Leong Mun Wai Doesn’t Know How To Be a Politician Yet

Top Image: Stephanie Lee / RICE Media 

Leong Mun Wai walks through the tinted glass doors of the Progress Singapore Party’s Headquarters on a Tuesday morning. Located in an unassuming corner of Bukit Timah Shopping Centre, the headquarters is mainly used as a meeting space for the opposition party.  

PSP was founded in 2019 by Dr Tan Cheng Bock. The young political party—campaigning on “inclusivity and non-discrimination” principles and its commitment to reducing income inequality— stormed through the 2020 General Elections. 

While no party members were elected to Parliament, Mr Leong was chosen as one of two Non-constituency Members of Parliament (NCMP). The other being Ms Hazel Poa, a former civil servant who contested in West Coast GRC in the 2020 General Elections along with Mr Leong for PSP. 

The party symbol, a palm tree, is plastered along the white walls of the bare, nondescript office. Along one wall stands a collection of party books and plush toys of its mascot—an otter. A peaceful silence pervades the office.

It might seem quiet right there and then, but things were much noisier online. Mr Leong had just stirred a political storm over the weekend—the 64-year-old NCMP held a party press conference alongside Dr Tan Cheng Bock and his fellow NCMP, Ms Poa. 

Mr Leong was announced as PSP’s new Secretary-General.

Singaporeans flocked to the comments section to express their sentiments about Mr Leong when videos of the press conference were posted online. Sceptics picked on Mr Leong’s style in Parliament, questioning his conduct and approach to questions. 

“This press conference is to introduce you to our new members of [PSP’s] Central Executive Committee,” Dr Tan explains in his opening statement during the conference on Saturday. 

Mr Leong, seated to Dr Tan’s right, smiles. He scans through the clump of journalists and settles himself, ready to answer their questions. As his party’s new secretary-general, Mr Leong is still finding his footing as the opposition party’s new leader. Ahead of him is the task of improving their performance in the next General Elections. 

The gauntlet has been thrown. His introduction to the press as PSP’s secretary-general was his first challenge as its new leader.   

Mr Leong’s Parliamentary Style

The same air of poise and calm that he carried himself with during the press conference remains evident as he strolls through the doors of the party’s headquarters a few days later. 

His current outfit (striped polo shirt, jeans, and dad shoes) is as jarring as his gentle demeanour. On the surface, Singaporeans know Mr Leong as an incendiary, even belligerent, character in Parliament. In a crisp suit, he presses questions onto Members of Parliament with exasperated urgency. 

“Good morning,” he greets the RICE team with a wave. A long day awaits him—two meetings, both political in nature—to prepare before the next General Elections. He couldn’t reveal anything more when probed. 

Questions about Mr Leong’s style of confrontation linger uncomfortably during every chance encounter with the politician. It’s what Singaporeans associate him with. 

In 2021, a heated debate ensued between Mr Leong and several members of Parliament on the Singapore-India Comprehensive Economic Agreement. During the debate, Mr Leong questioned the Government’s foreign employment policies before citing them as reasons behind “displaced” local PMEs.

His questions proved frustrating. Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, in a private comment to his colleague, questioned the standard of his alma mater. The microphone, which had not been turned off, captured the comment. Minister Balakrishnan has since apologised for the comment. 

In March this year, a heated exchange ensued between Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam and Mr Leong. The latter questioned why the Ministry of Home Affairs revealed that Mr Lee Hsien Yang and his wife were under investigation, but names involved in the Keppel Offshore & Marine Bribery case were not. 

“If minister didn’t ask me, I suggest you don’t ask me,” Mr Leong responded almost reflexively when the Speaker of Parliament asked for clarification. 

Indranee Rajah, Leader of the House, reported that no action would be taken against the NCMP for his “breaches of parliamentary procedures” and “disrespectful conduct” a month later after he apologised and withdrew his statements.

At the media conference, reporters were curious about his approach in Parliament. After all, one would expect a seasoned businessman to follow Parliamentary procedures to a T. On-the-job training would be unnecessary. 

“Political experts have said you bring a more confrontational style to Parliament. What are your thoughts on that?” a journalist asks at the press conference. 

The Raffles Institution alumnus smiles. “The word ‘confrontational’ is coined by some analysts or commentators outside. It really depends on how you look at it. As to my Parliamentary style, I would admit there can be more polish,” he confesses.

“I’m just pursuing the Ministers for answers. Can that be said to be confrontational?” 

Having stewed on the answer, Dr Tan Cheng Bock chimes in. “These are all labels. Sometimes, it’s not confrontational; it’s trying to get an answer. We must be more discrete. The style is different. That’s all.” 

A Childhood in Chinatown 

Back under the fluorescent lights of the PSP office, Mr Leong grins when he hears the same question posed to him yet again. 

“What I always have in my mind in Parliament is that I need to speak for the people. So, it does not cross my mind whether it’s confrontational,” Mr Leong answers. 

“If I don’t get an answer from the minister, I have to push him for an answer,” he clarifies. Mr Leong pursues lines of questioning in Parliament with dogged determination—a trait forged along the streets of Chinatown during his younger years between 1959 to 1978. 

Some days, Mr Leong and his mother hauled their laundry to one of Chinatown’s public taps to wash their clothes. “The queues for the taps were always very long. I remember we would try to get two taps to ourselves, wash the clothes quickly, and return home.” 

From 1959 to 1969, home was a room on the second floor of a rented shophouse along Trengganu Street. Two rooms lined each side of the shophouse’s second floor, with a common corridor in the centre. The floor housed 10 families. They squeezed into the small space and compromised where they could.

Mr Leong and his older siblings slept outside their room, making way for the rest of the family. The windows overlooked Trengganu Street, which housed a bustling market full of hawkers peddling food and household goods. Bleary-eyed stallholders arrived at five in the morning to set up. When the market opened, well-heeled patrons flooded the streets.

“I realised there was a contrast between different socioeconomic classes. Even when I was young, I asked myself why we couldn’t eliminate poverty. Looking at people working very hard was very encouraging. What wasn’t encouraging was finding many people falling sick,” Mr Leong recounts. 

Neighbours often fell sick, suffering from ailments such as tuberculosis. That experience shaped Mr Leong’s first ambition: to be a doctor for the people. 

“In pre-university, I decided to switch to economics partly because of Dr Goh Keng Swee, Singapore’s chief architect. I liked the subject because economics is about managing the country and providing for the people. I had a dream to eradicate poverty,” he remarks, making his way to the basement of the shopping centre to get kopi.

He catches the attention of passersby as he moves through the shopping centre. With hushed whispers, patrons at a nearby eatery sneak a glance. An unsuspecting Singaporean is caught staring a tad too long.

Mr Leong breaks the ice with a wave. A cursory nod is returned. 

Moving Into Politics 

Mr Leong’s switch to economics charted a path to a successful career. He is currently the Founder and CEO of venture capital firm Timbre Capital.

His career in finance began at Singapore’s Government Investment Corporation before moving on to major roles in global banks in Tokyo, London, and Hong Kong.

In 1997, Mr Leong returned to Singapore to be the managing director of OCBC Securities. Only in the last decade did he redirect his efforts from finance to politics. 

“Despite that, I realised that the country was drifting. I thought maybe there was something I could do. That was when I started to think seriously about getting into politics,” he shares.

“I actually went around to see the leaders of various parties. I did my homework. I decided that I could execute my ideas best at PSP.” 

In his maiden election in 2020, Mr Leong contested in West Coast GRC, narrowly losing to the PAP with 48.31 percent of the vote—an impressive feat for a party that had just started a year before. Despite their loss, Mr Leong and Ms Hazel Poa were chosen to represent their party as NCMPs. 

His foray into politics could have been smoother sailing. Family members doubted his political aspirations when he shared his ambitions with them. 

“The reaction was all negative. My family, the most important people in my life, were against it.”

“When I told my son I had to do something for my country, my son asked why it had to be me. He asked why other fathers couldn’t do it.” 

‘Comments are constructive feedback’

A passerby stops Mr Leong as he settles into a chair at a coffee shop in the basement. A private conversation ensues, breaking the momentum of the interview. As a public figure, his work never ends. A few minutes pass before the conversation ends in hearty laughter and a handshake—a show of support for Mr Leong. 

“What sustains me is that, on balance, there are far more encouraging voices from many Singaporeans who encourage me to keep going. Of course, I am mindful not to stay in an echo chamber. I take feedback humbly and reflect on what I’ve done.” He sips on his coffee, waving to another passerby. 

Online comments brand Mr Leong as a “joker” and “sia suay” (Hokkien for being an embarrassment). One would expect the hallowed halls of Parliament to be like a delicate china shop. With his questioning style, Mr Leong is the bull which bashes through its wares.

“Comments are constructive feedback,” he ponders. In one corner, a passerby catches himself before outrightly pointing at Mr Leong. “That’s something you must promote in a democracy—freedom of speech.”

If there’s one thing Singaporeans cannot fault him for, it’s his commitment to his party’s values of democracy and diversity of opinions. He lives by his sword and dies by it. 

“Regarding my style in Parliament, I don’t think I need to change. I’m working on being more familiar with procedures and asking questions more concisely and effectively.” 

The Real Leong Mun Wai

His attention shifts to his wristwatch. It’s almost time for him to attend the first of his two meetings of the day. 

“I don’t know how to be a politician yet. I want to be myself and see whether Singaporeans can accept the real Leong Mun Wai,” he offers. 

“As I understand Parliamentary procedures more, I will appear more polished.” While Singaporeans expect Parliamentarians to be familiar with Parliamentary procedures, Mr Leong is making the most of his time in Parliament despite his unfamiliarity. 

“30 years down the road, on my deathbed, I don’t want to regret not doing something I should have done 30 years earlier,” Mr Leong admits as he gets up from his chair. 

Despite the questions he throws at his fellow Parliamentarians and Ministers, Mr Leong knows that even he doesn’t have all the answers. 

He polishes off the last drop of his coffee, adjusts his watch, and waves goodbye. Hands firmly in his pockets, he rushes off to his next meeting. 

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