Sticking up for the working man

The Straits Times | Oct 22, 1989
By: Leong Weng Kam

What makes PEH CHIN HUA uphold his reputation of being the most pro-government of MPs?

The common perception is that in today's Singapore, it takes a degree for a man to succeed. Mr Peh Chin Hua proves the contrary. With only A- levels to his credit, he is a successful businessman and, in the last election, became MP for Jalan Besar GRC. LEONG WENG KAM traces the roots of the community leader.

IF MR Peh Chin Hua had not been the eldest son of a Chinese bookstore owner, he might have become an artist or a biologist instead of being a publisher and businessman. A talented painter since his schooldays in Chinese High School, his early dream was to study art in Paris or biology at the former Nanyang University.

But as the first of eight sons, Mr Peh, who also has one older and two younger sisters, had little choice but to start managing the bookstore founded by his father after his A levels in 1968.

Describing the decision as a painful but necessary one, Mr Peh, who was elected MP for Jalan Besar GRC in the 1988 election, says: "All my brothers and sisters were still in school then. My father convinced me that he needed me to carry on the family's bookshop business just in case he was unable to continue."Although his father, now 73, is still going strong, Mr Peh has no regrets over the sacrifice he made for the family. Having had to forgo a university education himself, he made sure that his younger brothers and sisters were given the opportunity and five of the nine made it.

Mr Peh also takes satisfaction from having helped his family business grow from a small comics bookshop in Chin Swee Road to become Shing Lee Book Holdings which owns publishing houses in Singapore, Hongkong and Malaysia and a chain of bookshops in Singapore, two in public housing estates and 17 in schools.

Mr Peh says he owes his success to hard work and the willingness to learn from others. But a publisher who has known him for more than 15 years says he is also an astute businessman who has a flair for publishing.

His first venture into publishing stemmed from his interest in biology. In 1969, a year after he left school, he co-authored the first local Chinese supplementary textbook on the subject, Practical Biology for Secondary Schools, with a former teacher of his. "That was a success and it also started my career as a publisher," he says.

Art remains very much a part of his life today. He collects Chinese paintings and loves to practise Chinese calligraphy when he is free.

He married when he was only 23, to a girl he met when he was in secondary school. He says of his wife, a clerical officer with the National University of Singapore: "One of the best things which has happened to me is meeting and marrying her. She is a good and understanding wife. Without her support, I would not be able to take part in community work and in politics now."

Mr Peh was a community worker long before he was selected to run for Parliament last year, beginning in 1973 when he was invited to help organise the National Day celebration in Kim Seng constituency.

"After that, I realised my services were needed there and a year later I was appointed honorary secretary of the Kim Seng Community Centre Management Committee."

A community leader who worked with him for many years describes Mr Peh as a zealous helper who was very willing to help the poor and speak up for them. A businessman living in his constituency describes him as a grassroots leader who understands his people very well. "I am so convinced by his convictions that I have agreed to help him at his constituency as a grassroots leader myself," he adds.

Mr Peh's own view is that all residents should be willing to come forward to serve their community: "When grassroots workers look forward to their community work in the same way as Christians look forward to their Sunday church service and Muslims to their Friday mosque prayers, then I say we have succeeded ..."

He sees his role as an MP as a greater responsibility than that of a grassroots leader because an MP can influence policies and is elected by the people into Parliament.

He says he has no great ambitions in politics: "I only want to be a good MP and not let my constituents down. Also, I want to prove that even a non-graduate like myself can do the job well."

In the year since entering Parliament he has been noted for a number of things. To begin with, he almost invariably speaks in Mandarin, the language he is most proficient in.

He says he does this also because the majority of his constituents are Mandarin-speaking. By speaking the language, he feels they can be made more aware of issues discussed in Parliament.

He also has the reputation of being the most pro-government of MPs, speaking up for unpopular policies even when virtually all other MPs are attacking them. He reveals that some of his constituents have told him that they are uneasy about this but they usually change their minds when he explains his reasons for supporting certain policies.

He says another reason for showing public support is that since many government backbenchers criticise but then vote for the Government in Parliament, people can get the impression that backbenchers say one thing but do something else.

His primary test is whether and how proposed policies affect his Jalan Besar GRC constituents, especially those in the Geylang West section that he looks after. As few of his largely working-class constituents own cars but many pay electricity and telephone bills, he supported the half-tank petrol rule because Finance Minister Richard Hu had threatened to raise PUB and Telecom charges if nothing could stop Singaporeans from buying cheaper petrol in Johor.

Similarly, he supported the Government's measures to curb car use in Singapore and even called for such measures as stopping banks and finance companies from giving car loans to solve the traffic congestion problem. He also suggested that the carpark lots in his constituency be reduced as there are more lots than cars there. The space could be put to better use, he said.

These measures are not in his personal interest, he points out. "I own 14 vehicles and my petrol bill alone is more than $30,000 a year because of my business," he says.

He supported caning of illegal immigrant workers when nearly all other MPs who spoke in Parliament opposed it. He says this is because the illegals were "robbing" his working-class constituents of their jobs. He adds: "I may have opposed the bill if I were the MP for Tanglin where many constituents are employers."

PEH CHIN HUA was born in Singapore on Nov 23, 1947. He is married with two daughters, aged 17 and 16, and a son, 13.
1968: A-levels at Chinese High School.
1969: General Manager, Shing Lee Bookstore.
1974: Honorary Secretary, Kim Seng Community Centre Management Committee.
1976: Member, People's Action Party. * 1984: Awarded Public Service Medal.
1987: Managing Director, Shing Lee Holdings.
1988: Vice-President, Singapore Book Publishers' Association.
1988: MP for Jalan Besar GRC. * 1989: Member of Government Parliamentary Committee on National Development and Housing.