SINGAPORE: Managing the electorate’s expectations and intense public scrutiny – any Member of Parliament (MP) would tell you that the job is more challenging today, and for first-time MP Rahayu Mahzam, she expects no different.
“At the end of the day, we (MPs) are all humans," she said. "You talk like a regular person, you make mistakes sometimes. When we take this role, this is the expectation, and we have to try at least, to try and be that super-being that people expect us to be.
"But a little compassion would help. A little understanding about how we also have our own problems to deal with.”
She faced criticism as soon as she was formally introduced as a People's Action Party (PAP) candidate for this year’s election, with netizens accusing her of riding on the coat-tails of the PAP, and of being a “yes woman”.
She spoke to Bharati Jagdish on 938LIVE’s On the Record, and talked about how she’s learning to adjust to the realities of being a politician, her take on opposition politics, adjustments she has had to make to settle into her new role, and about a few personal challenges that she’s now facing.
Rahayu Mahzam: For me, the adjustments were quite great because I've never really thought about this much, in terms of actually becoming an MP. Yes, I was asked, some time ago, and yes, they did prepare us, but at the end of the day, until you actually walk in the shoes, until you actually take the actions, you never really prepare for it.
I was volunteering elsewhere also, so I also needed the time to adjust to the people in a new division. In terms of adjustments, clearly it's time spent on work and appointments I can't keep anymore.
Nowadays, I'm very cautious about making appointments with friends and family. I've had to make adjustments to my family life because weekends are all spent with the constituents and residents. Even in the day, there are meetings and briefings to attend to. In the evenings there are also meetings and briefings, so one is the time, and the other is actually, realising the role and the things that I need to get done, so that's big for me.
Bharati Jagdish: What's been the most unpleasant thing?
Rahayu: Unpleasant? Perhaps when I first read about comments about me online, after my introduction. That was a little unpleasant.
Bharati: What sorts of comments really got to you?
Rahayu: People were saying I was just token representation and the fact that I'll be a "yes woman”. People commented that there may not be any real change, so that hurt me, because I hadn't done anything, aside from being introduced and hadn’t even had the opportunity to prove myself.
People who didn't know me were making comments, but I was heartened by the fact that there were some others who stood up against it. Especially those who knew me who also responded. After a while, I decided not to engage, not to even look at those comments because there was real work to be done, and I got really busy, meeting people, attending to meetings and briefings.
Bharati: Let's talk about some of those issues that were brought up - token representation, "yes woman” - those sorts of criticisms have been levelled at other MPs as well. That certainly is the impression that people get of individuals who choose to join the PAP, and then are fielded as candidates. While the PAP got an overwhelming majority this year, there is still a lot of that type of cynicism. How would you address this?
Rahayu: I think it's an expectation. At one level, yes, when you become a public figure, there are certain expectations of you, and part of you belongs to the people, and you have certain responsibilities to fulfil.
The role of the Member of Parliament is very important, and naturally, people become very concerned if you will be their voice, because they voted you in, they expect that you speak for them. I think it's a fair expectation, to an extent, but I think it is also very difficult to judge and decide very early, without seeing the work done. And I'm not sure if people actually fully know the work that is done by the MP.
You don't always see when the MP goes around trying to resolve issues of his or her residents, and there are also a lot of internal discussions being done.
Not all things in Parliament are presented to the media. And even if it is, not everybody reads the papers, or follows the parliamentary proceedings carefully. I think to that extent, it's not always fair to say the MPs are "yes men” or "yes women”, because there have been many occasions where, when a policy is raised, questions - hard questions - are asked about the statistics, about the effectiveness of the program, of the policies.
I think credit needs to be given to the MPs who raise this, and the effort that they've put into looking at the issues. It is really not in our interest to put a blind eye to this because at the end of the day, you know that there are people keeping track. There's a record, people need to see change, and so it is in our interest to actually pursue people's wishes and concerns.
But there is also, I think, the understanding that at the end of the day, it is about what works best for the country. There are trade-offs that we have to make, and there is respect for the decision made for that. I think that all this needs to be looked at holistically.
Bharati: At the end of the day, in spite of all the hard questions that might be asked in Parliament, the Party Whip is rarely lifted in Parliament and MPs will have to vote along party lines. Does that concern you at all? And ultimately, isn't that what fuels people's perceptions - the ones who say, "these people are just yes men and women"?
Rahayu: Yes, to an extent, it concerns me if I'm not given the ability to actually really make a decision. But I think, in really very important matters, the whip is lifted. The party members are free to make that decision. At the second level of my answer is really the fact that the decision made doesn't necessarily mean that there are no other options, the doors are closed for the issues that are being raised, because it's also about implementation of policies. It's also about actually resolving the issues some other way.
I think, even though there may be an impression that all is lost if you decide a certain way - that's not true, because there are always options, there are always other ways to resolve a problem. And that's one of the things that I've actually been telling my residents. So if their appeal for, say, a particular matter doesn't go through, then it is about how else I can resolve their problem, how else I can resolve their issues. Maybe it's about focusing energies to where something can be done.
Bharati: What do you have to say about criticisms that there is group-think in the party?
Rahayu: What I see running through as a common thread amongst all the MPs - and I'm hoping this doesn't come off as being lofty or arrogant - but it is the fact that our hearts are in the right place.
I actually asked, when I was first asked whether I would be willing to stand for election, why I was chosen, and the answer was that, "you're honest and you're hardworking". And I think that's the common thread. They are chosen because of that. Most of us do it and are here because we value the work that has been done by the party, and our lives changed because of policies that the Government has put in over the years.
That, I suppose makes us common in that sense. Clearly we have to believe in the same thing, which is why we're in the same party, but that in itself does not mean that we all think alike. In fact, from my conversations with the different MPs, you can tell there are different personalities, there are different views, and different approaches to doing things.
Bharati: You said some of you are here because the PAP’s policies changed your life. How have the PAP's policies over the years changed your life?
Rahayu: It's basically meritocracy, but with support, because I came from a middle-income background and through the financial assistance I've gotten over the years, my parents managed to put me through school and also had the opportunity to improve themselves. Basic things like housing and all that were met.
So I'm appreciative of the opportunities that I've been given over the years, and I saw the efforts. I started getting involved when I was 17, when I started debating. I was then given opportunities to actually attend forums, focus group discussions. I remembered being really concerned about issues that ministers at the forum raised and it sounded as though they had standard answers, but over time I saw that whatever views people gave translated to transformations of, or changes to policies.
So I saw that it could work, that it did not mean that if you didn't get an answer during that particular session, or it's not an immediate response to what you want, that things don't change. They do, and I found that that is useful. When I was growing up, this was how I felt and I believed in the party philosophy, in the values which why I'm now in the party and in politics.
Bharati: You mentioned meritocracy, and indeed that is something that has been lauded by the Government as something that has worked in Singapore. However, some take issue with the exam meritocracy, because not everyone has the resources to get tuition, for instance.
Has it really resulted in social mobility that is actually more objective in its execution, rather than based on one’s parents’ wealth? Others ask if meritocracy has in fact led to an “every man for himself” mentality. What do you have to say to people who are actually questioning whether this is working?
Rahayu: I actually think that meritocracy in itself would not work, because there are certain circumstances where you need to give support. When I mentioned meritocracy earlier, I also said meritocracy with support.
Bharati: But obviously people with money will be able to help their children much more than even the Government can help a poorer individual because, let's face it, the Government's resources are finite. There'll always be a section of society that will be trying to play catch-up.
Rahayu: Personally, I feel this is definitely an area that we can improve upon. I'm not saying that it is fine the way it is, that we should remain status quo, and that this, on its own, will work, but it is the way the Government has handled this meritocracy. It's about actually giving opportunities, fair opportunities for all, but always, always having that support necessary, where it is deemed so. For example, things like, say the Opportunity Fund being put into place. I think that's something that needs to actually be developed.
Bharati: What improvements would you suggest?
Rahayu: For example, in terms of education - that has been said to be the leveller for those who have come from families with unfortunate backgrounds. I completely agree with you, and that's an issue I have about how when someone who is more well off can actually afford tuition and become better.
Then, it is about really tracing back, going back upstream and seeing what support we can give from the outset. It is up to the point when the child starts school. It can be all the way back to kindergarten, because I remember the time when I was in school, and at that point in time there were very few exclusive kindergartens, and my mom really wanted to spend the money sending all of us there, because she felt those kindergartens could give us a little bit more than other students.
So I personally feel very strongly that you need to actually look at some of these additional things that can be given to families with children, who are from needy families. Things like, say, excursions or overseas trips. Things that may not directly relate to curriculum.
There needs to be support for this child to be exposed to a lot more things, so that his world view changes. My world view changed because in school I remember not being able to afford going to certain excursions because my parents didn't have the money. But as I went on in life, I took part in other opportunities, I volunteered in programmes so that I could go overseas. It is about providing these network opportunities, and you need to also tell them that it's available.
Bharati: Speaking of networks, because of the way the admission system is designed, the children of people with networks tend to get into better schools. Alumni connections still do factor in the admission system. Do you think something like that ought to be re-looked at? That it should be true meritocracy, at least when it comes to school admissions?
Rahayu: Definitely an area I think that should be looked at, but at the end of the day it's also about quality education for students at all schools. The schools may not have the same curriculum, may not have the same exposure, but we need to make sure that at all schools, students are given quality education by teachers. I agree that you need to re-look some of these things and allow students from poorer backgrounds to join elite schools.
Bharati: In the first place, should the presence of elite schools be encouraged? That’s the other issue.
Rahayu: Agreed, agreed. But these are things that have come over the years. I don't think it's possible to immediately change it, because with the alma mater also comes a strong sense of bonding, and a strong sense of togetherness, which I think is in itself a value of its own.
But what I think the negative that comes out of it, is if it deprives someone from a lesser income background to be able to actually have benefits coming from the school. I think it will take time for people to appreciate this, to appreciate that you need to balance the interests. I think, slowly then, people will come to appreciate that. We need to give opportunities for students from different backgrounds to come together in the different schools.
Bharati: You talked earlier about how being an MP is quite an adjustment for you. I'm just wondering why you actually did it, because even in your introduction video for the PAP, you had said that your own husband said to you:"What can you do as an MP that you are not already doing right now?" in relation to your grassroots work and your volunteer work. Could you tell us what the reason was again for you to take that extra step?
Rahayu: When I was asked, I saw it as a responsibility, I saw it as a duty. I don't mean to sound, like it's very difficult, but it is also something that was not an easy decision for me because I was very comfortable doing what I was doing at the Syariah court. I enjoyed the work very, very much and I also enjoyed the freedom of not being judged for every single thing I said.
But I felt that, here I was given an opportunity to do something different, to do something more. To carry out the things that I have asked for, because previously, all I did was basically give comments whenever there were issues, or actually help out with programs that I was already connected to. I saw it as an opportunity to actually do something about it.
Bharati: Most MPs talk about serving, how they take on the job so that they can serve the community etc. It all sounds very noble, but isn't politics also about power, rather than just duty?
Rahayu: I agree with you. With that power, it is really about the ability to use it to get certain things moving.
Bharati: But what about power in the sense … for instance, when it comes to even the little things - when MPs go for grassroots events – they may be treated like royalty. You talked about using power for good, but there's also this other gratuitous side of it.
Rahayu: I will say that I'm still not used to people fussing over me every time I attend an event, opening doors for me, or even watching me park, or wait until I leave before they go. It is really about just reminding myself every day. I appreciate the kindness and the effort. It's just uncomfortable because I'm not used to all that fussing.
Video: Rahayu on "royal treatment"
So I appreciate how they really try to make things convenient, but I don't need it. I am actually quite the girl-next-door when it comes to relationships, so with my grassroots I'm actually very casual with them and I've always, always ask that they be honest, and they have been. I've given a bit of that power to people around me to keep me in check, let me know if there're things that don't work, give me feedback.
Bharati: Do you think they'd really give you honest feedback?
Rahayu: I hope that they will, and I have started to create a certain relationship with them, finding out about them, really being personal with them so I hope by building that relationship, they see me as a friend.
Bharati: Have you told them to stop fussing over you?
Rahayu: I have made comments, but it has been difficult to ask them not to. I think respect should be given, but not in the sense of the “royalty” kind of respect. I think a certain extent of respect is necessary, but the fussing over, I don't know, I suppose some of these things are just practical, it just makes things smoother.
Having a parking lot so you don't have to park so far, that's just convenience. The convenience is also to facilitate the job that has to be done by the MP, because we're running from one place to another, and so it's just really about doing that. But having said that, there are a lot of MPs, myself included, who have also made comments about having parking lots reserved for us. They say "don't worry about it, we will figure it out".
Minister Masagos (Zulkifli), for example, would park when he goes to events, and if he couldn't find parking in the area, he would never tell them. He would just park somewhere else. He would just walk across the road. I think they've been making efforts.
Bharati: To be more ordinary?
Rahayu: Yes, I guess, so that people can relate to them. The reality of it is because there's only so many hours in a day, and there are so many things that need to be done. I don't have my own car, and I've been borrowing my mom's because I need to get around and because it's not my car, if I need to actually go somewhere, and I don't have the keys, I will take the train and the buses. For me, personally, it is just about being able to get there on time, being able to be at many places in one day.
Bharati: I understand it is the nature of the MP's job that would require some conveniences, but I can just hear what some of my listeners will be thinking now. They will say: "My job is terrible too, you know. I have to go from place to place too, but this is my reality. I still have to take public transport." How do you feel when such comments are made? Should such comparisons be made in the first place, in your opinion?
Rahayu: To be completely honest, I think it's not unreasonable for people to feel that way. Sometimes I take the train, and when it gets so crowded, you just can't help but feel very upset. Every morning you've got to deal with your own issues and you can't - When you start comparing and say: "How come things are not done?" you tend to feel a certain way.
I can't say that it's not unexpected, but yes, to an extent, it's very unfair because there's a lot of work that people don't know of, a lot of the time taken from our lives. There are a lot of trade-offs we make, because of the job we do that the people don't know, and we don't share. It's very unfair to make just a linear comparison, just because "you don't take the train, you don't understand me". Or because "I do it, you have to."
We all have worked hard to also get to where we are. I mean, each of us, I think, as an MP, has gone through a certain phase, and some of us have had careers, because of the hard work we've put in, and not because of the MP position, so it's also not fair to judge what the MP does, or has just by virtue of that.
I feel that it is unfair to not let someone reap the success of their hard work. For some who have done well, like I said, even before they became MP, what's wrong with actually being able to drive a car? What's wrong with being able to enjoy that success? So, it's not fair because they worked hard for it? I worked hard to get where I am, and I should not be apologetic about being able to enjoy a bit of the benefits. Of course at the end of the day, I need to be in to be touch, and that's why I think it's very important to continue that conversation.
Bharati: You’ve mentioned being in touch with the ground several times. A lot of MPs come into politics by publicly introducing themselves as coming from very humble backgrounds – their parents were taxi-drivers or hawkers etc. But the concern always is that "Sure, you came from a humble background, but look at you now", and then over the years as you develop into a member of the elite class, you may forget what it was like to go through those difficulties, because now, you live in a nice house, you're getting an MP salary which is more than the average person's salary, etc. How do you hope to counter such criticism and to keep yourself grounded as well?
Rahayu: Walking the ground, doing my house visits, it's always a constant reminder of how it was when I was younger. When I go to the flats and see the families, I remember what it was like, you know, the smells of a HDB flat, of the neighbourhood. So that's my way of actually keeping true. So it is about engaging. It is about talking to people so you never forget why you came here. Because it is about giving a voice to those you can't. So, for me, it is about creating those conversations, continuing with being on the ground. I think that would help.
Bharati: You talked about the trade-offs that MPs have had to make. What's the most important trade-off that you have had to make so far?
Rahayu: Time with my family, time with my husband. That I feel, it has been the hardest, but I'm trying, trying to have it all and make some time for the family. Also every single thing I do, I need to think about carefully, and also making sure that people don't get upset. These little things that I actually never had to think about previously.
Bharati: I understand that you also put your plans to have a baby on the backburner.
Rahayu: My husband and I have been married for about 4 years. We have been trying. We have done things like seeking treatment and all that. I wouldn't want to think of it as putting it on the backburner. It's something that's still in progress, because we're not just saying that, "okay, we're not going to". We'll see what happens, taking it a step at a time. It's a particularly sensitive issue for me. People make comments like "Oh, you should have them quickly", "You should have them fast."
Video: Rahayu on baby plans
It doesn't happen that way, and I know a lot of friends who are also trying, and have tried for many years, and it's not an easy journey. We have been trying, and people have been asking, and now there are assumptions being made about how I'm not prioritising it. I suppose as a woman, as someone who has been trying for many years, it's a sensitive question.
Even before all this happened, even before I became a politician, it had already been an issue. I've started to appreciate and not judge. When I was younger, and my friends who had gotten married earlier, didn't have kids, I would just make comments. I've realised that it can be quite hurtful, because you don't know what that family's going through, and what efforts they've made. They're trying. That's why I say it's just particularly sensitive.
Bharati: It's a medical issue that you're dealing with.
Rahayu: Yeah, it's just not happening. We're trying, so I have to clarify that I’m not putting it on the backburner. I'm still hoping that I will have a child.
Bharati: Wouldn’t the pressures of your MP work make it even more challenging?
Rahayu: I've seen other MPs do it, and I hope that can work for me. I know that it's not going to be easy. Those with children now are also complaining about the lack of time with their children, but that's something that's important for me. The reality of my schedule may make it a bit difficult, but I'm working hard at achieving that.
Bharati: Why is it so important for you to have children?
Rahayu: I've always wanted children, so I think it's a personal thing. For me, it's also an opportunity to bring someone up, to actually nurture them and tell them about the world, and share my life, so that's always been my dream, and I think it's just personal for me.
Bharati: What if it never happens?
Rahayu: That reality has crossed my mind. It makes me feel very sad when I think about it, but I also have to very realistic. I'm a Muslim, so at the end of the day I believe that as long as you try hard enough and if God decides a certain way, then you've got to accept it, the reasons why some things happen. Also, I'm very close to some of my nieces and nephews, and I have the love of those children, so I think it'll be okay.
Bharati: You mentioned earlier that one of the things that were said about you initially bothered you – that you’re just token representation for the Malay-Muslim community.
There are those within the community who sometimes say – and this is just anecdotal – that the Malay-Muslim MPs don’t do enough to address the community’s concerns for instance, the tudung issue. What’s your reading of this?
Rahayu: At a personal level, Parliament hasn't even started yet, so it's very hard. I haven't had that opportunity to prove myself, so I hope people give me a chance. In as far as the general perception is concerned, it is something that has already been raised. Before I entered politics, I was also involved in forums and focus group discussions. So I understand the concerns. But having also now built a more intimate relationship with the Malay-Muslim MPs, I find such comments probably a little unfair, because it's a lot of work that goes beyond what is seen. And like I said earlier, there is a lot of internal discussions and meetings and time that they spend in trying to discuss Malay-Muslim issues.
Bharati: But you can’t blame people if they feel their concerns are not being addressed in spite of these internal discussion and meetings.
Rahayu: Perhaps one thing that I think we could work on is really about sharing that with the people and letting people know efforts are being put in. Not just in terms of what policies have been rolled out, what programmes we have, but to actually let them have an insight about the actual work in terms of trying to discuss issues. Not just about raising it in Parliament. I think raising it in Parliament is one thing, but you also need to be to mindful of the other aspects of things which you need to think about before actually airing it in Parliament.
So I think it's important that people realise this, because at the end of the day I think most rational Muslims appreciate that we want to also be part of this diverse, multi-racial community, and we respect that diversity. And so some things may be a bit tricky, we need to discuss it carefully, but from my intimate discussions with MPs, I realise they do it. They do take up difficult issues in their own GPCs in internal discussions. So I think a bit more slack should be given, and a bit more faith should be given to the Malay-Muslim leadership. In time I hope we could be a bit more open in terms of showing people, so that they know what goes into actually working out the policy or discussing something.
Bharati: Over the years, there has been a lot of focus on the problems within the Malay-Muslim community: High divorce rates, issues in education. Certain issues have been brought up as issues that the Malay-Muslim community more than any other in Singapore is grappling with. While many improvements have occurred within the community, how do you feel about the public focus on the problems within the community that could result in stereotyping?
Rahayu: I think it's about acknowledging that there are problems. We can't run away from that if there are issues, because the only way to resolve it is to first say “yes, there is a problem”. But we also have to acknowledge and celebrate the developments and the successes that have been made over years, because if we don't, we will fall into that trap of making stereotypes.
There have been a lot of success stories, a lot of changing numbers. The Muslim divorce rate, for example, is stabilising over the years. So we need to celebrate these small successes and build on it.
Bharati: At which point do you think we can start seeing people as Singaporeans rather than Malay-Muslim or Chinese or Indian even though our race and ethnicity is an important part of identity? I just wonder if dealing with issues on a community-specific level highlights our differences rather than a common Singaporean identity.
Rahayu: Agree. I completely agree. I think we are all Singaporeans at the end of the day. But you also mentioned something important about identity. So that can't be completely erased in terms of actually being part of a person's identity, of being Malay-Muslim.
I think right now, we are just at the stage where it is about how the community sees the problem, and the comfort level the community has. So the assumption is that the community knows best. You have Malay-Muslim organisations trying to support them. They've been there for years and there is the assumption that people will be more comfortable going to Malay-Muslim organisations.
We are probably moving out of that now, because as I'm speaking to some of the social workers, they've realised that race doesn't matter. It's about the relationship you build. So we started off having a legacy of organisations that has evolved because they saw a need in that community. Even now, a lot of the Malay-Muslim organisations are reaching out to other races when doing their programmes. But it's going to take some time, because that was how we started off. Pioneers who were concerned about their small community started out that way, but now as Singapore grows and as we become familiar and comfortable with each race, there is a shift, I believe.
Bharati: Volunteering within the community as you did before is clearly quite different from serving as an MP. Even though it still means talking to people on the ground and helping to solve their problems, I’m sure people’s expectations of you have risen. How hard is it to deal with those expectations?
Rahayu: I try not to beat myself up over it, you know? I really do my best. So things that I feel need urgent help, I really give that time and attention to. And I try to rationalise. It doesn't always work, but it's about trying to make people understand that some of the things that they are asking for will require some time to process, to actually be studied before an outcome is given. So for me it's about having that conversation with them and telling them how it works. It's not - definitely not easy.
Bharati: So I'm sure you've had to say no to people already. How do you manage that?
Rahayu: I suppose at the end of the day, I have a fall-back response which is 'I will try my best'. And it's not exactly no, but I think it's one way, you know? But I have to be honest about it. If it is something that I really don't think can work, I have told people who come to see me that there's no point in me writing this letter for you if you're going to get the same answer.
So how I do it is also to try to see how else can I resolve your problem. What are the other issues that you're facing arising from this particular issue? So for example, if someone comes and appeals for a traffic summons and he's having difficulties with that, and I can't appeal any further, then it's about trying to see whether he needs any other financial assistance, whether his family needs any support. So it's about going around the problem and looking beyond what cannot be done.
Bharati: Earlier you mentioned something and you said it as a passing remark, but it really struck me. You said that you feel you have to ensure that people don’t get upset. Have people openly castigated you for not being able to meet their demands?
Rahayu: I have had residents raising voices at me, but they're few and far between. So I don't get too caught up with it. Sometimes, I'm also quite upset myself. I feel very defensive about certain things at times. But it's really about trying to maintain my cool and also trying to appreciate where that person is coming from. I don't respond to those reactions. Most times they would just walk away or just close their doors. So that's the worst I've had so far.
So when I said earlier I was afraid about upsetting people, I think it's just the way I am. It's just my nature. I'm a very cordial, conciliatory kind of person, so this job is tough, because it sometimes requires me to take a stand. Actually take a position. And I've come to realise that there are so many opinions and diverse views, and no matter what you say, you can never really please everyone. But you need to be nice. You need to still be friendly and approachable, yet at the same time, remain firm. So it's really quite tough.
Bharati: You have to be a politician – it’s a multi-faceted role.
Rahayu: There are many different aspects to the politician. You need to be very clear about your thoughts, about your views. You need to be able communicate those views, you need to be articulate, you need to be able to be approachable, but you also need to know when you need to be firm. So lot of these skills come into play, and for me, it is a discovery about myself and about my resilience and about my ability to communicate.
It's really about honing the way I reach out to people. I think a lot of people think MPs are super humans, or at least, have this vision of “oh, you should be this, you should be that”. But at the end of the day, we're all humans. You talk like a regular person, you make mistakes sometimes. You joke inappropriately or you may think about something aloud and that's wrong and you can't do that anymore. I'm not saying that it is not a realistic expectation. In fact, I think the MP has to appreciate this, and I think we all do that.
When we take this role, this is the expectation, and we have to try at least, to try and be that super-being that people expect us to be.
But a little compassion would help, you know. A little understanding about how we also have our own problems to deal with. We have families, we also have issues at work. We're real people living real lives, and it's not always easy. So sometimes, you know, it's about understanding. It’s very, very important to have that bond, to really understand what that person is like before you pass judgement. So I'm hoping for an electorate that will also mature. I think it's okay to take a view and comment and disagree with policies or issues that are raised by the MP, but we really should not make personal attacks.
Bharati: Clearly, there are many who use their vote as a bargaining chip. This happens not just in Singapore. How do you feel about that?
Rahayu: It bothers me. I think because it should be a relationship. It should be about understanding their needs. But unfortunately that's how the pace of life is. And it is how some things just need to be. So I hope for a relationship, but I completely appreciate that sometimes it's just transactional, and that's just how some people see it.
Bharati: You mentioned earlier that when you were growing up, you had gone to forums and engaged with MPs and politicians and you thought they often gave standard answers. Are you wary of yourself giving standard answers as well?
Rahayu: Yes. Always I ask myself, am I being too defensive? And actually, the guidance given to us is there's no need to be, you know, you're here for the people, hear them out, and if you have views ... In fact, that was the tip given to us when we were campaigning, that you need to just voice out what you feel is not right, because this is an opportunity for you to share who you are and what you stand for.
So I'm not sure if there was a shift from how things were in the past, but definitely now you see more of the Members of Parliament actually making their views heard. Not always necessarily agreeing with the policies made, giving feedback, and providing constructive inputs.
Bharati: Mr Heng Swee Keat has been appointed to lead efforts to analyse what happened in the last election, draw lessons for the PAP's next campaign. A lot of criticism was leveled at the PAP before and during the election, but ultimately we saw a really good win for the PAP. Analysts say that the win can be attributed also to several factors such as the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and SG50 – things that will never be repeated. So what do you think needs to happen within the PAP in order to make it a relevant party going forward so that it remains relevant even in the absence of special circumstances?
Rahayu: I think it's about always hearing the ground and always being open. So these are some of the things that they're already doing, but I think perhaps in the past, there was a bit of formality to that relationship, you know. Perhaps it was transactional in that you just delivered. But now, there is greater effort in trying to engage. It's also more about transparency and openness, and explaining why some things cannot be done or may not be in the interest of people. Hard conversations, I suppose, difficult conversations.
Bharati: One of the more common criticisms that has been at the PAP over the years is that they're bullies, they're arrogant. At this point, it seems the party is working to address this, but how do you feel about the criticism?
Rahayu: I think that it's always a work in progress, in terms of the approach. The way I see it, yes, certain things are already in place that supports the 'incumbent'. The party's been there for so long, it's got a wealth of knowledge and understanding, and it's refined its processes, its ability to take care of the people. I think it's unfair to fault the party for being very good.
And when you say arrogant and a bully, if you’re talking about it in relation to say the Opposition parties, then I think we need to be very careful about how we see it, because it's not about being arrogant, but at the end of the day, it is an adversarial process in which you choose who is the better among the two.
I feel that higher standards are applied to the PAP. Because they're so good, they have to be a certain way, and they have to be like this and like that. We have to give space to the Opposition. Why must that be? Shouldn't the Opposition strive and become better and work at building their mechanisms, building their system?
As far as the party's concerned, they will continually try and improve, but I think we shouldn't just have diversity just for the sake of having diversity. The whole point of having diversity is that so things get done and people's needs are met. We don't need to be apologetic about the way we are if this is how the Government is, the party is. This is how we've attracted investors. For now, maybe this is how it should be, but we still definitely need to give the space for diverse views to come. I don't think that has been stopped in any way. People are free to come and run for elections and say their piece.
Bharati: There is a perception among some quarters that the decks are stacked against the opposition, which is why the PAP is held to higher standards as compared to the opposition.
Rahayu: I appreciate that view, but to be fair to the party, I think the party also did not get there without hard work and without actually checking in with the people. Every time we are put up for election, every time there's a contest, we risk it all. We still leave it to the people to make that decision.
Bharati: So what is the one lesson that you think the PAP can draw from the last election?
Rahayu: I think it would be that we need to continue to work hard at this. That it is an ongoing process of reviewing, renewing and revitalising, and it may not come in that form that you see in other countries, but it is something for Singapore to decide.
Bharati: You agreed earlier that the job of being a politician is multi-faceted. You also have to engage in a lot of public relations. How do you ensure that you don’t lose your sincerity amid all these demands? I’m sure there is some danger of that.
Rahayu: You're right, because a lot of the things I have to do, for example, putting things up on Facebook - it's one of the things that I like the least. I really, really do, and I know it's supposed to be easy, but I've never been that sort of person who posts every single thing I eat or every trip I go on, so that was a challenge for me. That's a challenge, and every time I put something up, I'm wondering what people think about it, and there are a lot more people looking at it now.
I do get a bit bothered by it, but at the end of the day, because I'm always still doing the actual work. I'm not worried that I would lose that sincerity because that's just one aspect of the job. I'm always kept grounded by the people I meet, by my grassroots, by my family members, so I'm fortunate in that sense.