Being a female politician in Malaysia, according to Hannah Yeoh
A role model for women
The recent 14th General Elections resulted in many things. One of them was the appointment of Malaysia's first female Deputy Prime Minister, leading many to believe that there is hope, and possibility, for even a female Prime Minister in the future. But the issue remains that the ratio of male to female in the local political scene is still relatively low. Is there lack of interest or a lack of know-how to join it?
The few women who currently represent them, however, serve as an inspiration. Hannah Yeoh is now a Member of Parliament (MP) for the Segambut constituency but she first contested (and won) at the age of 29 and at 34, became Malaysia's first woman speaker for the Selangor State Assembly. That also made her the youngest speaker. We had a chat with Yeoh on her advice for aspiring politicians, the challenges she faces as a female politician, the skill sets required to be one and more. As she aptly told us, "I have to make sure I survive first so that when people see that I can do it, they will think they can too."
Hi YB Hannah! First up, let's talk about how your career in politics started.
It was in 2007, just a year before the 12th General Elections. My friend, Edward Ling, encouraged me to be a registered voter, which I did that year, and then I followed him when he joined DAP. I had no prior involvement with any political party but in 2008, they wanted a female candidate for Subang Jaya, which is my hometown. I was approached and asked to be on standby, then confirmed as a candidate. I contested despite not having any background, won, and have been in it ever since.
"There's no point going in if you don't love people because it will be a struggle."
You were a practising lawyer and an event manager before you joined politics. Are there any specific qualifications required to be a politician?
The law doesn't require you to have any paper qualifications. It only requires you to be 21 years old and above so you can contest even if you're only an SPM graduate or a housewife. Everyone has the right to vote and to stand as a candidate. For me, if you have professional paperwork, it helps but otherwise, it's more about hard work. It's more about being able to connect with your voters.
It also depends on the constituency you represent. For me, representing a place like Segambut, it helps to have a legal background. But if you represent a rural area where the majority are farmers, and if you have a background as a farmer, that would help you connect with them. Because, ultimately, your job is to be a spokesperson for your people and their needs at Parliament or Assembly.
Very true. What are some of the roles of an MP?
The immediate role is to speak up for the people you represent at Parliament. But of course, in Kuala Lumpur, you don't have councillors or a state assembly representative; so the MP is the only face they recognise. Therefore, we do get a lot of requests, including family issues and personal matters sometimes. We try to stay away from those because it's not our duty but also, with 77,000 voters, we won't be able to serve everyone. I also liaise with federal agencies and process policies at the federal level. But my assistants do help follow up on certain DBKL matters, which is the bulk of it simply because there's a lot of room for improvement for the city council.
Of course, every day must be busy for you but what is it like on an average day?
Oh, every day is different. There are a lot of appointments mostly — people want to meet you — and sometimes I have to meet the stakeholders to discuss certain problems to help them understand. And, just be on the ground to listen to what the people are saying. Sometimes there are requests to attend an event or to do site visits when a matter is highlighted. Every day is different.
Would you say it's a seven-day job?
It's full-time for sure, especially with WhatsApp, you don't really sign out anymore.
What is the first step for anyone aspiring to be an MP today?
You have to start early — join the political party of your choice and work from bottom up. This is simply because, compared to when I joined in 2008, there was a lot of vacancies. Nobody wanted to be associated with the DAP at that time, and nobody wanted to do the work. Now that we're in power, everything is different — everybody wants to be a candidate, everybody wants to join and have a position. Some are here for the money, the allocation, the publicity. Some are here genuinely to serve.
Hence, the party really needs to filter but because we've been in this for so many years, we can almost instantly pick up a person's agenda and motive from the way he/she talks. But I really encourage young people to join young to see if this is something they would want to pursue; because it's not a job that you can just resign after one year. The term for an MP is three to five years. You can't say, "I'll just run an election and see if I like it or not," or quit two years down the road just because you don't feel like doing it anymore. Tendering your resignation would trigger a by-election and people won't be happy because one, they have to come out and vote again, and two, you waste taxpayers' money.
That's true. There are a lot of layers and it's a big responsibility. Speaking about the youth, do political parties offer internships usually? That's also a good way to start.
We do. I always encourage it because it's the best form of learning and a way to see whether you are cut out for it. Write in to politicians who will take interns — but we usually don't pay — and you can intern for two weeks, depending on the availability in the office. Young people tend to have a lot of passion, which is really important. There are those who practise "old-style politics" and focus on recruiting a lot of members because they think numbers look like power. I personally don't believe in numbers. I believe in quality.
Joining the political scene may seem overwhelming for some. What kind of qualities in a person would suit this field?
You need to have a love for the people because that's what you mainly do: deal with complaints and people. Compassion and the human touch are so important. We may have an S.O.P but I try not to treat every case the same because there can be two out of a hundred cases that genuinely need your help because they have no other means. For example, there was a unique case where this family was immobilised because of chemo, and they're only asking for money to feed the kids for that week. Cases like this, I have to look beyond the process and zoom out.
Another good quality to have is common sense, which isn't very common today. (laughs) You also need a lot of patience. I know a lot of people who are very talented but they don't have the patience to sit through and listen to what is sometimes pure nonsense. You won't believe the kind of lies people tell us and how they hide facts from you. But you have to be diplomatic about it and be patient.
"They would say things like, 'You know, my daughter is your age.'"
Have you ever faced sexism in your position?
Rather than about my gender, I received a lot more of age discrimination. I started when I was 29 and when you are young and inexperienced, a lot of people judge you for that. I had a lot of men indirectly tell me that I had to listen to them. They would say things like, "You know, my daughter is your age." That was in my first term. After five years of experience and I became more confident, I didn't face it anymore. I'd say my gender became a plus point, especially when I became the first woman and youngest speaker at 34. It was so uncommon then, though, that I did have people coming up to me asking which speaker was my husband, not expecting the speaker to be me.
But do women in politics tend to get any form of discrimination or be stereotyped?
People tend to comment on what you wear, the colour of your hair and especially on weight gain. I struggled a lot after giving birth because of course, I had put on weight. When I turned up for an event, people would sometimes touch my tummy or ask when I was giving birth. Or they would comment sarcastically that I had a "good life and so prosperous". You don't hear people making these kinds of comments to a man but you'd hear it more as a woman.
Any advice for the people who do face such discrimination in their workplace?
Don't be afraid to seek for help. Sometimes, people may think asking for help means you sound incapable but it's not. I do it a lot. If it's a legal challenge, I will call Gobind Singh. If it's a political matter, I'll call Tony Pua. I'm not afraid to shout out for help from seniors because getting counsel is where you can find your safety net.
What's a misconception about being a politician?
That all politicians are corrupt and that we are very entitled people. In my first five years, I had to work very hard to convince people that I'm not any of those. I'd tell them I don't need special water or a separate arrival time — and actually, I always try to be there earlier or on the dot. I live and eat simple, and I don't have a huge delegation of people accompanying me. I mingle with the people. It really is through a lot of hard work to prove to the public that not every VIP has a Datuk in their name. I make my lifestyle as an example to get rid of those stereotypes.
Lastly, any advice for aspiring female politicians?
Choosing the right parties is important and that means a party that believes in you and is able to provide a good support structure that allows you to grow. For example, DAP has been good to me from the start. They were very flexible with the ideas I had and gave me the resources to help me help the people. I think you can't be a lone ranger in politics. It's important to be a team player. But honestly, you can develop these skills. Above all, there's no point going in if you don't love people because it will be a struggle.
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