Roughly mid-way into our interview at Bukit Batok East Community Club, Rahayu Mahzam reveals a private conversation she had with then-Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
This, she qualifies, comes from a time when, a couple of years after her election into Jurong GRC as the Member of Parliament representative for Bukit Batok East ward, there was lots of talk online and offline among Singaporeans who were eager to see Tharman become our nation's next Prime Minister after PM Lee Hsien Loong steps down as planned in 2022, when he turns 70.
Working with the mysteriously low-profile, always-asked-for minister
Naturally, serving in the same constituency as the highly-sought-after anchor minister, Rahayu found herself at the receiving end of frequent questions, murmurs, nudges and urges from residents she met — especially when talk about the topic (in the absence of a clear successor from among six fourth-generation ministers) was at its height between the later part of 2016 and the beginning part of 2017.
"It's difficult to dismiss or deny people's sentiments, because it's real. People really love him and like him, and think that he would make a good Prime Minister."
The 39-year-old tells us that she, like many of us, marvels at how he embodies Rudyard Kipling's call to walk with kings, but not lose the common touch — this manifesting in his remarkably well-rounded knowledge, his ability to engage international dignitaries, intelligentsia and kopitiam aunties equally well, with the same amounts of attention and ease.
But over the past close-to-four years, she and the other Jurong MPs observed that he spoke less than three times in all the Parliamentary sittings she has ever attended where he was also present, and in general, strives to avoid being in the spotlight, leading the charge or accepting interviews with the media.
"(I said to him,) 'I think I get what you're trying to do'. Because he was really trying to lie low, and because it's so hard with people expecting certain things.
At the same time, you need to have the new generation of leaders be able to grow into their own space and prove their worth."
That being said, she tells us that Senior Minister Tharman has taught the Jurong team perhaps the most important thing about being an MP:
"He teaches us very basic core values that at the end of the day, it's all about that relationship with people — that you show them you care, and you really try your best."
A refreshingly self-effacing candour
The fact that she volunteered this story and her insights into Tharman and working with him was eye-opening for us — the fact is, Rahayu isn't really an MP at top-of-mind recall for most Singaporeans (names like Lee Bee Wah, Tin Pei Ling and Louis Ng may come to mind instead, perhaps).
As a result, to many, she may seem like a blink-and-you'll-miss-her one-dimensional politician, which is quite regrettable given all she has experienced and has to offer — if only people would ask.
One of the first things the associate director at a small local law firm confesses to us is that she is "not a politician"; apart from officially, anyway.
Her candidness gives rise to bouts of self-deprecating confessions and laughter — an unexpected contrast to two opposite walls lined with "hall of fame"-style blown-up front-page Berita Harian articles featuring her and equally-giant photographs of her in the midst of various community activities in the CC room we are seated in.
But all this makes for a refreshingly genuine conversation on a vast range of topics we were initially worried she would decline to tackle — from racial discrimination, to the tudung issue, and even the controversy surrounding her predecessor Halimah Yacob's entry to presidential office.
Discovered as a volunteer
For one thing, Rahayu says she never thought she would end up in politics; nor was that a goal or even a "career option" for her.
Instead of being plucked from the upper echelons of society, she was discovered from the volunteer work she was doing in the Malay-Muslim community.
Then-Minister-in-charge of Malay-Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim was among the first to notice her efforts, and encouraged her to volunteer with other MPs.
She would go on to help out former Senior Parliamentary Secretary Hawazi Daipi in Sembawang, and Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli in Tampines, with their constituency work.
That started a multi-year journey of teas (yes, tea was served and yes, she eventually met Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the end of the candidate selection process) that ended with Rahayu in Parliament.
A heart-wrenching secret
This seemingly-smooth-sailing electoral success — her Jurong GRC team securing the biggest victory (79.28 per cent of the valid vote) in the 2015 General Election — will tempt one to dismiss 2015 debutantes like Rahayu as having ridden conveniently on Tharman's coattails into Parliament. Heck, she didn't even need to make a single rally speech during the GE; her first rally speech was during Murali Pillai's Bukit Batok SMC by-election.
And sure, she doesn't at all deny that the People's Action Party's Jurong GRC team is immensely popular among residents in no small part because of him and her direct predecessor Halimah Yacob — a legend and glass ceiling breaker for Malay-Muslim Singaporean women in so many ways — and takes no credit for their 2015 win.
But the weeks she spent her campaigning period leading up to the polls were stressful to say the least — not because she recalls feeling extremely frightened on the day of her introduction to the media, thinking "what the hell did I sign up for", but because in the middle of the hustings, Rahayu, who was pregnant with her first child at the time, was informed by her gynae that her baby's heart had stopped beating.
Because every day of the campaign was so busy, though, she had no choice but to postpone the procedure to remove the baby until after it was over:
"I got the news in the midst of doing all those door-to-door house visits, and I remembered that one night I was in bed, devastated. It was a personal moment.
I told my husband 'I can't, I don't know how to do this.' I'm so sad but tomorrow I need to get up and smile and tell everyone please vote for me, and look as though things are okay, but I'm not okay, I'm heartbroken."
But her husband, whom she described as having initially had 'reservations' about her foray into politics, and still is resigned to it today, was to her surprise a source of strength and comfort.
"I said 'I need to cry, I need to be sad.' And he said 'Okay, cry, cry tonight. Tomorrow is a new day and new opportunities. So let it go tonight, and face it again tomorrow.' That was what I needed, I suppose."
And so without telling anyone else about it, Rahayu put on a wide smile, walked between homes, went through election night and started work in the constituency — all while tragically carrying her first baby, who had died.
But, she said, the entire heartbreaking experience also taught her that she was stronger than she thought she was, and that perhaps she really *could* take on this role after all.
How does one succeed Halimah??
That sombre moment brings us to another uphill personal battle Rahayu had to contend with even prior to being elected: stepping into the metaphorical size 15 (for the number of years she served in Bukit Batok East) shoes of her predecessor Halimah Yacob, former Speaker of Parliament and sitting President of Singapore.
And no one, least of all Rahayu, would deny the fact that Halimah casts a long shadow despite her petite stature.
Her bond with the grassroots leaders was so strong that Rahayu shared what she could only describe as their "devastation" in the closed-door meeting where Halimah revealed that she had been asked to leave Jurong to stand with a new team in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC.
"She had to tell the grassroots and they were all crying, they were upset and sad. And I understood completely their feeling. I felt the same way!"
Building on, not replacing
It was, and still is, no easy feat to replace Halimah. Rahayu likens it to a stepmother coming in after a beloved mother figure has left.
"I'm taking over someone's baby, I'd better do it right and try my best."
But she was grateful for Tharman, the team and grassroots leaders who made her feel welcome, even as she insists she does not want to replace Halimah in the eyes of her constituents.
"I don't know if I will ever (replace Halimah), and I don't want to take away from that whole effort and that whole legacy she left behind, and I truly respect that."
Instead, she sets her sights on adding value to Madam President's efforts, and building on what she started.
How Halimah became president lost the PAP some ground
However, no discussion about Halimah is complete without addressing the controversy surrounding her move from Parliament to the presidency.
Rahayu not only doesn't duck this assertion, she also says frankly that amending the constitution to change the Elected Presidency has cost the PAP some support.
"I feel that's something that the leadership and the party has to live with. There was a decision that we made to do it, and I think we lost some ground."
She also recalled conversations she had with people during the debate who firmly disagreed with the move.
However, Rahayu says she does believe in the rationale set out behind these decisions the party leadership made, as well as the mechanisms put in place.
Representing Malay interests in Parliament
We leave the CC and take an eight-minute walk in a drizzle through the neighbourhood to the Masjid Ar-Raudhah for buka puasa.
Rahayu is certainly no stranger to the men and women setting up the tables and plates for the evening meal, who greet her with warm smiles.
As one of just 13 Malay representatives in Parliament, including Faisal Manap of the Workers' Party (WP) and Nominated MP Abbas Ali Mohamed Irshad, she is all too cognisant of the importance of representing the Malay community's perspectives and positions on issues.
But interestingly, her candid approach to many of these issues is to encourage Malays to be more open.
She acknowledges that stereotypes of the Malay community still exist, but stresses that the focus should be on changing those narratives.
And the willingness to engage with others is the key, she says.
For example, if someone wants to take some time for prayers, they should explain so to their colleagues instead of assuming rejection straightaway.
Likewise for meals, it takes a little effort to make sure everyone can eat the same food, but it results in people being able to eat together. The Malay community itself has to reach out to others, she adds.
"Then you can sit down and have conversations... not to be too conscious about the ritualistics of things, but the actual substance of your relationships."
What should be done about racial discrimination?
Rahayu also acknowledges readily that discrimination does occur here. Genuine cases may be rare, but they do exist — although she points out that other factors may be at play too.
"It's so easy to kind of jump into that (racial discrimination), because you feel that's why your boss did that to you. Because it explains everything else, and you don't have to take responsibility for an actual inefficiency. So it's very hard to tell sometimes."
Rahayu highlights conversations she's had with youths, which she sees as opportunities to educate those who may not be aware of prejudice.
As for cases of genuine, endemic discrimination, she would like to see existing regulations in the workplace have "more teeth", and for the mediation process to be enhanced.
The best way to address the tudung issue
But if Rahayu feels an added responsibility to represent the Malay community, the one she bears on behalf of Malay women is without a doubt even heavier.
I point out, to her silent nods, that she is one of just three Malay female MPs, alongside Intan Azura Mokhtar and Fatimah Lateef.
As such, she's one of a few tudung-wearing women in the national spotlight. In what we take to be her appreciation of this fact, she mentioned the issue in her maiden Parliamentary speech.
But how should a Malay MP go about advocating this cause?
Workers' Party MP Faisal Manap previously clashed in Parliament with Minister Masagos over the tudung issue, and was rapped for being "strident".
When Mothership spoke to Faisal back in 2018, he said he felt it was his responsibility to express the wishes of Muslim women.
But what does Rahayu think?
"I think it can potentially be a divisive issue. I think it's an important issue nevertheless. I think it's something that needs to be addressed. But, there are many ways of addressing it."
She notes that speaking in Parliament is indeed one way to raise an issue, but there has also been effort behind the scenes to address the need to give everyone a common space.
But perhaps, she seems to imply from her time serving with the ruling party, for hot-button issues such as these, forcing change through policy or parliamentary advocacy might not be the best way to get a result. Normalisation over time and teaching acceptance are likely to go down better.
For certain issues, she says, rules need to be made to shape behaviour and nudge people in the right direction.
"For certain other things, laws or policies may not necessarily be the best. And maybe the tudung is one of those."
Politics needs more Malay women
I asked her if she thinks the party needs to recruit more Malay women, and expected an wishy-washy answer about how race doesn't matter and it's about the right person for the job.
Instead she simply said "Yes, I agree." The problem, she says, appears to be a lack of suitable candidates willing to become an MP.
Rahayu believes it's a tough, demanding role. But she remains optimistic that things will change with the next generation.
"I hope they are given this path, and I think we constantly have to be conscious about making sure there are opportunities that we give. I think that's definitely an effort we need to look at."
I pointed out that perhaps more Malay women could be given opportunities to hold political office too. Her fellow Jurong MP Tan Wu Meng, who was elected at the same time as Rahayu, currently serves as Senior Parliamentary Secretary of MFA and MTI.
Rahayu says in response that she doesn't think it's a competition, as political office comes with its own set of responsibilities and the leadership makes the decision based on the team. But she would like to see a wider range of representation in Cabinet as she thinks it's important.
We stop the interview so she can go off to break fast with the women, while I eat outside the mosque with the men.
Judging by how she was immediately drawn into conversations with tables of makciks, we're hoping she may one day be able to convince more Malay women to follow in Halimah's footsteps.
Top photo by Rachel Ng