To celebrate the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) 65th anniversary, we interviewed nine retired Members of Parliament (MPs) to share their insights.
Here ’s the first of our nine-part series where former Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Ow Chin Hock shares the challenges he faced.
- Served six terms as MP
- Five terms as MP for Leng Kee SMC (1976-1997)
- One term as MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC (1997-2001)
- Parliamentary Secretary for Culture (Oct 1977- Jan 1981) and Education (Jan-Apr 1981)
- Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Mar 1997- Oct 2001)
1. Can you share some of the challenges you faced as an MP? Dr Ow: My first major challenge resulted from the changes of constituency boundaries. Each time it happened, I had to rebuild and re-organise.
In 1976, Leng Kee constituency was formed by the merger of part of old Leng Kee with part of Alexandra constituency. There were no resources, no facilities and a handful of party members and community leaders remaining in Leng Kee. I had to build Leng Kee branch and grassroots organisation from scratch.
I canvased donations from two friends and came out with my own money to start Leng Kee Branch. The fund was used to purchase furniture so that I could conduct my Meet the People’s sessions. I recruited a few residents and convinced some friends to join me.
Looking back, it was a blessing in disguise to start from scratch because we did not have any historical baggage. We shared similar goals, tacked the challenges together, and over time, we built a cohesive team and many stayed to serve for a long time.
I set up a welfare fund, and a bursary/ scholarship fund to help the poorer constituents. I also decided to build a new multi-purpose community centre. To raise funds, I convinced two Taiwan Television stations to help to stage a charity show at the then National Theatre in 1977; this first successful fundraiser was followed by two more charity shows, and other fund raising activities..
The second challenge was to help residents to improve their housing conditions. I helped the Housing and Development Board (HDB) resettle about 35 per cent of residents who were living in one-room rental flats built after the Bukit Ho Swee fire.
Next, I helped to improve the living environment for residents living in the 3-room purchased flats in Stirling area through HDB’s Main Upgrading Programme. I had to repeat these tasks when my Leng Kee constituency was fragmented and merged with the Delta constituency after the 1988 general election, helping the HDB to resettle rented flats dwellers and to redevelop the Alexandra area through the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme.
2. What were your memorable moments?
Dr Ow: I served in the Ministry of Culture, with Mr Ong Teng Cheong as my minister; we worked closely as a team. There were two memorable events. First, the official opening of the Festival of Arts in 1977, the first ever in Singapore. Second, the official opening of Victoria Concert Hall in 1979 after its renovation. I was the host, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was the Guest of Honour, and the performance was Yellow River Cantata (黄河大合唱).
Another memorable event was with Dr Goh Keng Swee who invited me to a dinner in honour of Mr Deng Xiaoping, the leader of China, in November 1978.
I was seated next to the main table. I overheard Dr Goh asking Mr Deng how he learnt his Mandarin and Mr Deng’s reply was “I do not speak Mandarin, I only speak Sichuan language. (我不讲普通话，我只讲四川话)” with a laughter. The next day, I accompanied Dr Goh to send off Mr Deng. After Deng left, I asked Dr Goh what he thought of Mr Deng, Dr Goh replied, “I don’t want to be his enemy.”
3. As an MP, where was the most interesting place you have been to?
Dr Ow: I went to Venezuela in 1979 with another MP, representing Singapore in the International Parliamentary Union (IPU) conference.We were put up at Hilton Hotel at Caracas. When we looked out from our hotel window, there were slums on the other side. We witnessed first-hand the extreme uneven income distribution.
As the food was expensive in the hotel, we asked a taxi driver to bring us to a restaurant. We didn’t understand Spanish and we ended up ordering three soups (soupa).
4. As an MP, who was the most interesting person you have met?
Dr Ow: I met Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, in South Africa in the late nineties. He lobbied for Singapore’s support for a solution related to Palestine at the United Nations. When we met, he hugged me. At that moment, one thought went through my mind: “His dream would never come through during his lifetime” and I felt very sad.
5. As PAP celebrates its 65th birthday, what is your wish for the Party?
Dr Ow: I have three wishes.
One, our party continues to win the trust of our people, and their mandate so that our Party continues to form stable governments in future.
Two, that our future PAP governments will continue to be honest and clean, effective and efficient, transparent and accountable, able to formulate and implement polices to promote economic growth, maintain harmony and stability, defend and protect our country, and adapt and adjust to the ever-changing environments, internally and externally.
Three, our party will be successful in recruiting Singaporeans who are honest, capable, committed, and willing to make sacrifices to serve.