By Aaron Low
PAP NEW FACES
SHE runs her own engineering consultancy firm today, but when Lee Bee Wah was 11, her rubber tapper parents wanted her to quit school and work in a factory to help the family get by.
'My mother told me, You look at our neighbours' children who are already bringing home an income and you are still going to school and spending money',' recalled Ms Lee, 45, who grew up the eldest of seven children in the Malaysian state of Malacca.
But she refused to obey her mother and turned to her teachers in tears the next day. They went home with her and reasoned with her parents.
'After that I had to take on all sorts of part-time jobs, including selling goreng pisang (banana fritters) to factory workers, to show I could study and work at the same time.
'Once I started to earn some money, my parents had nothing more to say,' she said.
After completing the equivalent of the A levels, she won a scholarship to study mathematics at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.
But with just RM20 in her wallet, the 20-year-old packed her bags and left for Singapore instead, to study civil engineering at the then Nanyang Technological Institute, now known as Nanyang Technological University.
She graduated in 1985 and made Singapore her home, marrying electronic engineer Soh Chee Hiang, now 46, with whom she has two children, a son aged 12 and a daughter, 14.
She has been active in a wide range of community activities, and especially in engineering-related professional bodies.
Some of the people she worked with in these volunteer groups urged her in 2000 to become a Nominated Member of Parliament.
'I took the forms but Mr Inderjit Singh, MP at Ang Mo Kio GRC and my friend from university, told me to join him at Kebun Barun grassroots activities instead,' she said.
She has become a seasoned grassroots activist there, attending the MP's Meet-the-People sessions, becoming assistant secretary of the Citizens' Consultative Committee and chairman of the Inter-Racial Confidence Circle.
When the PAP invited her to enter politics, she said yes.
'It gives me the power to influence decision-making and push policies towards where I think needs most help,' she said yesterday.
Drawing on her childhood experience and her trips back to Malacca, she knows she wants to focus on helping the poor break out of poverty.
'When I go back and look at those in my village, most are still rubber tappers and workers in factories.
'That is why I am convinced that education is the best way to help children from the lower-income group,' she said.
She is also keen to help small and medium-size firms to grow and expand overseas.
The fourth woman among the new candidates introduced by the PAP, she said she has faced discrimination as a woman working in the male-dominated construction industry.
She recalled a potential client who refused to work with her because he did not like female engineers.
She sighed as she told reporters: 'I have had to work hard to prove myself to some of those in the industry.'
But she has also won people over by showing her determination to fight for whatever she believes in. 'I will do the same for the people of Singapore,' she said.
At home, she has told her husband, daughter and son to be prepared that they will have much less time together if she gets elected. 'But they are very supportive. They know this is my choice and have given me all their backing.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times on April 4, 2006.