Sun Xueling cares about many things but her looks are not one of them

The eloquent MP has a few innovative ideas for her Punggol residents.

Tan Xing Qi| March 08, 10:02 AM

An hour into this interview, all's fine and dandy, until this question pops up:

"Netizens have been calling you "this one not bad looking siah" and you have the "girl-next-door look", do you think you are hot?"

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Sun Xueling, 36, switches gear, hardens her tone and leaves the cordial image that had enjoyed for the past hour in the dust.

Looks didn't matter to her when she was younger and certainly don't feature in her plans now, she says.

"The fact of the matter is that I'm a mother. I don't see myself in that category."

True, after all, she has bigger things to worry about.

Running a "startup"

The new Member of Parliament (MP) for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC is under the leadership of anchor (Deputy Prime) Minister Teo Chee Hean, whom she described as a "very kind" and "very gentlemanly" man who shows "genuine concern" for his fellow MPs.

Sun runs Punggol West – an area in the north-eastern town one could describe as "newborn".

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Almost half of her constituency are flats that are no where near their Minimum Occupation Period (five years, by the way) while the remaining half are plots of land, littered with towering cranes and pregnant with the promise of new, cookie cutter flats that will be homes to many young Singaporeans couples with babies in tow.

As the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of non-profit organisation Business China, Sun is probably more fluent with business jargon, and so likens the running of said town to managing a"startup".

On one hand, being a startup means untapped potential; the flip side usually features the usual tradeoffs: inexperienced and sorely lacking in resources.

The shortfall is something that Sun is not accustomed with, having spent a decade in the private financial sector, working for banks whose resources know few boundaries.

But working within limits seem to excite her; she leans forward, her diction turns colloquial as she eagerly shares her plans with us.

Lack of a structure...

First thing first, everything is new. If it's not new, it's not inhabited yet.

"It's new, the residents are new. You don't actually have a lot of local machinery. For instance, I didn't have a Citizens’ Consultative Committee, a Community Club Management Committee. In other words, I didn't actually inherit a structure."

And just like any startup, there's plenty of promise but not many are willing to take the plunge.

She continues: "When a new resident moves in, what you are more interested in is making sure you do up your house, making sure your child goes to a school nearby. The family units have a lot of things to worry about, so volunteerism is not the top most on their minds."

Then how, like that?

But yet, it's a good chance to play the real-life version of Sims City.

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Challenges aside, being a MP of a budding new town has its perks; the chance to mould and create something new – wait a minute, that sounds a lot like playing Sims City.

"I can actually sit down with the agencies and say: "I think we have this need." Inevitably, there will be a master plan, inevitably, it's there in the horizon. It's a question of how long you want to wait for it and whether or not they are planning the way we want it," she says, as excitement threatens to spill out from her mouth.

"It's quite exciting to me because I actually have the chance to site and plan from feedback that I get from residents: What we want to have, aspire to have, what we can have and work with the agencies to see whether it's feasible."

Plot twist: If you haven't realised, Singapore has a thing for hubs and all things integrated. And if larger things need more time to be constructed, then there's a gap waiting to be filled.

This is where Sun gets her hands dirty.

Idea 1 - Community Mums project

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As a new town with scores of kids, childcare centres are as rare a commodity as gold in Punggol. A mega childcare centre will open by mid-2016 but if the government wants Singaporeans to reproduce, one mega childcare centre is probably not enough.

Plus, in order for the infrastructure to be fully operable, early childhood teachers are needed and they, like Singaporean babies, are in short supply despite the government's push to produce more early childhood professionals.

Enter Community Mums.

This programme, which Sun is currently considering, will work with stay-at-home mums who can look after their neighbours' children aged six to 12 at a RC centre for a fee.

The mother of one surveyed some 90 family units with children and a "good proportion" agreed to the scheme. But demand might outstrip supply.

"While I have people who are willing to park their children with other mums, there may not be a sufficient supply of mums who are willing to take care of other children. They want their child to get the full on, undivided attention."

Sun is aware of the safety concerns by parents and the training considerations that would be required if such a programme is implemented.

Nevertheless, she's working with the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) to iron out the SOPs and hopefully turn this into a reality, which sounds like a lot like a sweet dream for many young working parents living without support.

Idea 2 - "Container Library"

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Another such "ground-up initiative" of the self-professed bookworm (her maiden Parliamentary speech was inspired by a book and she's pretty big on self-help books) is building temporary libraries in the form of 40 by 20ft containers.

"The current plan for a library will only come onboard in 2020, which is not too far away... To me, I'd rather you give it to me earlier. But they don't just build a library you see. It's part of an integrated (facility). And 2020 is a target, they could miss it by a year, bring it forward by a year. I have no control."

And if all the integrated talk is not enough, there's the scarcity of usable land in Punggol. You'd think that scarcity of land is not an issue in the new town but it really is. In fact, Sun says she is "searching for land".

"The problem now is that I have to put the container and the books on something right? I have a lot of grass... that sinks. If you put the container, it will sink because it's heavy. I have no pavements and no nothing around it because it's land mah. Then how are my residents going to walk in, cross grassland and go to a community library in the middle of a field?"

Spoken like a true site-surveyor.

To compound her problems, she has to look for a suitable place for the library, find ways to hookup lights, air-cons into the container and finally lay the land so that the container doesn't sink.

She continues: "This container library is supposed to be an interim solution. If I'm going to take so long to get the thing up and running, people will be like: "Hello, the library is coming up already. Why do you still need this?""

"It's quite fun lah"

At this point, the ice in her iced latte starts to melt as does her attitude towards us. She's a lot more frank and it feels more like a conversation than an interview.

We take this as an opening.

So honestly, how does she find her new job as a MP? Despite the challenges, Sun has an almost sadistic way of describing her job.

"To me it's quite fun lah, I don't know what the right word for it," she says with a smile.

Just don't ask her whether she thinks she's hot.


All photos by Weixiang Lim.

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