Louis Ng's optimism carries him through Acres activism and politics

Yunita Ong The New Paper 2 Jan 18;

Mr Louis Ng recalled being angry and impatient in his early days of activism.

But ask him about the rejection in end-November of his parliamentary petition to make public housing policies more inclusive for single parents and he remains optimistic.

The MP for Nee Soon GRC, 39, told The New Paper: "I don't believe it is a setback. The Ministry of National Development did put up a big statement that it will ensure no child will be without adequate housing whether the parents are married or not."

The petition, which was a rare move here, had asked for unmarried parents and their children to be considered a family nucleus, so they can be eligible for public housing schemes. It was filed on behalf of seven single parents.

Mr Ng's optimism is an undercurrent to his work both as MP and as chief executive of animal welfare group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres).

SPEAKING UP

Since he was elected as an MP in the 2015 General Election with the People's Action Party (PAP), the man who was previously known more as an animal rights champion has gone beyond that in Parliament.

Last month, the ex-smoker spoke against an impending ban on imitation tobacco products because he believes Singapore might be missing out on a chance to benefit from regulations that would allow the controlled use of such products to help smokers quit.

In August, he filed an adjournment motion to ask for extended paid parental leave for those with multiple births or premature babies. Mr Ng's 10-month-old twin daughters, Katie and Poppy, were born premature.

Mr Ng believes strongly in speaking up about society's injustices as an MP - the same as what his activist self would do.

Speaking to TNP at Yishun Park Hawker Centre last month, he said: "People asked why I wanted to jump from activism to politics, but I've always said they're the same thing. I am fortunate to have this chance to speak up."

CHANGING HIS APPROACH

Mr Ng made a name for himself after starting Acres in 2001 while studying biology at the National University of Singapore.

In 2003, Acres infamously parked a black car, with a pink dolphin soft toy chained to its top, outside the Haw Par Glass Tower building in Clemenceau Avenue. This was to demand pink dolphins that performed at the then-Underwater World Singapore to be set free.

His life changed when Mr K. Shanmugam, who was already Law Minister then, wanted to meet days after speaking at Acres' anniversary dinner in 2008.

Mr Ng recalled: "I was wondering, what did I do?"

Mr Shanmugam urged him to turn his attention to people and not just animals - and to volunteer at Chong Pang in Nee Soon GRC.

Mr Ng also took Mr Shanmugam's advice to veer from a combative approach. One example is the long-standing ban on cat ownership in HDB flats.

A pilot programme allowing residents in Chong Pang to keep cats in their flats began in 2012 after he worked with Mr Shanmugam and took feedback from a public forum on animal welfare policies in 2011, he said. It was extended by another two years in 2015.

Mr Ng said: "I realised that working from within, I could affect policy. It wasn't just about rescuing more animals but about fundamental policy changes."

As an MP, he listens to residents and engages civil society groups to sound out their issues in Parliament. He said his eyes were opened to the struggles of single parents during one of his weekend home visits.

He makes it a point to enter each resident's home and to hear them out.

He said: "I just finished my first round of 143 HDB blocks and that has taken me two years."

As a father to three girls - Ella is the oldest at three - with his wife Amy, 40, who takes care of the kids full-time, Mr Ng felt compelled to act.

He met the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) several times and consulted it about research it had done on the matter.

His work has been valuable to Aware, said its executive director Corinna Lim.

The two had worked together before Mr Ng's entry into politics. After he was elected, they met to discuss issues facing women.

In Parliament, he has asked for data on several Aware-related issues such as the treatment by the authorities of those who have attempted suicide.

She said: "He really does his homework and makes sure he knows the issue inside out. He is patient and takes the role as a representative of the people very, very seriously."

While she said some in the activism scene were surprised about him joining the PAP, she said as MP, he has extended the empathy and sense of injustice he has had for animals towards society's marginalised people.

That said, Mr Ng said Acres has not changed just because he is an MP, and that it would not hesitate to speak up on issues, such as the long conflict between the AVA and Acres about culling monkeys.

Mr Ng said last year the number culled in 2015 was too high.

He has plans for the next Budget speech and has met civil servants on how to improve the system.

PATIENCE

Mr Ng said the next step for the single parent issue is to file a parliamentary question on the criteria single parents need to fulfil to be able to get housing.

"If we get the momentum going and get more details, we can actually make a difference."

Whenever he feels dejected, he reminds himself he can do something to change things.

He has started several initiatives in Nee Soon such as Project Hearts, a financial assistance project and mentorship programme for needy children, and Project Hearts to Hands that has organised trips to help neighbouring countries tackling natural disasters and refugee crises.

He said: "Singapore can't accept refugees, but I don't think we should just stop there and say we can't help."

He added activism has taught him that change takes time.

"I always tell my new staff - all our successful campaigns took two to three years."

Even something as brutal as the Yishun cat murders yielded a positive take from Mr Ng, who said the upside was that Singaporeans rallied around the cause, some even travelled from Potong Pasir to protect the cats.

Said Mr Ng: "We lose many battles. If you are pessimistic, you will never last."

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