The voice of the people
This newbie may be green in Parliament, still learning the ropes but he is no new kid with the issues he would like addressed. He knows exactly where he can contribute and make an impact.
BY: Eleanor Yap
I found the whole experience somewhat surreal coming to an art and music café called 15 Minutes situated at the LaSalle College of The Arts to do an interview (long overdue) with the new-kid-on-the-NMP (Nominated Member of Parliament)-block Laurence Wee, immediate past president of the Gerontological Society of Singapore (GSS) and executive director of the Presbyterian Community Services. First off, I thought he would have picked a quieter ambience than one bustling with students, many years younger than 63-year-old Wee and myself, and secondly, I assumed the location would have been one with a majority of seniors.
How wrong could I have been! And for Wee, he wasn’t the least bit uncomfortable and even commented, “I feel I am with them and their vibrancy, unlike if I went to a place filled with retirees. I don’t care if these students call me ‘uncle’.” Folding his sleeves up and not minding that I was dressed casually, Wee was in his element and was happy to share his thoughts on a high seat, sipping Italian soda and amid the continuous student chatter:
What are your goals/mission during your two-year term as NMP?
I want to be the voice of the people particularly people with disabilities and older people since I have experience in those sectors. My whole life, I have served the needy and less fortunate. For instance, for over three years, I was the administration manager/acting executive director at the Society for Aid to the Physically Disabled and have been a community welfare officer for the disabled persons’ section and family service centre for the then Ministry of Social Affairs (which had evolved to the present Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS)). I will be the voice of not only seniors but also the common people whose needs and issues need to be addressed.
But one must understand that I can’t just raise an issue just because I feel strongly about it. I have to strike a certain chord with other parliamentarians in order to be heard.
Why are senior issues important?
I am passionate about seniors since I was project officer for the welfare review and coordination branch of the former Ministry of Community Development (now MCYS) and later, supervisor of residential care facilities for the destitutes of the Ministry of Community Development.
I feel seniors are an integral part in our society and an important part of the family fabric which is an important pillar of society. I would like to see a society that is inclusive, that is, open to all ages. Seniors should be viewed as assets, not burdens. When properly challenged, they can live their lives meaningfully and in a dignified manner. Though there will always be a cohort of seniors who are frail and are unable to be independent, there are still a majority who can continue to contribute such as continue working, etc, and we shouldn’t write them off. Some of the senior issues include improving the quality of life such as having adequate finance, meaningful pursuit of leisure activities and employment, etc.
I feel mental health is also an important issue with longevity as many seniors can succumb to depression if they are not leading fulfilling lives and properly stimulated. I will one day be like the seniors so I see all this as preparing myself for my golden years ahead.
Do you feel the Government has done enough for seniors?
The Singapore Government has moved in the right direction over the years by setting up many Government committees to look into the above issues. However, much still needs to be done in terms of greater awareness of seniors’ real needs and supporting them to remain in the community as long as possible (ie ageing-in-place). Getting them to continue to stay involved and engaged, and to pass important values to the younger generation. Another senior issue I feel strongly about is ageism where older people are viewed as being useless and old. We need to return the respect to them as their place in society is generally viewed as not important currently.
There is an old African saying that if an old man dies, the whole library goes away. In today’s society, we are technology-advanced and we have Goggle to replace a library! Slowly and slowly, older people are losing their importance following the advent of paper and writing to a point where we don’t need older people over the years. This is far from the truth.
Can you comment on the 2012 re-employment law and the importance of hiring older workers?
2012 will be a milestone for the Government to re-enact (the retirement age will be pushed upwards from 62 to 65). However, already in Europe, there is no such thing as a retirement age. We should consider working towards this and do away with a retirement age. Chronological age should not be a determinant of a person working; it should be their mental capacity instead.
With a new role, you certainly are doing a juggling act. How do you do it?
It is really about how you manage your time and that is the key to multi-tasking! In 2004, I sat on over 17 committees, including those that are voluntary and Government. You also have to have reliable friends to help you along. Sometimes when a meeting comes up and I see I will be playing a minor role in it, or to form the crowd so to speak, I skip the meeting. I just have to prioritise what I need to do. I currently sit on a lot less – maybe slightly over 10 committees including board director at Care Corner Family Service Centre and board member of the Centre For Seniors. To be pro-active and to have a headstart I do a checklist every morning on what I need to do that day to keep me focused. Usually I try to achieve or get at least three main things done. If I don’t get them done I am not unduly worried, as there is always another day! If work ends early, I try to find time to briskwalk to de-stress.
What do you do on the weekends?
Mostly social activities keep me busy such as grassroots functions etc. Saturdays I do a swim in the morning and Sundays, church and the night is probably a committee event. Weekends are unpredictable.
How was your first parliamentary seating (July 18)?
I am feeling my way around and getting to know how Parliament works. So far I have no complaints, I have been warmly welcomed and so have the rest of my NMP colleagues.
Were you surprised at your nomination? How did your family react?
Yes, very surprised as there were so many worthy contenders and bigger names than myself. I am excited about this new role of mine especially at my age, with this opportunity, and I hope I can do my best.
In terms of my family, initially my two sons were proud of me but my wife who is a private person was quite concerned and worried that I might get extremely busy. However, now she is more relaxed about the whole idea and can see that I will be able to take it within my stride.
This is considered your first foray into politics. Do you think you might consider a more permanent role in the future?
I am open to whatever possibilities come my way but I would need to weigh each carefully. You can’t go into anything blindly, you need to assess and be realistic.
So what drives you to continue the work that you do?
I like to see people feeling happy and do my bit to contribute. I don’t want to see people suffer.
Who is your role model?
GSS past president Henry Lim who at age 85 is a very giving person and does not take people for granted.
What are your secrets to ageing gracefully?
- Wake up and look at the world optimistically.
- Don’t bear grudges and see things positively.
- Try new things to nurture the younger people so they can realise their full potential. They are our future leaders you know.
- You must have a drive to propel yourself forward – this is also a way to live life to the fullest. One cannot stagnate … and at whatever age.
- Try to be humourous – life isn’t that bad!
- Always appreciate people.