I will be honest, dear reader, that my brushes with senior, authoritative career soldiers often inevitably end up in tears and sweat.
Okay, to be really honest, it’s mostly all the sweat from the guard duties that I had to do during the extra duties I had signed for totally preventable things like cutting the parade square and just being an all-round lackadaisical soldier.
Thus, I'm quite sure you can picture my confidence level depleting as quickly as e-Mart credits when I was assigned to interview BG (NS) Gan Siow Huang -- first female general in Singapore, chief commissioner of Girl Guides Singapore, Singapore Women Hall of Fame inductee and now Minister of State for Manpower and Education and Member of Parliament for Marymount SMC.
CPL (NS) reporting for interview, ma’am
I sit on the bench at the spanking new Marymount Community Club, contemplating whether I will survive the next 45 minutes of my life when she walks in unannounced, without fanfare, save for one minder who doesn’t have any particular interest in interviews.
She looks at me straight in the eye with a certain type of kindness -- the variant one gives when meeting an odd stranger with an oversized notebook and a green pen for the first time -- totally not in agreement with the steely gaze seen by thousands in that nomination speech.
But let's start with her posture. Straight but never stiff, her sitting posture helps her meet my eyes directly. Though I'm taller, my posture -- after years of bending over
backwards laptops — is curved like the corporal insignia.
My best opening salvo: “Erm... you mentioned you went running yesterday. So how often do you jog?”
She suppresses the itch to raise an eyebrow over this vapid opening question and answers with enthusiasm: twice a week, eight to 10km each time, starting at an ungodly 0530hrs.
And this corporal’s mind runs wild with vivid imagery of drenched PT kits, aching legs and a cookhouse that smells somewhat like a zoo after.
0530? Old SAF habits die hard eh?
“Especially those in operational units, there’s a certain tempo that we will have to get used to. Yeah, so I do have some of these habits and also staying fit and healthy,” says the former chief of staff for the Air Force.
Indeed. Her runner’s build doesn’t lie and neither does her 2.4km timing. Clocking in at 11 minutes, she is way faster than this corporal and yet, she doesn’t see it as a battle of the sexes.
"For me, it's not so much about, you know, whether you're running faster than the guys or not. But whether you're fit enough for the work that you're doing."
A rose among thorns
That answer probably sums up her life story as a trailblazer. Did I mention that she’s Singapore's first female Brigadier General? And now that she’s in politics, it’s like being in a room full of men. Again.
To that, she laughs it off, saying: “Actually, good that you mentioned. I realised that now in Parliament, we now have 27 females and that’s like almost 30 per cent. Whereas when I was in SAF, the percentage of women was less than 10 per cent.”
An improvement then?
“I do feel that, oh wow [30 per cent]. I mean yeah, improvement in terms of higher diversity and more representation of women. So I’m glad for that.”
The fresh-faced mother of three daughters also makes it her mission to encourage more women to follow her footsteps in joining male-dominated industries. She recently encouraged more women at a Singapore Women In Tech webinar to study and work in science and technology fields, of which only 30 per cent of the workforce are women.
As an advocate for having more women in male-dominated fields, it’s easy to think of that female empowerment as her pet cause.
But that’s not quite it either.
“I think it’s an overstatement to say female empowerment is my pet cause. I genuinely believe in contributing to society and doing it in a purposeful way,” she says.
Gan’s can-do, self-reliant attitude and worldview were in part shaped by the experience of being an active Girl Guides member in an all-girls type of network.
“If you have to set up a tent or campfire, you just got to do it yourself. You don’t go around and look for guys to carry the logs or do the logistics. No, right? And I feel that experience for me when I was in school, kind of helped shape my perspective."
"Actually a lot of things girls can do,” she adds sagely.
In fact, Gan had already served notice decades ago that she is more than ready to go toe-to-toe with the boys if necessary.
As a poster girl for a Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) recruitment ad in The Straits Times, she said with modern technology, "it is no longer brawn that matters".
The year was 1993 when she became one of the first four female recipients of the SAF Merit Scholarship.
Her tour of duty in the RSAF spanned more than 25 years, starting as a junior officer to a commander of a squadron to finally the head of air intelligence.
Even though she’s been out of the force for a few years now, her undivided loyalty remains with the Air Force.
I know because I put it to the test.
“Some people -- like my colleague -- who are living near air bases have been complaining about the planes flying around their neighbourhood. What do you have to say to them?”
Warning: The last time I got a look this cold was when I asked my Company Sergeant Major for a day off on my birthday.
She cocks her head to a side, looks at me as if I cut the parade square for a cool 10 seconds and launches into a rather lengthy explanation, and dare I say, with the tone and tenacity of a typical Asian mum.
“I feel like most people understand why and I think most people know that our airspace is very limited lah. Right? For our military planes, once we take off, we have to make a very sharp left or right turns just to keep within Singapore airspace, you know? Otherwise, our neighbours will complain and they have complained about before...
Although I’m not a pilot ah, I’ve flown in our fighter jets before flying out of Tengah, Paya Lebar. And I always give a lot of respect to them because within seconds after taking off, you got to do a very quick turn and it’s very painful on the body you know? It takes a lot of skill to not fly into other people’s space and then avoid populated areas. The paths of our aeroplanes are designed such that we try to siam (dodge) and find the least populated areas to fly over lah. But you know, flying over the zoo we will get complaints one leh. When animals get disturbed ah, the zoo will come after us. Flying over the zoo, cannot. Flying over populated areas, cannot... I’d say we are really trying our best to be considerate lah while making sure we fly safely. Actually safety is the most important.”
Yes, mum. I mean, ma'am.
A case of major FOMO
After the rather mum-like answer, I sense the thawing of the proverbial Brigadier General figure, I muster the courage and try to cut into her parade square: her personal life, that is — specifically her family.
Imagine my surprise when she readily dishes out factoids about her loved ones as freely as one cookhouse auntie I used to love all those years ago.
Her family of five, comprising husband Lee Jek Suen — former naval officer, now vice president of Jurong Port — and three daughters Ella, 17, Emma, 13, and Eleanor, eight, enjoy bonding over food.
“We’d go to Yuhua Hawker Centre where there’s very good wanton mee, bak kut teh. We like local fare. We also go to restaurants sometimes; the kids like Japanese food,” she adds. If there's a bounce or spring in the tonality of speech, this is it.
Perhaps all these wonderful memories of family and food triggered something in her because, without prompting, Gan blurted out that the family went to have ramen the other day. Without her.
Dear reader, I'd like to interrupt this article with an emoji.
“I’ve been missing out a lot actually," she admits.
"I’m trying to adjust to it and my family’s also adjusting to it. I’m hoping that once I settle down, I’ll be able to manage my schedule and time better. For now, although I tell myself to pace myself well, I find that there are just so many things to learn, to do, people to meet. It’s quite stressful. And still squeeze time for the family,” she adds longingly.
She’s after all used to having one job at a time (aren’t we all?). Now, she’s thrown into the deep end with two political office appointments — Minister of State for Manpower and Education — on top of being the MP of Marymount SMC, a job that she describes as 24/7.
If you think this is going to keep her down, you obviously have not been paying attention to this story -- for Gan is someone who gets through challenges with sheer tenacity and incredible purposefulness.
In fact, those who have been following her story closely would have already observed this when learning about her introduction to politics.
Ke belakang pusing (about turn)
Gan is the second female rookie politician to be fielded in a single-member constituency, following the footsteps of Cheryl Chan in 2015 — a move she didn’t expect.
You see, she had been shadowing and working the ground with Manpower Minister Josephine Teo in Bishan North since last year. But just months before GE2020, in March, she was arrowed by the PAP to work closely with Chong Kee Hiong, MP for Bishan East, which is part of Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC.
Being the mission-oriented person that she is, she complied with the edict and shadowed Chong till June when she received another mission from the party: Go back to Bishan North, where she first started.
Looking back, she is able to find humour in that experience.
“It was a surprise! At that time, I didn’t really know. It was not something I could control… I only had a couple of weeks or very little time left before the election. It’s interesting that you asked me about being a rookie. I don’t know about Cheryl Chan’s experience, I didn’t ask her personally about it. I think she spent a lot of time on the ground with the constituency before she was announced as a candidate. Could have been lah, that was the impression I had many years ago when I read about her. In my case, I feel that it was rather stressful.”
Well, that gleaming star on the lapel is certainly not a decorative piece.
Still, she’s grateful for her time with both Teo and Chong, gaining valuable experience from their two distinct ways of doing things. And she accepts that ultimately fielding her in an SMC is probably a testament of her ability.
"Honestly, would you prefer to be in a GRC instead?" I ask.
Good and bad, she muses.
A GRC is bigger and will be stronger in terms of having a support base. With strong partners and anchor ministers, she guesses that it’s possibly easier. Being fielded in an SMC, however, means that she’s on her own and feels a greater need to prove herself.
On the flip side, being in an SMC also means there’s a lot more space to drive decisions and directions for the constituency.
“If you are in a GRC, you probably have to be aligned with the bigger group. Especially when the bigger group has already been around for a long time and there are already some set pieces or templates. I think the tendency is to fit in first. Whereas for SMC, you have a lot of free play,” she explains.
Besides a new polyclinic, it is likely that the 30 odd year-old constituency would see some estate renewal in the future.
And a Marymount in her image would probably bode well for the constituency's future: disciplined, yet caring. Residents can expect some estate renewal for the 30-odd-year-old constituency.
I guess her way of showing care would probably mean more sheltered walkways for the young and elderly while discipline would comes in the form of more fitness corners so everyone can improve their fitness and, more importantly, posture.
A 5BX at 0530hrs in Marymount, perhaps?
That will be a good day to be in Marymount indeed.
Keluar Baris (exit parade).
Top photo by Faris Samri.