel for those people who have to juggle it. I know where they’re coming from and how difficult it is for them.”
FROM MPS VOLUNTEER TO PAP CONVENTION
It is clear that education is a big theme for Dr Wan Rizal. In fact, one could say that his foray into politics started with a call for help from his ex-secondary school form teacher: former Pasir Ris-Punggol MP Zainal Sapari.
In 2016, Dr Wan Rizal left his role as chairman of the new Al-Islah mosque in Punggol. He had spent the previous five years going door to door canvassing for donations, overseeing the mosque’s construction, and making its programmes more millennial-friendly.
“You’re the chairman and you made the mosque grow, but I don’t want to be labelled as the one person (who did it),” he said. “To me it’s a very personal thing, I didn’t do it for fame. So I didn’t need a position to show who I am.”
But in the years that followed, Dr Wan Rizal found that he “couldn’t stop” doing community work, pointing to a “void” that had developed after so many years of volunteering at the mosque.
In 2017, Mr Zainal asked Dr Wan Rizal if he would like to help out at his MPS. “Since I am a Pasir Ris East resident, he asked if I would like to try once and see if I like helping out,” he said.
At that session, Dr Wan Rizal noticed a large number of Malay residents but few Malay volunteers who could better communicate with them and translate their requests for help into letters.
“We had one or two, but if they’re not around, there was gap,” he added. “I felt that maybe I could help physically.”
Mr Zainal soon asked Dr Wan Rizal to attend community events together. Dr Wan Rizal wondered why, but eventually figured it was a way of getting him “more involved”. He agreed “just to see how it goes”. “That’s how it all started,” he said.
After about a year of working together, Mr Zainal told Dr Wan Rizal there wasn’t much left he could teach, and suggested that he follow the former Punggol East MP Charles Chong instead. By then, Dr Wan Rizal had officially become a party member.
“Why? It’s so far away,” Dr Wan Rizal recalled asking Mr Zainal again during one of their many car rides together. “He said to give it a shot just to understand the different set of demographics.”
Dr Wan Rizal said he learnt a lot from Mr Chong, including how he seemed to solve everything with a smile, even in a ward that was held by the Workers’ Party (WP) from 2013 to 2015.
“He has a very relaxed demeanour and keeps people engaged,” he said of Mr Chong. “So if I’m a resident and I see him, I would probably pour my heart out to him.”
On the support for WP in Punggol East, Dr Wan Rizal said he thought the area felt different as it had an “interesting percentage”. But he said PAP’s members had done good work on the ground by constantly engaging the community.
Towards the end of 2019, Dr Wan Rizal was asked to speak at the PAP65 convention. He was unfazed because as a PhD candidate he had spoken at multiple conferences before. He laughed and admitted to writing his speech two weeks before.
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Dr Wan Rizal also discovered that he didn’t have white pants, so he bought a pair at a shop selling school uniforms. But he discovered the pants were a different shade of white than the shirt he had planned to wear. He eventually had his pants tailored.
“When I first got (the invitation to speak), I thought it was just another normal convention,” he said. “But it wasn’t.”
Dr Wan Rizal described the convention as 2,500 party bigwigs and members filling up a “massive” hall, seated at round tables where they could eat.
“The stage was really huge,” he added. “I felt like a rockstar, but the whole idea was that’s when I realised this was a big thing. And I think I did okay.”
REACTION FROM FAMILY AND COLLEAGUES
Historically, the PAP convention has seen some of those who spoke at previous editions going on to be fielded as new candidates at an election.
Dr Wan Rizal didn’t think too much of this. When he started volunteering at the MPS, he certainly didn’t think of entering politics as an MP. He acknowledged that he was still unsure as recently as the start of this year. The whole process was “transitional”, he said.
“When I was with Mr Zainal, I had an idea. Mr Charles pushed me a bit more. So by the time I reached a decision point, I felt that I was ready, and I hope I am,” he added.
“I kept an open mind, but I leave it to the party leadership to make the best decision. For me, I just want to do community work and serve the people. If the time comes and they think I should go further, I would.”
After he was featured in the media for speaking at the convention, Dr Wan Rizal said it sank in with his family that this was “quite big”, as they discussed if they were all prepared for him to enter politics.
His said family and friends were supportive, especially as he had done community work for many years. His four children aged 13, 10, seven and three don’t really know what's going on, he added. But he's thankful they understand dad is out a lot to help people.
Things at work were not quite so straightforward. Dr Wan Rizal said he was careful to avoid conflicts of interest in his job, which involves doing a lot of research with companies and Government agencies.
“At work it was of course a bit different,” he said. “Suddenly, people see you a bit differently. Not everybody is on your side and all that. But the point is that you get different feelings (from family and colleagues).”
BEING ANNOUNCED AS A CANDIDATE
Dr Wan Rizal was announced as a PAP candidate on Jun 25, something he called “surreal” because of his academic and professional background. Some candidates held top jobs in the public and private sectors, and studied at some of the best universities in the world.
“I come from a very simple background, and to be given this opportunity is a really big deal,” he said. “My wife was very happy for me, parents and in-laws as well. Family-wise everybody is excited for what’s to come.”
On Jun 29, it was revealed that he would be contesting Jalan Besar GRC in a new-look team helmed by Manpower Minister Josephine Teo.
Mrs Teo and Dr Wan Rizal would respectively replace the retiring backbencher Lily Neo and former Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim in their wards in the GRC. Senior Minister of State for Defence Heng Chee How and Mrs Phua remain in the team.
Dr Wan Rizal said he had visited the Kolam Ayer ward with Dr Yaacob for a few months before this to learn from him and gain exposure on the ground.
He is also familiar with Dr Yaacob from when they were mosque chairman and Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs, respectively. “To be now taking over his ward, it does feel like big shoes to fill,” he said.
Dr Wan Rizal said it was too early to tell how he might handle the extra duties and public scrutiny of being an MP, pointing out that he didn’t assume he was going to be nominated until it actually happened.
“I don’t feel like answering it now because I’m in the midst of it. So let’s take it as it is,” he said. “I’m a simple person whose life revolves around my family and I strongly believe in giving back to the community.”
Dr Wan Rizal parked his car at the multi-storey car park, and for the first time looked like he was fumbling. It was about three minutes past 10pm, so he hastily tapped on his phone to check his GRC chats. He didn’t forget to wave goodbye.