This is 1 of the 11 interview features as part of our International Women’s Day Special Edition.
By Thet Hninn Zin (21A13A)
Photo courtesy of Mothership
As someone who was a candidate through two whole rounds of General Elections—with the 2015 bearing disheartening results vis-à-vis the recent 2020 elections that bore great fruit for the Workers’ Party, MP He Ting Ru has truly gone through a myriad of experiences. In this interview, we transport her back to her school days in Raffles Junior College, as she reminisces about the day-to-day experiences with her classmates, whilst also giving her keen insight about the future that lies ahead for Singaporean youths and female empowerment in Singapore.
- What was your subject combination and CCA in RJ? How did you find your class and CCA?
I was in S03E, which was a Triple Science and Maths class. I played the clarinet and bass clarinet in the symphonic band. My class and CCA mates were really fun characters, and I do remember lots of laughs. Many of them were extremely bright, with a wide range of interests, and have since gone on to have pretty amazing life experiences.
- The high-stakes competition in RJ is something that almost everyone struggles with. Do you have any advice for current students?
To be honest, my classmates were a wonderful bunch, and I would feel very comfortable going to them for help if I was struggling with a particular topic or question. I do remember having friendly, jokey competitions though about who would finish a practical class first (added incentive being that it was usually the last lesson of the day and we could leave once we were done), and who would be the first to finish the tutorial questions after a lecture was done. The atmosphere was very collegial—once the whole class chimed in to buy and eat a certain sweet because I was collecting empty packets to exchange them for film memorabilia!
As for advice, I would say, healthy competition may be good to fulfil one’s potential, but remember that in a decade or so, you would look back and remember the intangible lessons more than the academic ones—whether it be exploring a particular interest via your CCA, or discussions about topics outside of your subjects. It is really friendships and memories that you take with you after you graduate.
- Who was your favourite teacher?
We were lucky to have a group of very dedicated and committed teachers, and I would be pressed to name a favourite teacher! Most of them would speak to us as peers, and I believe we had a good relationship with them – we even attended our Form Tutor Mr Koh’s wedding after we graduated.
- What is your favourite and least favourite part about your job?
My favourite part would be the wide range of people that we meet—it is easy to sometimes live within a bubble in Singapore, where people end up so wrapped up in their lives and families that they forget to appreciate the communities around them. It has been a really rewarding and humbling time getting to know our volunteers, residents and communities, to hear their stories and learn about the amazing things that many of them are doing in order to build a better community around them. It affirms my belief that most good work is done by individuals without fanfare or the need for fancy degrees.
The least favourite part of my job would be the feeling when some residents are faced with problems within the system and are unable to get the help that they need. We try our best to intercede with the authorities on their behalf, and even raise the issues in parliament when needed. However, there are always residents who fall through the cracks, and it can feel pretty frustrating at times when this happens, especially if we see that they are not the only ones inadvertently caught by the rules.
- As an MP, the workload must be overwhelming at times. How do you still ensure a healthy work-life balance and spend time with your family?
I’m not sure I always am able to get the balance right, and most times I feel like I’m taking it day-by-day, especially with a newborn thrown into the mix. You have to try to be organised and disciplined, for example, I would make it a point to be around to put the children to bed, and not to have phones around as a distraction when you have dedicated family time. I’m terrible at it, but sometimes we end up trying to capture moments by photographs or videos, and end up not fully enjoying the moment itself.
- If you were a youth in 2021, what would you do to further the community around you?
2021 is an exciting time to be young—we are seeing more millennial law-makers (of which I am told I just about fall into the category of!), activists and change-makers. While this is very encouraging, I think any small gestures can go a long way. Young people should also remember to take the opportunity to be young, to make mistakes, do silly things (within reason!), as these lessons can be extremely valuable.
- WP has recently amassed a great amount of positive traction. How have your experiences been in both the 2015 and 2020 elections? Do you have any valuable takeaways for us to learn from?
The greatest similarity between 2015 and 2020 is the passion and dedication of fellow party members and volunteers. For every electoral outing, the number of man-hours behind it is huge, especially as we are working on very limited resources. The campaign is short, but incredibly intense. Whether it was gathering backstage to the bitterly disappointing results in 2015 (I remember so many of us had tears in our eyes) or the initial disbelief of winning Sengkang in 2020, the intensity of feeling part of a team was the same, and is something I will always remember.
As for differences, 2020 was a much more muted campaign without the rallies and trying to keep social distancing and Covid rules. Perhaps it is because we were at home a lot more, but I also felt that there was a subtle shift in the electorate in 2020—that people were seriously reading our manifesto, debating policies, and asking us very detailed and in-depth questions about what we stood for, and what we hoped to bring to Singapore.
As for lessons to be learnt, if anyone believes passionately in something, you should stand for it and work together with them.
- Where do you envision women in 2030? What advice do you have more young women aspiring to enter the world of politics?
I believe we have made great strides for women, but it is still a long way to go before we have a level playing field. I hope however that by 2030, we start seeing more women in top executive roles, in legislatures and governments around the world, and that they are there on their own merits rather than as tokens nods to the need for parity. We have a way to go before we start breaking down gender stereotypes, but I hope we make good progress by then.
Politics can feel very harsh for women. Before we can get to more young women aspiring to enter politics, we have to get rid of the accepted norm where we are judged first on our appearance, our clothes, and pigeon-holing—where the general sense is that our primary role is to speak out on ‘women’s issues’ and ‘softer’ topics. For example, when Terence (my now-husband) and I were both running as unmarried candidates in the same GRC in 2015, I faced endless questions about my relationship status, and plans to start a family, and he was asked about his views on how the Singapore economy can do better.
There also needs to be better support and understanding for couples who would like to start and raise families while having the mum also be active politically.