Heart on the Ground
PUBLISHED ON 28 Dec 2018
He was a Senior Counsel in a top law firm whose day used to revolve around strategising and acting for mostly high net-worth clients and moneyed corporations to achieve their legal goals. These days, Edwin Tong, 49, focuses on talking to people on the ground to hone policies which meet their needs and, leaning on his decades of legal experience, takes up cases for his residents whom he feels have been disadvantaged by the system.
He enjoys it.
“Being out there and becoming closer to stakeholders who either benefit from or are affected by policies, and using that knowledge to shape what we do with Government policies is meaningful,” said Mr Tong, who left his high-flying career as a partner in Allen and Gledhill law firm in July 2018 to become a full-time politician.
During the interview, the Senior Minister of State for Law and Health spent some time recounting his recent experiences in talking to caregivers as part of his Health portfolio, as he is trying to strengthen support for them.
Said Mr Tong: “I had perhaps somewhat naively thought that there was adequate support for caregivers when I first came into the Health Ministry. But when I talked to caregivers from various diverse backgrounds, I realised that their journey is a really tough one, and often long and lonely. We could do more to help them care for their loved ones.”
For instance, he was moved when he talked to caregivers, mostly women in their 50s, who might have to spend 45 minutes or more just struggling to help their handicapped parents to the toilet and back, if they did not have the proper equipment.
The Ministry of Health is looking at enhancing holistic support for caregivers. For instance, Mr Tong explained that currently, patients in nursing homes enjoy more financial subsidies than patients who are cared for at home. “We don’t want to end up driving patients to nursing homes. We want family members to care for their loved ones themselves as much as possible, and we need to design policies to encourage that.”
Care for the caregivers
His team at the Ministry of Health (MoH) is also looking at respite care so that caregivers can get some time off if they are sick or need a break, providing better navigation services so that caregivers know where to find help, creating peer support networks, and working with employers to provide schemes for flexi hours for their employment.
“And it’s not just about financial assistance. We want to be very targeted in meeting caregivers’ specific needs. Ultimately, we want to help them to help their care recipients, so that our seniors can remain with their families, and age in place, in an environment they are used to, and comfortable in,” he pointed out.
Between his two portfolios, Mr Tong — who was persuaded to become a full- time politician by Law and Home Affairs Minister, Mr K Shanmugam who was also a former lawyer — is clearly more familiar with the Law portfolio, having spent 25 years in active legal practice. At the Law Ministry, Mr Tong is kept busy with legal reforms and engagement with various stakeholders, including lawyers, the Courts and other agencies. One key task is to continue to elevate Singapore’s position as a legal services hub, to support and advance the rule of law so that businesses and industries have the confidence to locate here.
Health matters

At the MOH, he is also carrying on from what his predecessor, Senior Minister of State, Mr Chee Hong Tat had been working on. Amongst them is CareShield Life, a national long-term care insurance scheme which will be launched in 2020, to provide long-term disability care for Singaporeans, and also alleviate the care burden on their family members.
As part of efforts to stamp out smoking in Singapore, Mr Tong is currently busy with efforts to mandate that all tobacco products sold in Singapore are in plain packaging, with graphic health warnings covering at least 75 per cent of the packet.
“In a way, this straddles both law and health, because there have been legal challenges to plain packaging, and we have to be careful how this is being rolled out. This is one example of how the two ministries’ work dovetail,” he said.
Aside from busying himself with his new work scope over the last six months he notes that the feel of his working day has also changed.
“In private legal practice, the peaks could be very intense when preparing for a hearing. Judges can give you a lot of stress! But after that, you can get a bit of downtime. In the ministries, the work intensity is kept high at a constant level most of the time and, perhaps because I am in a new environment at the moment, I find that I have less control of my own time,” he said.
But he does miss the cut-and-thrust of being in court. “It is a challenging environment in court — dealing with opposing counsel, questions from the bench and trying to manage the witnesses, all at the same time. But there is a single-minded objective that you want to achieve. It may be a different case, different client, different argument, but always one objective. I enjoyed that, and I enjoyed the camaraderie of working with my team in practice.”
Photo from Edwin Tong's FB