Desmond Choo: Everton’s Grit Inspires Me In Politics

Young families and workers are two groups of people that are especially dear to Mr Desmond Choo – not just because he’ll become a father to a baby girl in October, but also because of his time in the Labour Movement.

He has spent 14 years in the Singapore Police Force, and had stints at the Ministry of Manpower and the private sector. Now, the 37-year-old is a Director of Youth Development at NTUC, and also the Deputy Secretary of the Attractions, Resorts and Entertainment Union – which is how we got on the topic of hotel workers as we sat down for the interview.

We start off by talking about how he once worked as a chambermaid.

Desmond Choo: It was when I was an industrial relations officer at NTUC. The management of a company came to speak to me, and told me they needed my help to get chambermaids to clean an additional room. They will be paid more. The chambermaids didn’t want to. You clean 10 rooms, what’s wrong with 11 rooms? So I thought something must be wrong, let’s go deeper into it. So I approached Sheraton, and they were kind enough. So I tried being a chambermaid, doorman, bellhop, I waited tables. And after I did the chambermaid thing, I realised why. Once you’re done cleaning 10 dirty rooms, the last thing you want to see is another one, and you’d rather go home earlier to rest. And when these people are a bit more elderly, it’s even tougher. So now that I’m back at NTUC, I’m getting my industrial relations officers to go through attachments as well.

Q: I understand you also spent some time in the private sector?

Mr Choo: I spent two years in the private sector doing investments. I did mostly merger and acquisitions. The largest project in the two years was the acquisition of Valencia Football Club. My boss was Peter (Lim) and we were looking to expand into sports management.

Q: Since we’re on the subject of football, what’s your favourite football team?

Mr Choo: Many people are surprised – but it’s always been Everton. From childhood, it was the first club I knew and the first club I supported. A lot of heartache – the first time we won anything was in 1995, and we’ve not won anything since then. But it’s that grit. I mean, we don’t win big championships often, not in the last 10 years. But it’s that journey – shoestring budget, year in, year out. They don’t play the best football, but it was grit, determination, fighting for the ball.

“When Arsenal played Everton at the Sports Hub, it was a sea of red, and just a small clutter of blue. That was true Everton spirit. We stand strong in the face of adversities.” People’s Action Party candidate for Tampines GRC and Everton fan Desmond Choo Pey Ching tells us how the Everton spirit influences his journey in politics, in this exclusive interview with 938LIVE.#sgvotes #sgelection #GE2015

Posted by 938LIVE on Sunday, 30 August 2015


Q: And how would you say this spirit would influence your journey in politics?

Mr Choo: My journey has not been easy. That baptism of fire – I mean the odds were stacked against me. But I was very proud of the fact of how my Hougang team came together. How we fought for each other. I can truly say that the team just had lots of passion to serve. They lost since 1991, they didn’t give up. Some of them have been around for five, six campaigns, and they’ve been losing since then, but they never gave up in serving. When we were there, we don’t really care which camp you’re from, but if you need help, we will serve you. And that’s the spirit that we wanted. And I really enjoyed that spirit. It was really genuine friendship over three and a half years, so no regrets.

Q: How has your experience in the private sector shaped you?

Mr Choo: In the private sector, and you start to understand that there’s more than money that drives these businessmen. They also believe in certain pet causes they want to push for.

I remember speaking to one guy, he was still making screws, in this day and age in Singapore. I asked him, why are you doing this? And he said, it is tough. I don’t make money, but if you look at my workers, they’re all in their 50s and 60s, we were all together for the past 20 years. Can I close my business and enjoy my retirement? Of course. But what’s going to happen to them? So he’s going to continue to do business, to come up with new ways, so the workers who’ve been with him all this while can continue to have a living.

And you respect bosses like that, because they don’t just do it for money. Life is more than money to them, it’s about family, it’s about relationships, it’s about tackling challenges. Now that I’ve spent a stint in the private sector, I can better understand now how I am going to get companies to work better with workers.

Let’s say you want to implement paternity leave, for example. A lot of people are saying, why don’t we just legislate? It’s so easy, then everyone will just have to fall in line. But that’s not how the private sector is. That’s not really understanding their constraints. They need time to adjust operations. They need to hire the right kind of people, they need to train. Do they want to be on board? Yes. Do they need time, yes. So I think that’s the kind of understanding we need to have, then we can come up with better policies.

Q: What is your take on other issues that the Prime Minister brought up in the National Day Rally, like immigration and foreign workers?

Mr Choo: A lot of people have mentioned that manpower is tight. But they also understand that we need to have a balance, and we need to strengthen the Singapore core. I think that’s the reason why we work so hard. We work hard so that we can implement good policies for Singaporeans. And sometimes to benefit Singaporeans, we do need to go into areas where there are tough calls to make. There are companies who will not set up here unless they can get ready manpower. So at the start, are we going to allow them some foreign worker quota so they can set up business? I think we should, compared to saying no, then they do not set up here at all. Then you’re going to lose the jobs that could have gone to Singaporeans.

I think the latest scheme that Mr Lim Swee Say announced to help companies that are interested in building a Singaporean core to get some foreign manpower quota, so eventually they bring in the business and the Singaporean core is strengthened. I think that is an example of a good balance between the two. It’s not an easy call to make, but sometimes you know, after you’re in the civil service and private sector, you do have to make those calls. At the same time, are there certain segments of the economy that we can encourage them to hire more locals? Like in the IT industry and finance, I think we can. I think the Fair Consideration Framework is important, we must get our companies to not only follow the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law. I think that’s where the unions, Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) come in, to encourage companies to come on board.

Q: You mentioned one issue you would like to tackle is family. What would you be looking at championing?

Mr Choo: Well it will be a whole realm of parent support policies. As a father-to-be, sometimes you get to understand issues up-close-and-personal. And you find that younger Singaporeans now, they want to pursue their aspirations, but at the same time, raise happy and resilient families. And it’s not an easy balancing act. First to go is definitely time. How can they better do that? We place a lot of burden on our ladies, our mothers. From the time they’re expecting, to the time of delivery, how can we better support them, not only to help them raise families, but also to pursue their aspirations? So things like paternity leave, the additional week, comes in quite handy.

To me first and foremost, that’s an additional one week of sharing the burden with your wife. While it’s not a lot, it goes a certain way in saying, let me take some load off you. I think that’s the culture we’re trying to inculcate: that to families who want to have more children, the government is prepared to say that we will help you along the way. We understand your struggles.

Even family-friendly workplaces – I know it’s strange for me to say that as a man, but having things like lactation rooms, if you want to encourage resilient, happy families, promote breastfeeding, make sure the workplace has those provisions. I think when you do all that you have all the ecosystems in place. Then families will find it easier to balance a very heavy plate.

Q: So this is something you’ll be looking at if you make it into Parliament this time round?

Mr Choo: Yes, definitely. I think issues like worker issues, parenthood support measures, these are very dear issues to me. And I think our young families need a boost.

Q: What about those with older children who are in polytechnic and university?

Mr Choo: Of course, families as a whole is something I’m very keen about. There are two big issues we need to deal with. One, making sure that our young Singaporeans, when they graduate from schools, they have the right skills, and they have the right jobs. Sometimes, there’s a disjoint. Doesn’t mean when you graduate from school, you’re going to find the best job. Because the best job could be the next job. But how do I get you from the first job to the second job making sure that you find purpose in your work? And you have the skills to get onto that kind of job.

And that’s where we need to do a lot more for SkillsFuture. In my time, my peers, when we were in our 20’s, we realised there were certain points in time when we realised that we need a different job. I can do this job, but maybe there’s something out there for me, but I’m not too sure what I can do. So I think maybe that’s what Young NTUC can do in that role, helping them find out their personality traits, helping them find out what kind of job fit is good for them. The other one I think we can tackle is our current workers, especially the older ones. The economy is evolving so fast that a lot of the jobs that are available now needs to change in time to come. I always quote the example of bus drivers. Back in the early days we always used to have a conductor and a bus driver. Now we only have a driver. So they need to pick up new skills. Likewise there are many other jobs that needs transformation. Are we preparing our current, older workers to seize these opportunities that’ll be upcoming in the future? I think a lot of work needs to be done.

Q: Campaigning hasn’t started proper yet – but what’s a day in your life like now, from the time you wake up, till you go to bed?

Mr Choo: I’ll be glad if I can get about 6 hours. But there are always two things I’ll never miss out on. One, my daily workout. Half an hour to 40 minutes. It gets the engine going. So I pick bits and pieces of core exercises, some weights here and there. After a long day, the best thing to get up and tackle the new day is to ensure your adrenaline is there, you’re all pumped up and ready to go. So I don’t miss that out, I do that six days a week. And the second thing is, I always have an evening chat with my wife. I do come back home late at night, but we’ll always have that 15 to 20 minutes, minimum. And these are the two pieces that no matter how crazy the day is, I make sure those are my staples. In between of course, it’s a whole bunch of juggling, my union work – because workers still need help, regardless of whether it’s election season or not. Worker issues are present all the time, whether it’s negotiation for any increment, whether it’s welfare issues, or introducing new programmes.

Q: So you’re still putting in full time days? What about when campaigning starts?

Mr Choo: I’ll be taking leave, but I’ll make sure that all my guys are completely briefed. Because the workplace continues, workers still go to work, they still face issues. So even during the campaigning period, if there are certain worker issues, I’ll still need to tackle those and give the correct direction to them.

Q: What about block visits?

Mr Choo: At 6.30, 7.30, I start my block visits. We try to do one block thoroughly, that takes me till about 10pm. By the time I get home it’s about 10:45, that’s when I have a bit of a bite, have my evening session with my wife, then when she goes to bed, that’s when the work starts again, because all the emails pile up. Then you go for meetings, go for block visit coordination work. Whether it’s election season or not, that’s quite stable. Because there’s no other time to do it than evenings. But these are the sacrifices that I knew, because I’ve done this for quite awhile. It can start to get tiring at times, but when you see that your workers benefit, you tackle the residents’ issues, you’re surrounded by a bunch of very passionate people, it keeps you going.

Q: What would you say you’re most apprehensive about in the upcoming elections?

Mr Choo: I think to me the key thing is while we’re in the heat of campaigning, we do not forget that residents’ issues are the most important. And while campaigning, we do not stop trying to tackle residents’ issues.

Q: You mentioned your wife earlier. What kind of role would you say she plays in your life?

Mr Choo: She’s both my wife and my best friend. In fact, she’s the person I go to if I need to make good decisions. If she didn’t say okay, I wouldn’t have gone into politics. I think she was always that pillar of support – I still remember that in my first speech ever to the Party conference, it was unnerving because it was a very big speech and I’ve never spoken in front of 2,000 people before. And she was the one who really gave me input that I wouldn’t have gotten myself. She wanted to make sure I would do well. And that’s the kind of relationship that I’ve come to enjoy, and I’m quite blessed. She’s also one of my toughest critics. But I also know that she’s perfectly honest with me. It can be brutal, harsh and direct, but she’s also the person I trust to give me the best advice, and that it’s ultimately for my benefit. As a person giving a speech the last thing you want to do is to speak in front of another person multiple times. And she made me go through that, because she said I was not up to the mark yet. That, I thought was a blend of showing a lot of acumen, but also a lot of care.

We have this principle we still live by, which is that if we have any issue, we will not sleep until we resolve it. And when we wake up in the morning, we start off fresh, a bright new day. And it’s served us very well. That’s the best advice I can give to my friends who are getting married.

“Getting married in 2011 was the best thing that happened to me. It changed my life.” In this exclusive interview with 938LIVE, People’s Action Party candidate for Tampines GRC Desmond Choo Pey Ching opens up about his relationship with his wife, and how things will change once his firstborn comes along in October.#sgvotes #sgelection #GE2015

Posted by 938LIVE on Sunday, 30 August 2015


Q: What kind of role can she play alongside you during this campaign season?

Mr Choo: Just being there for me. Doesn’t mean that you need to cook up a big meal when I come back, but sometimes, when she knows I’m coming back, just waking up and asking me how my day’s been, whether there’s anything I need her advice for, and that was enough to take away a lot of the stress from the day. Sometimes she’ll stay up, sometimes she’ll doze off, but she’ll always make sure that when I get home, she’ll be there to say, that well, it was a tough day, but it’s time for you to take a rest. It’s like a sanctuary.

We don’t spend weekends together like most couples do. While other couples go off to watch movies in the middle of the afternoon, I’m probably in a meeting somewhere trying to coordinate for the next event. When we were going to get married, looking for a house, she was the one who settled the paperwork, who got the renovation plans in order. I just didn’t have the time to help. So now all I really want to do is to make sure that during this craziness of campaigning, she’s going to get a lot of text messages from me, to let her know how much I appreciate her being around.

Q: How do you think things are going to change with your new addition to the family – and with Baby Bonuses all the talk now, do you plan to have any more children?

Mr Choo: I believe in shared parenting. Obviously there’s going to be a trade-off – first to go would be some sleep. Maybe some of the “guys’ time” needs to go. But I want to play an active role in raising my daughter. It shouldn’t just be the job of the wife. And the more that I hear from my friends and the young families I meet, there’s just a lot of joy in parenting. And I don’t want to miss out on that. I’ll be more tired now and then, but if you look at the many fathers before me, they’ve probably had a tougher time. Some juggle two or three jobs. Even now, some of the younger politicians, Desmond Lee for example, even Pei Ling. I think we’ll form pretty good support groups for each other.

I always wanted to have three kids. But my wife reminded me that we’re going to take one step at a time. We’re all believers in a bigger family, but I don’t think it’s just about Baby Bonuses, it’s also about family support, work support, it’s also about your own personal commitment to raising your family.

Q: What are your other interests and hobbies?

Mr Choo: I read very widely on a lot of issues and topics not related to work. It gives me a different perspective. So as far as A Man’s Search for Meaning in Life, to Freakonomics, I try to read as widely as I can. I think it’s the best way to live many lifetimes. Someone once told me that many authors take one lifetime to write a book. And there you have sitting in front of you, many books that they’ve written, they’ve spent a lifetime’s worth of effort. And you can pick it up and learn so much from it. So I still try to maintain a book a month. And of course music is a big part. I’m not a musician, but I have quite wide musical taste, from Teresa Teng to Def Leppard, to MercyMe. So it goes as far and wide as that. I don’t restrict myself to any particular genre.

Q: What are some of the values that are important to you?

Mr Choo: Compassion and respect. In some ways they are linked. I think that it is a fairly tough world, and there will be a lot of people who are disadvantaged. If you are in a position where you can help, have that compassion. I think it builds for a less cynical world, it also makes us more resilient as a society, and we’ll be happier as a people. Throughout my time in the police, especially, you find that a lot of people commit crimes, but when I speak with them, you find that if you show them genuine compassion, these people will change.

I have met them a couple of times, after they were released. I didn’t recognise them, but they tell me, do you remember me? I was the one who did this. You showed me compassion, you respected me. And for that, it played a certain role in my turning over a new leaf, and I never blamed you for arresting me. It set me on the right path. That to me was a big inspiration that I could make a difference in somebody’s life. You don’t demean that person, but you try to understand why that person committed that crime.

Q: You told me earlier that the Sarawak Kolo Mee at Tampines Round Market was a must-try! What are some of the other places you like in Tampines?

Mr Choo: I really like the butterfly garden. It really shows that if you put your mind to it, you can transform the place. Who would imagine that you would have a butterfly garden in Tampines run fully by volunteers? There’s a nice story behind it that inspires people to come forward. So it’s not just about the infrastructure. There’s so much thought in blending nature and the people.

Q: What about Tampines Round Market?

Mr Choo: At Tampines Round Market, there’s a lot of nice food, one of the best Tau Suan (mung beans dessert) is there too. But there’s also a lot of human history behind it. Many people do not know that in the Round Market, it’s that warmth, and the people are close together because many of them came together from Toa Payoh Lorong 1.

There’s a sense of real friendship among the stallholders. It’s that human warmth, that story about that place. This morning when I visited again, they shared more stories about it. And some of them knew each other for more than 33 years. And I want to continue to build that spirit up.

Q: What’s the one thing you’d like to say to voters in Tampines?

Mr Choo: To Tampines residents, while we may not have all the solutions and answers to our present and future challenges, we have the collective wisdom and spirit. We must continue to listen, to learn and to work together as a team. I believe that as we come together as One Tampines, we can build a better future together.



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