Find out why Chee Soon Juan doesn’t want to be near potatoes anymore, and learn about the 58-year-old’s life outside politics
The 2020 Singapore General Election might not have concluded in Chee Soon Juan’s favour, but the opposition politician wasn’t bogged down by defeat. Chee’s political journey, which began in 1992, is far from over, as he threw himself back into work just a week after the elections wrapped up in July. But the secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party wears many other hats too: Chee is a father of three, lecturer, book author, and most recently, a maker of cheesy mashed potatoes, in a bid to raise funds for the Singapore Democratic Party. Now that his brief culinary stint has ended, the 58-year-old quips he’s not interested to be anywhere near potatoes for a long, long time – excellent cue for Robb Report Singapore to finally have a word with him.
But whether you find Chee donning an apron in the kitchen or clad in red roaming the streets of Bukit Batok (the constituency he contested for past elections), one thing’s for sure: as a firm believer of staying true to oneself, Chee wears his heart on his sleeve in whatever he does. In this interview, the politician reveals his very first passion, which infamous world-renowned figure he’d like to have a meal with, and how he’d like to be remembered.
If you weren’t in politics, what will you be doing now?
My first love has always been doing research. When I was in university completing my PhD, every morning, I was driven to get into the lab to start working. The whole idea of making new discoveries through experiments and having your work being published in journals – I miss those days. If I weren’t in politics today, I would have continued to teach.
What do you look forward to when you wake up?
I can’t lie that sometimes in life, when you’re running on empty, you do need to manufacture hope. But at some point, it’s important to stop wallowing in self-pity and feeling sorry for yourself. You’ve always got to find a way forward, and if there seems to be no way forward, you’ve just got to grab a machete and bash your way through until you find a path for yourself. Eventually, you’ll be reminded of your purpose again and the excitement that comes with it. For my case, that’ll be to change the society and mindsets of the people. And automatically, I’d find myself getting back into the swing of things.
Is there an activity that you enjoy doing alone?
When it comes to my favourite pastime, it’s always a toss-up between reading and doing physical activities. Bike rides give me a few precious hours of solitude. When riding, I don’t really have to pay attention to anything else other than just to put one foot in front of the other and keep plodding along.
So how tough is it to be a dad and a politician at the same time?
Unlike schoolwork, where one has model answers to refer to, being a parent is, many a time, a case of trial and error. Just keep your fingers crossed that you are doing the right thing. But here’s one thing I’ve discovered: as a parent, you’ve got to resist the temptation of wanting your children to be who you want them to be. You’ve just got to learn to let go and let them discover their own paths in life. And it’s through a lived experience that they begin to also figure out what’s important for themselves.
If people really knew you, they would know…
That I don’t have two horns sticking out from my head. I’m just an ordinary man with his own set of worries, aspirations, insecurities, strengths and weaknesses – I’m going through the processes any typical human being would go through in life. I’m no different from anyone else, but it’s only natural for everyone to have his or her own views on various matters.
If you had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a meal with anyone in this world, who would it be?
It’s very common for all of us to want to get to know our hero or idol better. But sometimes, you’d want to sit down and get to know someone who was really notorious or infamous – like Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin – to try to understand what made them think the way they did. How did they sleep at night, having done the things they did? Was there another way for them to achieve their goals, without having to inflict so much pain on the world? On the contrary, there are also individuals like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela whom I’d dream to have a private moment with, just to learn about their innermost fears and insecurities.
And if you had to prepare a dish for a renowned figure, who would it be and what would you cook?
I actually did entertain the thought of inviting KF Seetoh, the founder of Makansutra, to my office to try out the mashed potatoes we made for the fundraising campaign. I was curious to know what he would have thought of it. He would definitely be a great person to cook for.
What would you say to your 21-year-old self?
I’d tell him not to be too anxious in trying to figure out what he’d want to achieve in life. At that age, I was just very concerned about how life was going to turn out, and felt the need to find all the answers at that one time. In fact, it’s really not about the destination, but the journey itself. The various experiences gained from the journey will guide you to make the best decisions for yourself.
What gives you the sensibility of not being afraid of showing who you really are?
Through the decades, I’ve held on very dearly to one important human value – authenticity. It’s like going for a job interview; if you don’t present yourself as the person whom you truly are, if you do land that job, your colleagues would gradually begin to see the real person in you – and they might be unhappy about it. Essentially, many years down the road, I just want people to see me for who I am and for all my thoughts. I’d like to be able to show people this genuine side of me, and while some may not agree with my values, at least they’re informed of how I work.
How would you like to be remembered?
This may sound a little vain and nebulous, but when I leave this world, I’d like to be remembered as someone who cared – in whichever way you choose to see it.