Shanmugam: Man once demanded HDB helipads
In the second of a two-part interview with The New Paper, Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam speaks to ELIZABETH LAW about issues close to his heart
On 30 years as Chong Pang MP
After nearly 30 years, tales of woe, triumph, joy and loss have formed a mental library of memories. Some of them remain vivid.
In one of his first few Meet-the-People Sessions as a Member of Parliament for Sembawang GRC, a resident wanted Mr K. Shanmugam to build helipads on top of HDB blocks for medical evacuation, the Minister recalled with a laugh.
Since he was elected in the 1988 General Election, Mr Shanmugam has been serving the Chong Pang ward and attending weekly Meet-the-People Sessions.
The area, which consists of about 40,000 residents, is now part of the five-member Nee Soon GRC which Mr Shanmugam leads. The other MPs in Nee Soon are Dr Lee Bee Wah, Dr Lim Wee Kiak, Associate Professor Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim and Mr Patrick Tay.
Of the resident who requested helipads, he said: "(The man went to the session) simply to give trouble to an MP. He wasn't mentally unsound. He was all together. He knew what he was doing. But he just wanted to make unreasonable demands."
There is a small number of people who are like that, Mr Shanmugam added, whose unreasonable demands stop him from attending to the more genuine cases.
Mr Shanmugam tried to reason with the man but "he wasn't listening, he wasn't interested in my answer".
Despite that rocky start, most of his memories in the area are happy ones.
Asked about his fondest memories from being an MP, he smiled and said: "That's a very difficult question."
"(There are) so many different moments. In the end, it's people reaching out to you, forming the networks, forming the community support groups and helping people," he said.
"There are countless stories of people helping each other, people helping me and me helping people."
Calling Chong Pang an area where there is a strong "kampung spirit", he said the residents do not go to him just to get help but also to help one another.
The minister cited a case of an elderly woman selling vegetables at a bus stop in the area.
"(She was a) very warm, very friendly, very old lady. She didn't want to take any kind of assistance and wanted to earn her own living," he said.
But residents had complained about her causing a mess and as a result, the National Environmental Agency (NEA) told her to stop selling vegetables there.
Other residents found out about it and alerted Mr Shanmugam, who wrote to NEA to appeal on her behalf.
"NEA was good enough to give her a licence," he said.
There is also a case from 15 years ago that still stands out for him.
A young, pregnant woman was about to go to jail for hiring illegal workers in her father's laundry business.
Not wanting her child to be born in jail, she was going to terminate the pregnancy and Mr Shanmugam found out about it.
He advised her not to abort the baby and sent appeals to the Attorney-General's Chambers and the Ministry of Home Affairs on her behalf.
At that time, he was still a practising lawyer and would ask his colleagues to attend the woman's court hearings to keep him updated.
The woman was eventually let off with a fine and her daughter is now 14 years old.
When it was mentioned that it was cases like these that endeared him to residents, he let out a rare smile and said: "I hope so."
"(There are) so many different moments... In the end, it's people reaching out to you, forming the networks, forming the community support groups and helping people. There are countless stories of people helping each other, people helping me, and me helping people."
- Mr K. Shanmugam on his fondest memories from nearly three decades as an MP
On General Election
OUTSPOKEN: Criminal lawyer and pro bono advocate Josephus Tan is now in Chua Chu Kang GRC. ST FILE PHOTO
Asked about preparations for a possible General Election, Mr Shanmugam said preparations have be ongoing.
"The latest you can have it is early 2017, so it's a good bet it's going to be the next year or so.
"Many people think it might be faster than that. And you don't wait until the last minute (to) prepare," he said.
On the issue of possible new candidates, Mr Shanmugam said with a laugh that many had already been identified by the media.
"(Some of these people have) been in my branch and they've been in other places. I wouldn't know if they're going to stand for certain," he said.
"But I know that there are people who have started in my branch and are in a number of different places now, that much I can say.
"You have Henry (Kwek), you have Louis (Ng), you have (Yee) Chia Hsing in Punggol, quite a few."
Mr Kwek, 39, executive director of a food supply company, started out as a branch secretary in Chong Pang but has joined veteran MP Inderjit Singh in Kebun Baru in Ang Mo Kio GRC.
Animal rights activist Ng, 37, who started out doing grassroots work in Chong Pang, was moved at the start of the year to Joo Chiat constituency under veteran MP Charles Chong.
Mr Yee, who works at CIMB Bank, also started out in Chong Pang but is now branch chairman of the People's Action Party at Punggol East.
Asked about criminal lawyer and pro bono advocate Josephus Tan, who has been very outspoken about his grassroots work in Chong Pang, Mr Shanmugam smiled and nodded.
"Yes, Josephus is now in Chua Chu Kang (GRC)," he said.
On animal cruelty
ANIMAL LOVER: Mr Shanmugam and his wife with Zorro, a mongrel they later adopted. PHOTO: NEE SOON GRASSROOTS ORGANIZATION
Mr Shanmugam said that when it comes to animal welfare, one has be realistic.
"However much society progresses, there will always be a small minority - and you hope that it's a small minority - that engages in wanton cruelty against other human beings," he said.
He was responding to questions about the recent cases where cats in Pasir Ris were believed to have been fed poisoned fish flakes and an old, blind dog that was abandoned in a plastic bag in Siglap on June 21.
Mr Shanmugam said: "Different traits of irresponsibility, inflicting of pain, cruelty - all these are human characteristics. Thankfully, I would say, it's in a very small minority. That's where you need tough laws and you need to enforce them."
Looking down for a brief moment, he added: "The difficulty with cruelty to animals is that it's hard to find who perpetrated the crimes."
Mr Shanmugam's love for animals has been well documented.
A strong advocate of animal welfare in Parliament, he has four dogs of his own - all adopted from animal shelters.
"I've always liked animals, I've always wanted to have pets but it wasn't possible for a number of different reasons," he said, adding that his first two dogs were mongrels.
One was from a shelter and the other had been given up by a family moving from a house to a flat.
"In Singapore, mongrels are not easily adopted. And if someone didn't adopt them, they'd most likely be put down," he said.