GE2020: For love and a bigger cause - The Workers' Party couple reluctantly in the spotlight

Workers' Party candidates He Ting Ru and Terence Tan, who met while volunteering for the WP and eventually married, speaking to Yahoo News Singapore on Monday, 6 July 2020. PHOTO: Nick Tan/Yahoo News Singapore
Workers' Party candidates He Ting Ru and Terence Tan, who met while volunteering for the WP and eventually married, speaking to Yahoo News Singapore on Monday, 6 July 2020. PHOTO: Nick Tan/Yahoo News Singapore

SINGAPORE — Back in 2013, He Ting Ru, now 37, first caught sight of her future husband Terence Tan when he spoke at a rally for the Punggol East by-election. Initial impressions were far from promising.

“I just remember thinking, wow, this bald guy likes to shout,” said He, who anchors the Workers’ Party (WP) team for Sengkang Group Representation Constituency (GRC).

Tan, now 48, had a far more positive view of the Cambridge-educated lawyer, “I liked her. I respected her. I found her very caring and empathetic towards people, because I was doing house visits with her.”

Today, the couple have been married for four years, and have two sons aged two and three. First introduced to the public as part of the WP’s dazzling new slate of candidates for the 2015 General Election (GE), they are both running for office again, with Tan part of the WP’s East Coast GRC team.

The duo joined the party in 2011. Tan now sits on the party’s central executive committee as its deputy organising secretary.

Speaking to Yahoo News Singapore at a cafe in Paya Lebar on Monday (6 July) afternoon, the couple enjoyed an easy chemistry, teasing each other and completing each other’s sentences. Tan was the more gregarious of the duo, bantering away with this reporter, while He was more serious and reserved.

Recalling how the couple first met through the party, Tan quipped deadpan, “I need to tell you now that the Workers' Party is not a dating agency.”

There was also something endearing about how the couple was instinctively protective of each other. When Tan responded to a question about who the better politician is by praising his wife, He quickly jumped in. “Don’t discount the fact that Terence is a very passionate person. He’s got tenacity. When he actually believes in something, he will fight for it.”

Tan responded, “I think my wife is calling me stubborn.”

Politics and love

It was in the heat of the “intensive” 2015 campaign that their romance was forged, with things turning serious shortly afterwards, said Tan, who runs his own law firm. At the time, the couple were part of the WP’s Marine Parade GRC team.

“When you actually run a campaign, it gives a really strong sense of a person's character. There was something I really respected in the way he handled the stresses of that campaign, and that level of consideration (he had) for the volunteers and for the rest of the team,” recalled He.

Tan immediately quipped, “So you’re not telling him about the number of times I broke down and cried?”

For the 2020 campaign, agreeing to run for office again was “one of the hardest decisions” the couple has had to make due to its impact on their family life, admitted He. “Because we always thought that maybe it was better that one of us step up and the other one to step back, especially, you know, we've got two young children.”

“But at the same time, because COVID had hit, I think it really exposed the cracks within our political system and within our country, and within our economy. Also, we just felt really uncomfortable about the political landscape and what it was actually heading towards.”

She added, “And I think ultimately, it just came down to the fact that we both felt that we had a part to play. Because we both believe so much in this cause, and we have children, we want to make sure that we do everything that we can for our children.”

Tan stressed, “It's a simple cause: I want a properly functioning parliamentary democracy.”

Reluctantly in the spotlight

Terence Tan and He Ting Ru at a Workers' Party rally on 9 September 2015. PHOTO: Nick Tan/Yahoo News Singapore
Terence Tan and He Ting Ru at a Workers' Party rally on 9 September 2015. PHOTO: Nick Tan/Yahoo News Singapore

Political couples are not new in Singapore. Opposition veteran Chiam See Tong’s wife Lina went on to run unsuccessfully for his seat in Potong Pasir Single-Member Constituency (SMC) before becoming a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) in 2011.

While Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s wife Ho Ching is not a politician, she has considerable power as the CEO of Temasek Holdings. And the late Lee Kuan Yew’s wife Kwa Geok Choo, while not in politics either, nevertheless played a key role in her husband’s career, even helping to draft the Separation Agreement between Singapore and Malaysia.

But Tan and He readily admit to being uncomfortable in the spotlight – the 2016 article by Chinese language daily Lianhe Wanbao that broke the story of their marriage did not sit easy with the couple, while they considered the request at length before agreeing to speak to Yahoo News Singapore. The duo were also at pains to stress that their goal is not the pursuit of power.

Tan said, “I'm still coming to grips with (being part of a political couple). It's just a fact, isn't it, we're both running for one political party. But it's not odd either because I've met my partner, the mother of my children through the party.

His wife added, “You can't really hide from it, it's just part of our family history. It's part of the memories that we have together as a family, as a couple.”

Accidental politicians

“We're not really professional politicians. I would say I'm an accidental politician,” said Tan, with He readily concurring.

Asked if the party had considered running the couple in the same electoral division, Tan replied emphatically, “Absolutely not. The analogy is similar to that of a company. You need the informed consent of your shareholders before you have directors with familial connections.”

So what of the allegations that torpedoed would-be People’s Action Party (PAP) candidate Ivan Lim’s political career, and the police investigation now facing their party mate and Sengkang GRC candidate Raeesah Khan? Does it put fear in them, that either might face similar allegations, true or not?

“Of course it does. It can be very disconcerting. This thing is such that it can hurt. It doesn't even have to be substantiated,” said Tan.

And what if either or both of them get elected to office? How would things work? “We will have to work around it like every working couple with children,” said Tan, who admitted that he would have to scale back his law practice.

He added, “I think we may have to explain to (our kids) at some stage in time because my eldest is three and he went, Mama's on the poster on the lamppost. I want to tell him this is completely, entirely abnormal.”

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