When Yip Pin Xiu rolled into Parliament for the first time in September 2018, she made history. Then 26 years old, Yip had just been appointed as Singapore’s youngest Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP). “My goal has always been to champion inclusivity and support for local sports,” she shares, sitting cross-legged in her living room one afternoon as a light breeze blows through her hair. “So, I took up the role to help the sports scene in Singapore thrive.”
Yip is no stranger to breaking boundaries. The gifted swimmer is a three-time Paralympics gold medallist and holds two world records: one for the 50m backstroke and another for the 100m backstroke. She has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a degenerative nerve condition which left her unable to walk as a pre-teen.
As I stepped into the spacious flat she shares with her parents earlier that morning, I immediately noticed the vintage furniture and Chinese antiques, accompanied by a glass display case filled with medals and trophies. Eclectic design and accolades aside, Yip’s home looks just like any other—it hardly holds any tell-tale signs that one of its inhabitants is in a wheelchair.
She shows me around the space, pointing out a couple of reacher-grabbers leaning against the wall. “I’ve adapted over the years, so I don’t really need anything apart from those to help me out,” she says, ushering me into her room. Her closet, which spans a big wall, holds a myriad of swimsuits (“I have at least 20!” she proudly exclaims) alongside a few formal dresses.
Her stint in the Chamber may have come to an end (Yip and her fellow NMPs stepped down after the dissolution of the 13th Parliament in June 2020), but it contained magic moments that bared just why she had been nominated to represent her generation. One impassioned speech she gave earlier this year in support of setting up a national code to deal with campus sexual violence quickly went viral.
“It has become apparent that relying on individual institutions to develop their own policies and protocols is often inadequate. There is an uneven level of protection across institutions… violence is violence and should be dealt with the same way regardless of setting,” Yip ardently stressed.
As the video made its rounds on social media, her powerful words struck a chord with many young Singaporeans. It was the first time they saw themselves reflected in one of our country’s most formal and significant institutions, in the form of an unwavering young woman in a wheelchair who could command any room with her conviction.
Now, Yip is back to training full time for the Tokyo Paralympics, which have been postponed to 2021 in light of COVID-19 restrictions, but she remains steadfast in the activism scene, with her finger in several pies.
“You don’t see too many people with disabilities out and about in Singapore, so we are often not considered in decision-making”
For example, she was involved in planning The Purple Parade, an annual festival that celebrates people with disabilities in Singapore. In 2020, the event went virtual for the first time. “I worked closely with MP Denise Phua on this because she’s really passionate about inclusion. The end goal is to show Singaporeans that we are here, include us!”
Yip also sits on the National Youth Council and is passionate about reaching out to Singaporean youth and understanding the issues that concern them. “Employment is a topic on every Singaporean’s mind right now, including young people who are struggling to find jobs. If you add a disability to that—and the resultant prejudices and discrimination—you’ll realise that an issue like this affects people with disabilities even more. I haven’t experienced this myself, but I know it happens.”
She may not have signed up to be the poster child of disability activism, but Yip is aware all the same of her unique opportunity to front the movement, which in Singapore, still has some way to go.
“You don’t see too many people with disabilities out and about in Singapore, so we are often not considered in decision-making about infrastructure and new protocols,” Yip says. COVID-19-induced mall entrance closures, for example, mean that the entrance now left open in a building is often not accessible to those in a wheelchair. “You have to call the management to get a key for another entrance and wait 20 minutes just to get into a mall. It’s awkward and sometimes just not worth it,” she shares.
Still, Yip does not see spatial inaccessibility as the biggest issue in Singapore, even for those with physical disabilities. “Bar a couple of hiccups here and there, I can get around easily. I try to avoid places like Tanjong Pagar and Chinatown because older estates are less accessible, but in general our public transport system is world-class—there’s a lift at every train station!” she says brightly, before her tone turns pensive.
“I still have taxi drivers interrogating me on why I go to places alone. Why not? I’m capable of getting around by myself and I actually like alone time,” she quips. The older generation, in particular, have strong preconceived notions on what people with disabilities can and cannot do, Yip adds: “The enduring idea is that we should need help with everything, but that’s just not the case.”
Travelling, for one, is something many don’t expect Yip to be able to enjoy, and yet, she loves it all the same. Beyond jet-setting to locations for swimming competitions, she has a soft spot for places with lots of nature and good food, like California and New Zealand. And if she’s flying with our national carrier, she doesn’t have to think twice about logistics. “Singapore Airlines is fantastic. They always have a small cabin chair that is kept on board, so I can move around during the flight effortlessly.”
“Before you jump to conclusions about whether a person with a disability is able to do something, just ask”
The main point, according to Yip, is that engaging with the disability community in Singapore is about asking questions and keeping an open mind. “Before you jump to conclusions about whether a person with a disability is able to do something, just ask. It might surprise you what they can do without help and you might also learn about some things that they could use support with. Most of the time, I am happy to answer questions—even that one time I was blatantly asked if people in wheelchairs can have sex,” she deadpans.
Looking at her now, it’s hard to imagine that she has ever had anything less than the vibrant bursts of confidence that define her aura, but soon enough, Yip wades into more vulnerable territory.
“I was pretty insecure when I was younger. I wouldn’t wear skirts because I wanted to hide my legs,” she confides. When I ask about her journey growing into the self-assured young woman she is today, she laughs. “Winning a gold medal helped. It was the confidence that came with it that made me feel comfortable with myself. Now, I feel beautiful in my own skin.”
Yip has the kind of natural empathy that turns casual conversation into something heartfelt. She also has strong opinions on several issues, such as inclusivity for a host of marginalised communities and the integral role sports can play in Singapore if given a chance to thrive.
These two qualities combined give her a stellar shot at a political career after she retires from swimming, something people have clearly taken note of. When I mention as much, she blushes. “To be honest, I’m not done with swimming,” she confesses. “My heart is still very much in it. One day, I’ll have to give it up, but that day has not arrived yet.”
Having trained as a professional athlete since the age of 12, Yip has remarkably yet to lose an iota of passion for her sport. In fact, it remains a key part of how she defines her self-worth.
“If I’m doing well in training, I feel great. But the minute I start to do badly, I begin to question everything around me.” Yip went through a rough patch in 2019, when a change in coaches resulted in a dip in her performance. As a result, her mental health plummeted. “Until the day we fixed the problem, I felt really, really crappy. I would wake up in the middle of the night and just cry.”
What helped her through those tough few months was her tight-knit group of friends—most of whom are athletes. Some are able-bodied, while others, like Yip’s close friend, mentor and fellow national swimmer Theresa Goh, also have disabilities.
“Representing the disability community is something I see as my duty and it’s one that I’m willing to do to the best of my ability”
“The perks of having athlete friends is that they are all very strong. Sometimes, if we are going for brunch and are too lazy get the wheelchair out, they’ll just carry me from the car to a restaurant,” Yip says. “More importantly, they are some of the few people who can intimately understand why I have given so much to swimming and what it means to me.”
Ultimately, however, Yip’s greater purpose goes beyond her sport. She may not have a clearly defined idea of what she is going to do after she stops swimming, but she knows that advocating for people with disabilities and other marginalised groups will always be a big part of her life.
“Representing the disability community is something I see as my duty and it’s one that I’m willing to do to the best of my ability. My experiences don’t always reflect the wider spectrum, so I have taken it as a personal responsibility to learn about all kinds of disabilities.”
Yip continues, hands clasped to her chest: “I have grown up with teammates with different disabilities, be it physical or intellectual. I have seen them for who they truly are and, let me tell you, ultimately, all they want is to live a good life. And perhaps, they also want the opportunity to define what that life may be.”
Deputy Editor: Amelia Chia
Art Director: Henry Thomas Lloyd
Fashion Director: Desmond Lim
Photographer: Wee Khim
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