He was a Caucasian, the big boss in an important company, and he didn’t want to listen to her.
She was 22, a fledgling industrial relations officer with the National Trades Union Congress, sent to beard the lion in his den.
“I’m Chinese-educated and my English wasn’t so good. When I went there, this boss didn’t even want to offer me tea, you know. Very nasty, he drank it himself.
“So at the end of the meeting (I never lost my temper), I told him, ‘I’ve already put my stand. If you do not want to listen to my suggestion, the only thing I can do is to refer the whole proposal to my workers—that means the rank and file. And they will call a general meeting to decide.’
“Then he got worried. He said, ‘Oh ya, ya, we’d better have another meeting.’ At the second meeting he asked me, ‘You want tea or coffee or anything?’ Very kind, you know, and whatever I proposed he was quite receptive.”
Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, now 46, recalls this incident with a merry laugh. It is at moments like this that she is most relaxed—her natural sense of humour surfacing when relating an anecdote.
Otherwise, she is very much the cautious politician. She returns quickly to the point of the story—how she deals with employers as a trade unionist, which sounds very much like how she deals with people in general.
“We don’t need to shout or quarrel. But we must do our homework. We must know our stand, the law, what is right and wrong, and try to be fair.
“After a while, if the management know that you have principles, they’re supportive as well. When I talk to them, I don’t feel like I’m the enemy.”
It is this measured reasonableness that characterises 1995’s Woman of the Year.
In all descriptions of her, she is always seen as a moderate, a non-extremist. Which is not to be confused with being lukewarm—this is a woman who is passionate about issues she cares about.
Rather, she is what former junior minister Dr Seet Ai Mee calls the “the perfect blend of a good unionist, politician and grassroots worker—her strengths being the strengths of both men and women.”
In her 25 years as a trade unionist and her 12 years as a politician, she’s made women, children, workers and the aged her top concerns. She is chairman of 11 bodies, director of six, and advisor to countless more.
She is constantly brimming with ideas. As one friend said, “Her mind moves too fast for everyone else—while we’re still dwelling on her last idea, she’ll come up with a new one.”
Her years as MP for Yuhua have seen the constituency bloom—not just with the Norfolk pines she selected for planting there, but in the range of facilities. To date it has a $3.8m community club, a daycare centre for the elderly, three air-conditioned study centres, five childcare centres and five kindergartens under the People’s Action Party Community Foundation. On top of this, she’s started two latch-key programmes and free counselling (including legal) services.
With all that going on, you wonder how she manages to keep things running so smoothly. She attributes it to her incredible support network—there is always someone out there willing to volunteer.
It’s a remarkable gift of hers, this ability to make friends with people of all classes – employers and workers, academics and the uneducated – and to get them involved in her causes.
This could, in part, be due to her method of recruitment—a deep rooted belief that the best way to deflect misery is to keep busy helping others.
She says, “I tell housewives who come to me with marriage problems, ‘Join my women’s group and forget about the unhappiness, live a new life.’ Some come and some don’t.
“The thing is, even if people disappoint you or let you down, you should not let yourself down, shouldn’t make yourself unhappy. You need to build up your inner strength.”
Monday, 8pm: About 20 constituents have turned up at the Yuhua community hall. They’re at the meet-the-people session to seek Yu-Foo Yee Shoon’s help. Everyone here calls her “Madam”, either in a tone of awe or affection, depending on how well they know her.
For the next three hours, she will receive her constituents in her office, listen to their complaints and offer practical advice.
There’s a kitchen at the back, and four women in their fifties are busy preparing bowls of red bean soup.
One of them is Ah Geok, an office assistant who approached Yu-Foo Yee Shoon back in 1984 to ask if she could offer any help. When she found that there was no one to clean up or to boil tea for the meet-the-people sessions, she offered her services.
Yu-Foo Yee Shoon says Ah Geok has never missed a day since. “She’s organised a group and every Monday it’s a different soup for us. I was very touched.
“When she first came she wore black trousers and no make-up. Today she wears a dress, simple make-up and she looks so pretty.”
According to Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, Ah Geok has since taken up singing and social dancing as well. “By helping us she really opened up to an enriching life.” I ask Ah Geok what she thinks of her MP and she tells me simply. “She’s a nice woman. She doesn’t look down on me.”
Yu-Foo Yee Shoon is talking to one of her constituents, a security guard who is upset about his leaking toilet. His voice rises when he warms up to his topic. “You tell them, Mrs MP, I’m not going to pay a cent.”
She listens to him carefully, takes notes, and tells him what she intends to do. Her voice is firm, but cajoling, and when he leaves he looks mollified.
The difference between male and women MPs, declares Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, is shopping, Because she doesn’t have much time to shop, she looks forward to her walkabouts, which take her to the market and neighbourhood shops.
Sometimes she’ll pick up a lotion or toilet detergent, which, she says, is more effective than the better known, pricier brands. She’ll also buy fish and fruit.
Figuring out what to wear gives her a headache. Within the same day she might have to shuttle from a coffee-shop at Yuhua to a cocktail at the Hyatt Hotel. Always well-groomed, she is conscious of her public image.
She says, “A friend in my constituency once told me not to dress beyond the residents. But then my professional friends like Jannie Tay (The Hour Glass head) and Jennie Chua (Raffles Hotel general manager) will say, ‘Hey, sometimes must dress smarter.’ It’s a problem.”
When she does shop for clothes, it’s usually just before Christmas and Chinese New Year. She knows a tailor who’s good with cheongsams, but he’s retired so sometimes she gives him half-a-year’s notice. Once in a while when she wants to spoil herself, she goes to a tailor at La Silk in Raffles City.
She doesn’t wear rings or chains—earrings are about her only accessories.
Her hairstylists at Fox Salon complain about her hair, because she goes to them three times a year at most. “I tell them to cut as short as possible, and I wash and blow it myself.” She’s not particular about fragrance. She uses whatever her friends give her, but she likes Chanel’s Cristalle, the first perfume from her husband.
She does not go in for vigorous exercise, but will do 10 minutes of “warm-up exercises” each morning. “I used to enjoy swimming. But I won’t have privacy if I swim now.”
I ask Yu-Foo Yee Shoon what she values most about her husband Yu Lee Wu, senior lecturer in the engineering department at Nanyang Technological University. She tells me quietly, “He honours his word.”
When they were dating, he was a manager with Hewlett-Packard and she was with NTUC. She married him at 24.
“Before we married, I told him he mustn’t change my beliefs or my enthusiasm in doing things, I told him I didn’t want him to say, ‘Now that we’re married you can’t be in union work.’
“I’m grateful that after 22 years he’s still kept his word.”
She appreciates her husband’s support and credits her in-laws for their help in raising her three children—two daughters and a son, aged 19, 16 and 13. Her late mother-in-law used to encourage her, and even urged her son to be more supportive because his wife was helping others.
“I remind myself not to take my family for granted, to show them more love and care. My son has told me that men need encouragement too!”
She was born on Feb 17, 1950, the first day of the Lunar New Year. She was the last of three daughters. Her father, Foo Tak Sun, was the principal of Pei Chun Public School and the biggest influence in her life. He used to say, “You’re not a clothes hanger, you’re not born just to wear nice clothes. You were born to contribute, to learn to live with people.”
What does she want for young women today? She says she hopes they’ll be more down-to-earth, that even though they may be smarter and better educated, they shouldn’t make life difficult for others around them. Like for their boyfriends, for example.
“I’ve heard how some girls tell the boy, ‘If you don’t have car and condo, don’t propose.’ We shouldn’t be so spoilt. In my time we worked hard for what we both wanted, and shared aspirations together.”
Most women, she thinks, are “reasonable” in their expectations; she feels on their part, the men need to see marriage as an equal partnership, with wives having as big a say in decisions.
She says she also hopes women will learn to give other women more support. “I think we shouldn’t see women in politics as fighting for the limelight. Politics needs women to express a different view. That way, government policies will be more balanced.”
Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, as others have pointed out before, doesn’t believe in the gender fight, but in doing things in partnership with men. “We cannot always feel that we’re bullied by the men.”
Ellen Lee, president of the Singapore Association of Women Lawyers, says, “She’s conscious of being a woman and that drives her forward rather than back—she doesn’t hide behind her gender. And the men know she brooks no nonsense.”
She is very clear where she stands on golf clubs which do not allow women in as voting members. Margaret Thomas, deputy editor of the Business Times, tells about the time the prestigious Singapore Island Country Club offered membership to female MPs, among them Yu-Foo Yee Shoon. But because she was a woman, the membership would be in her husband’s name. She – and all the other women Parliamentarians – rejected the offer. The rules were changed to allow women in as full members—and she joined.
Friends she has plenty of. She meets them from time to time for a quick lunch at NTUC Club in Shenton Way. She says she doesn’t hesitate to turn to friends in business, academia, or from the old schooldays to ask for funds, advice or help for community or charity projects. Employers sometimes tease her when they haven’t heard from her for a while. “They call and ask me, ‘How come you didn’t write to ask for donations this year?’”
She developed confidence in public speaking by translating the speeches of a trade unionist, Gerald De Cruz, the father of High Court judge Judith Prakash. He would make her stand up and translate his speeches for his Chinese-speaking audiences. He told her never mind the mistakes, just get his point across.
She had other mentors over the years from the NTUC leadership.
From former NTUC chairman Phey Yew Kok, she learnt how to mobilise people. With Devan Nair, then the NTUC president, she observed how he talked to both academics as well as ordinary workers. Lim Chee Onn, as NTUC secretary-general, she calls “a great administrator”.
Under his successor Ong Teng Cheong, she learnt that workers could also think big.
Lim Boon Heng, the current secretary-general, she describes as having “the brain of a scholar and the heart of the layman.” She says, “Under him, I learnt if you ‘soft sell’ your project you might achieve more.”
Her name, literally, means “happy fountain”. The aptness of that is striking. In the course of our conversation, the word “happy” crops up frequently. This is what Yu-Foo Yee Shoon wants of herself and those around her, and it is obvious that to many, she is a source of inherent happiness and a mainspring of strength.
“Ultimately what we want in life,” she says, “is to be happy women. To share in equal opportunities as partners, ultimately to create a more gracious society and a happier family life.”
– She was a rare woman trade unionist at 21
– She secured a minimum monthly wage of $150 for female factory hands who were only earning $2 or $3 a day in the early 70s
– At 30, she was elected chairman of NTUC—the first woman and youngest person ever to hold such a high post
– She was one of the few women in politics, elected as Member of Parliament for Yuhua in 1984
– She started NTUC Childcare. As of 1995, there are 23 childcare centres, catering to 2500 kids, paying an affordable $200 to $265 a month. They are run by 546 staff, and NTUC Childcare helps to train teachers for kindergartens (private included) all over Singapore
– She got childcare subsidies raised from $30 to $150 after a 10-year battle
– In 1993, she was appointed chairman to the Group Parliamentary Committee on Community Development
– In 1995, she launched a drive to help 30,000 housewives return to the workforce. In the same year, she started Foodfare, a cooked-food chain and the NTUC’s newest co-operative, to moderate cooked-food prices