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Baey Yam Keng

Become – High Profiles
April 27, 2018

I am shadowing Baey Yam Keng today on one of his Meet-The-People (MPS) sessions. For a couple of hours every Monday evening, anyone can drop in for a few minutes of his time and advice. Many do. The place is busy, with shoes and slippers littered from the entrance to the end of the walkway. It is not difficult to spot Baey amidst the bustle. He sits rod-straight, unwavering, with his hands loosely cupped together over his knees, leaning slightly forward as he listens to the resident in front of him. I try to be as still and quiet as possible. This time belongs to him and those who come by, and I do not wish to intrude. As we rotate throughout the night, Baey switches easily between languages and dialects—and the ability to speak multiple tongues is, in fact, one of the factors why he was approached to become a politician.

An In-Depth Conversation with Baey Yam Keng

Parliamentary Secretary for Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth
Text by Xiangyun Lim
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

XIANGYUN LIM: Your career started in the public sector. Was entering politics the eventual goal?

BAEY YAM KENG: No. Growing up, I wasn’t involved in youth grassroots or community efforts, and only did my part by attending National Service like everyone else. I was recommended by a friend to the party a few months before the General Elections in 2006. They were looking for someone who was ‘bilingual’ or ‘bicultural’ then. Those were the buzzwords during that time.

XIANGYUN: What made you agree to join?

BAEY: I was 35 then, with three very young kids, and thought it was something worth trying. I had zero experience and had no idea what to expect, but I decided to take the risk. The opportunity to change my career also excited me.

XIANGYUN: You have been involved in politics for over a decade. What do you find most enjoyable in the constituency work that you do?

BAEY: We can really make a difference as politicians. It could be things that seem really small, such as improving the design of our HDB blocks. It could also be the ability to involve residents in these decisions, and to allow them a vote and say. There is also the ability to make a direct impact on people’s lives. I remember an incident involving a family who came to an MPS session, and they had 10 to 13 people living together in a flat. I spoke to one of the daughters present and found out that she had been accepted into university, but saw no point in enrolling as her living conditions were simply not conducive for studying. I told her that it would be such a pity if she didn’t study, because once you stop doing something, you may not go back. So I knew there were things I could do like e-mail MOE and reinstate her place, or help her get financial aid so that she could stay in the Hall. I think she has just graduated. Knowing that I have made a difference in her life—and hopefully her family’s as well—is really heartening. Matters are sometimes not as simple as they seem. If we ask and probe deeper, we can always find a way.

XIANGYUN Did you feel like you could affect these sort of changes when you worked in the public sector?

BAEY: Not in the role that I was in. Even a social worker or counsellor would have to take more steps to push for change. I have the contacts and know who to call when needed, and things can fall quickly into place. This is not to say that the system will not work without an MP stepping in, but I think I can now accelerate processes and remove stumbling blocks. It’s not a fault of our system. There is a space for MPs, and I feel privileged to have this opportunity.

XIANGYUN: Would you say that what you have is a form of power?

BAEY: Yes. It’s power and influence, on top of the familiarity and knowledge we have of the system. We should have this knowledge of policies and how things work, so that we can offer better advice and counsel.

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The people who come to these MPS sessions range from the old to the young—individuals, couples and families—everyone has a story to tell. It is an efficient operation here, almost clinical. One enters and heads to the ‘reception’ made up of student volunteers typing away at laptops. They record your case and you join the queue. The lights are bright, the tables and chairs built for functionality rather than design. When your turn comes, someone guides you to sit at an allocated free spot where Baey will join you.

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XIANGYUN: Can you share some stories from the MPS sessions that have stuck with you?

BAEY: I get to see many faces as an MP, both the positive and negative. There are those who try to take advantage of the system. For example, there was an undergraduate who came to me for help because he wanted to apply for an HDB. I was surprised by his keenness, and it turned out that he simply wanted to use his student status to get a larger grant from HDB, because he and his girlfriend would fall under the single-income tier.

XIANGYUN: At least he’s straightforward about his intentions!

BAEY: Oh yes, I have to admire his honesty. He could’ve spun a lot of stories for me but he didn’t. So I wrote his request as described, and sent in the appeal to HDB.

XIANGYUN: Was it approved?

BAEY: I didn’t check, but I highly doubt HDB would have approved it.

XIANGYUN: I find it interesting that you sent in the appeal even though you didn’t agree fully with his intentions. Furthermore, you knew that there would be a low chance of it being approved.

BAEY: This is the difference between being a politician and a civil servant. As an MP, I have to help without placing judgement. Anyone has the right to see me. It’s also up to HDB to assess his appeal. Yes, I may not agree with his rationale. But writing a letter for him does not equate support. I’m simply writing a letter for him and to convey his wish to the right authorities.

XIANGYUN: That seems like a pretty fine line to tread.

BAEY: Yes. I have to also accept that what I’m told may not be the full story. Those who come to me can choose to tell me only certain things that help their case, and I can’t verify what I hear from them. That’s also not my job. My role is to communicate what is happening. I can offer advice and alternative solutions if I feel that it’s not the way to do things, or if people get caught up in their situation and they can’t see things clearly. I’m prepared to do that. But I have to put on a politician hat. Ultimately, I’m here to serve them. I shouldn’t, and cannot question things that pertain to their moral values. I’m not the one to make the judgement call.

XIANGYUN: How do you manage to be empathetic yet not overly-emotional when dealing with so many people?

BAEY: Through experience, and learning from mistakes. I have lost my cool before, and the resident was taken aback. Some of them tell me “Hey, I voted for you, you know?”, or allude to it. Every case can be new or old. I guess what’s important is learning how to react and give sound advice.

XIANGYUN: How do you deal with receiving criticism during live sessions? You wrote about this in one of the essays in your book.

BAEY: That incident was about an uncle who told me that he came six months ago to complain about the bus service, but still saw no changes. I had to explain why six months is not enough time to get a new bus service running. Certain changes take time, while others cannot be effected. Nonetheless, I have to provide updates, so that residents understand the way systems work.

XIANGYUN: What else do you do to reach out to the people?

BAEY: Soon after I became an MP, I realised that MPS sessions are not the best platforms. There’s a long queue and I can only spend a couple of minutes with each visitor. Moreover, there can be a lot to gain from collective discussions, which allows us to learn from each other and hear residents’ views, desires and ideas. The dialogues we host are often with selected groups of people, and may not be representative of the larger population. I wanted something more open and inclusive, and that was how the KopiTalk sessions came about. At a public space like a food court where anyone can attend, people can say their piece and have a discussion without any preset agendas. It’s a less intimidating environment where anyone can feel free to express themselves.

XIANGYUN: Sometimes our society is not accepting enough to let people feel comfortable in expressing their views.

BAEY: You’re right to say that KopiTalk will still not include everyone in discussions. So how can I learn to communicate better with people using all available platforms to me? Whatever we do, from house visits to sessions and events—only reach a small fraction of the whole population. We have to find ways to share more about what we do as MPs, which is why I choose to be very active on social media. It allows more people to know what I’m doing. Whether they like or dislike what I am doing, I hope that I can build awareness and perhaps even appreciation for what we do through consistency.

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I observe Baey as he listens and responds. He is pragmatic and solution-oriented, though not once dismissive. There is always a sense of the clock ticking. Two hours is seldom enough for everyone. It will be a different story when we speak one-on-one in a separate session. In his answers, I can feel him taking more time to contextualise my questions and strategise what to say. To think quickly while being present in an interview is an art of communication, and it’s no surprise given his professional experience working in PR.

Baey also manages his public persona like a business or brand—his Facebook and Instagram feeds are peppered with official photographs from events, daily happenings as well as open invites to #runwithBYK. The mandatory selfie makes an occasional appearance. I wonder how it feels to be so accessible to the public. And yet Baey claims that he is by nature an introvert. To him, social media is merely another platform to reach out to people in another way, and he has to play by its rules.

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XIANGYUN: How do you see social media as an instrument?

BAEY: Things were very different when I joined. MPs were not really people that you see often nor know quite well. Things totally changed after the supposedly watershed elections in 2011. There were some frustrations about issues such as housing and transport in the years leading up to it. We were trying to quickly recover from the recession, and the infrastructure couldn’t keep up. I think the loss in popular vote emboldened people. They realised things were not status quo, and that they could actually effect change. I remember the first day after GE’11. My constituency had lost 10 or 11 percent of votes. The sense that I got from people watching us when we walked around was: You guys didn’t get a lot of votes this time, so you better work harder. Social media can help to change public sentiments. I think being visible on social media helps people feel more comfortable to approach me. They see me as a real person, and technology and social media can help to establish that connection. At the same time, my job becomes more challenging because people also have more courage to say and do things, sometimes even with the power to influence.

XIANGYUN: They may also be more sceptical and critical of what you put out there on social media, even distrustful.

BAEY: I’ll be quite happy if they think that way. It means they’re being discerning. It’s true that we can’t believe everything that is on social media. People may think that I’m someone who’s extroverted, or louder and more vocal than I really am. But I’m not actually a very sociable person by nature. I’m more reserved.

XIANGYUN: Was it your intention to build an extroverted image then?

BAEY: Not particularly. It’s just the nature of social media and what it calls for. While I may be more reserved as a person, I need to be accessible as an MP. So I make the effort to play the role. I’m now more sociable and friendlier than in the past—I’ll be the first to say hi, smile, and strike up a conversation.

Some people may think I’m not as good as how I appear on social media. That’s fine. I’m not a perfect person. But I hope that people can see my sincerity.

XIANGYUN: How would you prefer people to remember you?

BAEY: Some people may think I’m not as good as how I appear on social media. That’s fine. I’m not a perfect person. But I hope that people can see my sincerity. I have my own interpretation of what makes a good MP, and I try to perform the role well.

XIANGYUN: How do you protect your private life and time, in the public sphere?

BAEY: I'm prepared to be scrutinised in the public space outside of my house. Whatever I do may be captured on video or photographs, and shared on social media. It doesn’t bother me anymore. But my home is my private space. I don’t post photos of my family. My kids are too young.

XIANGYUN: Do your kids feel comfortable with you being a public figure?

BAEY: More so when they were younger. Now they prefer not to be seen with me when I attend events. I respect their decision, and I think it’s for the best.

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I leave the MPS session unexpectedly emotional and drained. These sessions are intimate windows into people’s lives, granting you access to problems that keep them up at night, and restless in the day. There is responsibility in knowing. And to hold these sessions in a kindergarten, with its crayon drawings hung on the walls and bookshelves full of bright small books, is a reminder of the kind of society we are creating for the next generations.

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XIANGYUN: Do you worry about the kind of Singapore your children will grow up in?

BAEY: Singapore is a miracle. We shouldn’t be here. We’re small and have no resources. We can’t take it for granted that our country will always be prosperous. But we do.

XIANGYUN: We have changed very fast.

BAEY: The needs of today and the future are far more complex compared to the past. It’s much more than just fulfilling the basics like food, jobs, money and stability. It will be harder to meet our higher levels of expectations and needs, which will be a challenge in the future. The margin of improvement in our lives will become much smaller, and it might even disappear. We’ve reached a plateau. Moving into an HDB flat was a big leap for me. My children are fortunate to grow up in a safe environment and have a roof over their heads. So what’s next then? Will living in an HDB feel like a downgrade?

XIANGYUN: The generation who made Singapore into what she is today, will not be the ones leading Singapore into the future.

BAEY: But I think there are constants that should always remain. The desire to do what it takes to create a better future for Singapore is fundamental, just like the need to put food on the table, have personal aspirations, and so on. As leaders, we must find ways to address them. We must also have the ability to connect with people and get their support. Whatever Lee Kuan Yew did in the past will no longer work today. Many more are educated and will not follow policies blindly without questioning. But they can actively contribute and improve Singapore, in different sectors and ways. And we need them to do that.

I will be very heartened if my children view having a home and raising a family as more important than simply owning a big house.

XIANGYUN: How can we move ahead?

BAEY: It’s about having the right perspective. This is not only pertaining to our infrastructure but also our expectations and priorities. For example, I will be very heartened if my children view having a home and raising a family as more important than simply owning a big house. Our society and family upbringing play important roles in shaping our mindset.

XIANGYUN: There are those who want to help Singapore and are ready to push boundaries, but lack support or are so stifled by our society that they decide to leave.

BAEY: The decision to leave is a very personal choice. The reasons could range from job opportunities to policies they don’t agree with. I’m glad for those who find a better lifestyle elsewhere. Whether or not they acknowledge that, the years they spent in Singapore helped them get there. Our challenge, then, is to keep the connection with them and maintain the links that they have here. Can they still see Singapore as their home? A home they can make better? What are the ties that bind them here: friends and family? The government is very mindful of these issues, and we try to make the policies more flexible for them. But we can’t lose the fundamentals of policies.

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XIANGYUN: What should the next generation of leaders do to ensure the success of Singapore?

BAEY: Our leaders must have the wisdom to chart a better future. How does our economy change to create better, if not equal opportunities for locals? How can we carve out a niche and stay competitive in the global world? We should still be ahead of the curve, and even be paranoid about being left behind. At the same time, leaders need to ask ourselves how we can rally our people behind our vision. How can we get Singaporeans to take on their roles to realise the dreams of a nation that they too will benefit from? Leaders need to also instil empathy in those who cannot progress at the same pace. We are a society that shouldn’t discriminate against others who may not have what you have. We need to be inclusive.

XIANGYUN: Can we be inclusive if we have so much focus on projecting a clean and prosperous image to the world? For example, when I did the campaign For A Golden Home in 2014 to raise awareness and funds for our elderly living alone in one-room flats, I found almost zero statistics on them despite how prevalent the issue was. Only the general Singapore Statistics were available.

BAEY: I don’t think anyone is hiding this issue. As a society, I think we’re quite receptive. I do see quite a lot of social initiatives, so I’d disagree with your point.

XIANGYUN: No, it’s not hidden. But I felt like it was played down. I made a video showing Singaporeans the conditions these elderly were living in; none of them could imagine that such one-room flats with dirty and unlivable conditions even existed. This is on top of the difficulties that they face being alone in their twilight years. The image they had of our nation really shook me up.

BAEY: You share the same spirit as the young volunteers in my MPS sessions. Most of them email me out of their own will, wanting to be involved and to serve the community; there are also schools that bring students to old folks homes to deliver food.

XIANGYUN: Delivering food seldom leads to interaction.

BAEY: Yes. The depth may not be there, but they won’t live under the illusion that there are no poor people around.

XIANGYUN: There seems a level of detachment that doesn’t reflect that.

BAEY: I agree that there is detachment. And yet there are some people who are inspired to be involved in certain causes, and rally their friends behind their causes or even start social enterprises. There are committed young people who continue beyond one-off projects too. The numbers are more than expected, which is encouraging to me.

XIANGYUN: Do you see hope for our future?

BAEY: Well, I’ve seen how we have evolved in the last 50 years and changed things for the better. The journey ahead is definitely more difficult. But we don’t have a choice. I hope that Singapore can continue to create miracles.

XIANGYUN: What keeps you going?

BAEY: Each day is different for me. The chance to do my part in making an impact excites me—like the work that I do in MCCY or as a town council chairman. The many facets of my life give me a sense of fulfilment, and once you find what you do fulfilling, you have the energy to carry on.

XIANGYUN: When do you think you will stop?

BAEY: Never, I hope.

 

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Edited by Wy-Lene Yap