Balancing diverse views: New MP Xie Yao Quan shares how he connects with Jurong residents
In the first of an occasional series of interviews with new members of parliament elected in GE2020, Xie Yao Quan talks about how he was a late addition to the People's Action Party's slate of candidates after the controversy surrounding Ivan Lim.
SINGAPORE: Most of the residents seemed not to know who he was, although one or two said they’d seen him before in the neighbourhood.
“You’ve not come around here for a long time,” said a white-haired lady, who had obviously mistaken him for someone else.
Mr Xie Yao Quan, 37, a first-time Member of Parliament, started his MP duties at Jurong Central ward six months ago.
On a Saturday afternoon (Feb 6), he and a few volunteers made their rounds and gave all the residents they met Mr Xie’s “calling card”, which has his personal email on it.
In 10 minutes, he was on friendly terms with the elderly lady, asking after her health in Cantonese, instructing a volunteer to take note of her requests and to inform the Silver Generation Office to check on her as she lives alone.
He is intent on reaching out to every one of the households in the ward. In a video on Facebook put up last month, he said: “I’ve visited more than 4,000 families last year, and in 2021, I will be visiting another 6,876 families … because I want to meet you, get to know you and listen to you.”
As they trekked from floor to floor at the Housing & Development Board block near Jurong West Street 42, the volunteers passed packets of dried chrysanthemum tea buds to each household that cracked open a door or a window to them.
It felt almost like it was still election campaign season, as Mr Xie earnestly introduced himself as their “xin yi yuan” or “MP baru” (“new MP” in Mandarin and in Malay respectively) and asked them to contact him if they have any needs.
Each stop included a reminder that seniors would receive a notice to get vaccinated soon after Chinese New Year, and that they would need to book an appointment for their jabs.
He patiently explained the science as one woman voiced worries that she might fall sick from the vaccine, and told her that it was her choice whether to take it, as vaccination is voluntary. One of the first vaccination centres in Singapore is in Jurong Central, at the former Hong Kah Secondary School.
Mr Xie, the head of healthcare redesign at Alexandra Hospital, has already got two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and he assured the resident that it was safe.
“I make it a point (at) every household I visit, I'll tell them to please go and get the vaccine when it's your turn. I think by and large, most have been very receptive,” Mr Xie told CNA. “There are some concerns about safety, so our plan now is to go door-to-door … help to answer as many of these questions and address as many of these concerns as possible.”
DIVERSITY OF VIEWS
There’s no question that there is an increasing diversity of views, and there is a greater desire to have those views heard, Mr Xie said during the interview when asked about how he deals with the evolving political landscape in Singapore.
The desire for more diverse views is something which was discussed before, during and after the election. In November, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said the desire of Singaporeans for greater diversity and more checks and balance is “here to stay” and general elections will get tougher.
“I think, first thing we can do is to make sure they are heard. So that's why I have my own email address, which I give out to every resident,” said Mr Xie.
He meets residents who write to him if the issue is complex, or if they have strong views that they want to put forward to him, he said. Just before meeting this reporter for the interview, which was conducted at a coffee shop, he had lunch while speaking with a resident, a man who looked to be in his 30s or 40s.
As one of the younger MPs, he feels that they have a more intuitive understanding of the sentiments of their age group as well as a better grasp of social media communication tools.
“I think that's where as a younger MP, we have something to bring to the table,” he said, but he added that they lack the “battle experience” of their older colleagues and activists.
There are two mentors that he goes to often for advice, he said: Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who helms the Jurong Group Representation Constituency (GRC) of which Mr Xie is also a member, and National Development Minister Desmond Lee.
“Obviously, we work most closely with SM (Senior Minister Tharman). It is remarkable because as busy as he is he always makes time to guide, to give his view,” he said.
He also consults Mr Lee on social issues and housing issues. Mr Xie is in the Government Parliamentary Committee for national development, and worked with Mr Lee before as a community volunteer.
Although Mr Xie had done community service for a few years, the key difference, now that he is an MP, is that he feels he has the duty to represent the residents in Parliament, he said.
“You’re not just social worker in chief,” he said. “The main challenge, which I've been trying to adapt to, is how do you be a representative for everybody? How do you do justice to the entire spectrum of views? So that's been something I've been trying to learn.”
In Parliament on Feb 2, he gave his views on the use of TraceTogether data in a debate on a Bill introduced to limit the use of the data in criminal investigations. Privacy concerns were in the spotlight after it emerged in Parliament last month that the police have the power to order anyone to produce data, including TraceTogether data, for criminal investigations.
The Government had earlier said that TraceTogether data would be strictly used for contact tracing. The Bill, which restricts the use of the contact tracing data to seven serious crimes, was passed on Feb 2.
He said that while his personal view was that the TraceTogether data should be exempted from the Criminal Procedure Code, as implied by the original communications from the Government, he canvassed the views of his residents and found that most supported the provisions in the Bill.
“In the end, based on that whole spectrum, and based on my sensing of my constituency, I was prepared to support the Bill because I think that's a position that would be representative of my constituency," he said.
"As a representative, it’s never about your own view but it’s also important to have your own view heard.”
"GIVE ME A CHANCE TO PROVE MYSELF"
During the house visits, no one made any mention that Mr Xie was the People’s Action Party (PAP) candidate that had replaced Mr Ivan Lim at the last minute, before the General Election. When this issue was brought up during the interview, he laughed and asked if people could perhaps let that go now, but still answered the questions.
It was a more dramatic entrance for Mr Xie last July compared with the other new PAP candidates as he was introduced by Senior Minister and anchor minister for Jurong GRC, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, on Jun 29 after Mr Ivan Lim dropped out of the campaign. Allegations about Mr Lim's conduct during National Service, among other criticisms, had been made online and he decided not to run in the election as the comments went viral.
Mr Xie said he got a call two days before he was to be introduced as a candidate, and was then quickly introduced to the GRC team, which also includes Ms Rahayu Mahzam, Mr Shawn Huang and Dr Tan Wu Meng. He was not exactly surprised to get the call as he knew there was a chance he would be tapped on as the situation unfolded, he said.
“You wish you're not called upon, because to be called upon means that there must be a reason … (it's) a contingency that you hope won’t come to pass,” he said. “There were others also, so it could have been any one of us, and ultimately, it was a party who chose.”
Some residents have asked “oh, you're the one who was a replacement?”, he said. But he said that for any resident, he is a newcomer who has taken over from Mr Ang Wei Neng, a long-time MP at Jurong Central who moved to West Coast GRC in the last election.
While Mr Xie had done community service since 2015, most of it was in the neighbouring ward of Jurong Spring where he helped Mr Lee, the current National Development Minister, who had also moved to West Coast GRC for GE2020.
“My answer to this particular group of residents is the same as to any other resident is: Give me a chance. I'm going to do my absolute best and work my hardest to take care of you and to show that I'm worthy of your vote.”