Peh : I have no apologies for what I am
The Straits Times | Mar 28, 1989
By: Sharon Vasoo

His is the voice of the Chinese-speaking conservative who speaks out against threats to moral values. SHARON VASOO meets Jalan Besar GRC MP Peh Chin Hua and asks, Why are you so uptight?
WHEN Peh Chin Hua was young, he idolised the teenage thugs in his gangster-ridden Chin Swee Road neighbourhood and admired their "tough and manly" swagger.

"I thought they were heroes, like big shots. They looked very wei feng," he said in Mandarin. "Wei feng" is Mandarin for "impressive".

Then a student at Ai Tong Primary, he lived in a rented room in a two-storey shophouse with his parents and 11 siblings.

He so wanted to be like his heroes that he got himself a pair of "eight-inch trousers", the shorts favoured by gangsters in the 1960s. But his mother would not let him go out dressed in them. "She hit me on the head and told me to take them off. She said she didn't want a son who dressed like a gangster," he said with a laugh.

But it is his views, not his wardrobe, that now draws sharp criticism. Always colourful, always forceful and always expressed in Mandarin, they make him a target of critics who say he is out of touch. That happens whether he is talking about moral values, movies, foam parties, discotheques, what is shown on TV or the reach of the Internet.

During the recent Budget debate, one critic remarked on the Internet that Mr Peh "shouldn't be so uptight". Another called on him to "open up his mind and heart".

The 51-year-old Hokkien businessman who became an MP in 1988, is well aware he is regarded as a "lao gutong" - Mandarin for "antique".

It brings this retort: "All antiques have value. I think my comments can add value to discussions on youth issues. "I'm not old-fashioned, but I admit I'm a little conservative. People mock me when I raise these issues. It's too tiresome to respond to the criticism.

"They don't realise that I do it because I am concerned about the young generation."

He was enlightened as a boy when, in the home of one of his heroes, he saw people "gambling, drinking, touching these strange women and smoking cigarettes".

Some were mere boys not very much older than he was.

"I was shocked," he recounted.
"When I was much older, I began to understand why there were so many fights in my neighbourhood. Bad debts and bad relationships between husband and wife. And the children suffer."

He turned away from trouble and towards his textbooks.

"In the end, only three out of 10 boys in the neighbourhood made it. I was one of them. I heard that some of the others got involved with the underworld."

He is in touch with only one of them now. At Chinese High, and later in River Valley School where he completed his A levels, he developed a voracious appetite for books on Confucian philosophy and Buddhism.
"They are my guiding principles in life. They teach you how to put the
country first before yourself.

"If you can't even be a loyal and devoted citizen, how can you be a good person?"

It was his parents who steered him away from the bad hats, he said. They would not allow him to hang out with friends. They insisted he come straight home from school every day.

"They were very fierce and tough with us. If I broke any rule, I would be caned severely. I would be beaten for the slightest thing, even just ting jui." "Ting jui" means "speaking disrespectfully".

He has never smoked a cigarette. He first tasted alcohol six years ago, while on a business trip in China. He does his business entertaining over lunch.

"If you want to talk business with me, do it over lunch. Never in my life have I discussed business in a bar, and I don't see the need to do it there," he said.

He has been in a discotheque just once, while he was holidaying with his family in Indonesia.

He said: "Dancing is a good form of exercise, but if it gets out of hand and the disco encourages people to do strange things, then I don't approve."

He argued for strict controls over nightspots because they let teens in. He said: "If they are grown up and they choose to engage in such activities, that's their own decision. But in such places, it is easy for teenagers to be influenced, to be led astray and start having sex at a young age, or take up smoking and drinking because of peer pressure."

Asked if his values were outdated, he stood his ground.

"My thinking is not outdated. If it is, then I cannot be a businessman, because you have to adapt your ideas and change with the times.

"But when it comes to issues such as personal values and morals, it is something which does not change and it stays with you forever."

As MP in charge of Geylang, notorious for its red-light district, he is familiar with the seamier side of life. He has had to counsel mothers who make a living as social escorts, fathers who gamble and neglect their families and young offenders from troubled homes.

Once, a mother of two sought his help after she was caught soliciting in Geylang. She told him she had to moonlight as a prostitute to support her family - who had no idea about her sideline.

"My heart went out to her. I told her, 'Give up the trade. I'll help you find a job and get some money for the children's education.' Thank God, she did, eventually."

He has had to deal with parents whose teenage daughters were pregnant.

"This is why I believe that young children should be watched closely and guided when they are growing up.
"The ground rules have to be laid out and you have to be firm with them."

His own children, he said, were raised with the ground rules his parents set for him. They had to observe curfews, and he would wait up for them if they said they would be home late.

He said: "I wanted them to understand the worries parents go through. I tell them they would do the same too if they had children of their own."
His son is 24 years old, and his two daughters are now 26 and 27. His relationship with them is "close, like best friends".

Both daughters are married, and recently, he became a proud grandfather.

He said: "Now, they will truly understand what it feels like to be a parent. They will have to go through the same worries I did."

Quotes from Peh

'The news of relaxed censorship has already led to some bold presentation in the Act Magazine which is published by the volunteer Aids Awareness Group, known as Action for Aids. Its contents are crude and explicit, causing the principal of a school to lodge a formal complaint against it. There is a caption which says: "Either you use the plastic, or I use a cucumber." That is very crude.'
- Mr Peh bemoaning relaxed censorship (March 1993)

'Idolisation is a problem which is prevalent in any era, any country. For example, in the 1930s we had Zhou Xuan .... In the 1960s we had the Beatles. In the 1980s, we had Michael Jackson. However, in the 1990s, our young people are so obsessed with their idols that they are in hot pursuit of them. They forgo sleep and meals and even neglect their studies. 'This is a matter of extreme regret ... If such a trend is allowed to go on, what will be the future of our young people? They will become a group of idolaters who have lost direction in life.'
- On teenage obsessions (March 1993)

'Last year in August, in Sentosa there was a foam party and about 500 people took part. Many people were squeezed in the foamy pit. Many were scantily dressed. Boys and girls are in close contact with each other and even those unknown to each other embraced openly. 'And those who took part in this - about eight of them were underaged. Some even brought their own liquor. 'So many elderly Singaporeans were really surprised over the degree of our youngsters' kai fang (open-minded, particularly towards sex).
- Mr Peh calling for stricter controls over discos and lounges (March 1999)

'We should return the cane to the teachers. The teachers must have the right to punish students. Appropriate corporal punishment is necessary. Caning a student on his palm will not cause bodily injury. 'Before admitting the students, the school should make it compulsory for the parents to sign a letter authorising the school to exercise strict control over the children, including the application of appropriate corporal punishment.
- Lamenting the lack of discipline in schools (March 1995)

'I cannot help feeling that moral standards in Singapore are declining and times have really changed. Just imagine, secondary school students, in uniform, walking intimately hand-in-hand in public, and some are even seen hugging and kissing at the roadside, as though they are the only people in the world. How can we not shake our heads in disbelief!'
- Mr Peh decrying the changing values of teenagers (March 1995)

'I have recently received some complaints on the gradual relaxation in censorship of films. Even PG films like "Nell" are similar to R(A) films. There are topless and completely nude scenes. 'PG films are applicable to the young and old, but there should not be half-bare or completely nude scenes. I am worried that over-relaxation of censorship will gradually cause social deterioration.'
- On the lax censorship of movie and television programmes (March 1995)