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“A country that works for everybody”

Hannah Yeoh (all other pics courtesy of Hannah Yeoh)

LIKE many young politicians in Pakatan Rakyat, Hannah Yeoh became one out of necessity. Opposition parties needed young professionals to stand as candidates in the 2008 elections, and Yeoh, then 29, felt she had a duty.

Political life and work as DAP’s state assemblyperson for Subang Jaya has been a bumpy road. “I can’t even see what is ahead and many times, I think, is this worth it?” Yeoh says in a 25 Feb 2010 interview at her constituency office.

The eldest of four siblings, Yeoh talks about her family’s humble beginnings, her parents’ sacrifice for their children’s education, and the concerns of young Malaysians that are shaping the urban political landscape.

TNG: When and where were you born?

Hannah Yeoh: I was born in 1979 at the Sentosa Medical Centre, in the heart of KL. My first three years were spent along Old Klang Road, in Overseas Union Garden (OUG) specifically, where my parents rented a house.

In kindergarten, wearing pink, with younger sister Megan in blue

I also spent a lot of time at my maternal grandmother’s house in Kampung Chetty. I think that’s what they called it. It was by the Klang River and now it’s totally gone. My parents then moved to Subang Jaya. I went to kindergarten there and have lived there ever since.

What are your memories of the place where you grew up?

Yeoh’s paternal grandmother

At my grandma’s house, I remember sharing food my grandma cooked with other children out on the street. In the evenings, my grandma and I would sit outside her house and she would feed children who came by. I also remember floods because grandma’s kampung was near the Klang River. We had to use a sampan to get around.

I also remember the motorbikes which came around at night selling the “ting-ting-tong” candy. You know the sweet, sticky brown-coloured candy? It’s a hot, melted kind of candy wrapped around a stick.

Of living in OUG, I remember neighbours telling ghost stories, about how a lot of soldiers in the early days were killed there and that they could hear people marching in the back lanes of houses.

Can you trace your parents’ ancestry?



All I know about my mother’s father is that he came here with another relative. He met my grandma through an arranged marriage here. He was a bus driver in Old Town Petaling Jaya. My grandma was a homemaker but she also sold char kuey teow along Old Klang Road. She is the eldest daughter.

On my father’s side, I never met my granddad who passed away before I was born. My paternal grandmother raised my dad and his siblings. My dad didn’t have a very high education but he did do a diploma on rubber trees. He came to KL from Taiping with just RM7 to start a new life here.

Maternal grandparents’ wedding portrait

What sort of stories did your parents or grandparents tell you about their heritage?

My grandfather on my mother’s side managed to trace his family in China and visit them before he passed on. I personally don’t feel any attachment to China. I feel more strongly for Subang Jaya and Malaysia. Even if I were to go to China, I don’t think I will feel like I belong there because I cannot speak the language, and I cannot relate.

What was your childhood like and what sort of upbringing did your parents provide?

Both my parents went to Chinese vernacular schools. My mum went to Kuen Cheng in KL and my dad went to Hua Lian in Taiping. However, we never spoke Mandarin at home. We only spoke Cantonese. My father sent me and my sister, who was born the same year as [I], to [a] Chinese[-medium] school for Standard One and we came home and cried the first day, begging my father to take us out of the school. That’s how we moved to SRK Sri Subang Jaya in SS14.

Because of that switch, my father then bought us a lot of English storybooks. I grew up reading the Peter and Jane series and plenty of fairy tales. My parents spent a lot of resources on us for English tuition and books. English is probably my mother tongue. But I converse with my mum in Cantonese and with my father in English mixed with Cantonese.

As assistant head prefect in primary school (second from left)

My childhood friends were multiracial. My friends in kindergarten were mainly Chinese [Malaysians] but when I was in primary school the first boy I met was a Malay [Malaysian]. His name was Yunazri and I remember him well as my sister and I were a few days late coming to class because of the change from Chinese-[medium] school. We were placed right at the back. He was the class monitor and came over to arrange chairs and tables for us on our first day. It was an act of kindness by someone from a different background which I still remember.

When did you first become aware of the concept of race?

In secondary school. In your teenage years when people talk about having relationships and you’re warned about being careful not to fall in love with a Malay [Malaysian] boy because you will have to convert. I think that’s when race hit us. But before that, in primary school, it wasn’t an issue. I remember being invited to my Malay [Malaysian] friends’ homes after playing to eat with them. I have memories of them sharing with me ikan kembong with sambal stuffed in the middle.

What does being Malaysian mean to you?

Family photo of Yeoh’s mother, Tong Choon Lee (standing third from left)

Back when the (Petronas) Twin Towers first came up and people talked about Vision 2020, I remember feeling proud. It was only after secondary school, when you have to make decisions about your higher education, that you realise getting into local universities is difficult because of quotas. I think that’s the first form of discrimination that hits us.

So you realise that going to a local university is not an option at all. You have to spend time doing the Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM) and still you might not get the university course you like. So my parents worked very hard to see us off to university in Australia — both me and my sister at the same time. It was a huge burden.

That’s why a lot of people who study overseas feel indebted to their parents because they know their education was paid for with their parents’ life savings. And to be able to return the favour to your parents is so hard to do in Malaysia when you are starting off with such low pay. That’s why a lot of [young Malaysians] choose to work overseas so that they can repay their parents. Even if they can’t come home, they can send money back.

moon yuet for the girls
Carried by father Yeoh Qoe Thai while mum Tong Choon Lee carries sister Megan
at her full moon celebration

It hit me when I came back and found public transportation so bad. I had started to do chambering and had to travel between courts. Law firms require you to get your own car. You earn RM1,800 and RM800 of that goes to the hire purchase for the car. It was during that time that friends and I started to ask, why are things in our country like this, what’s happened to basic things like public transportation? What about the poor and the welfare system? Only then did I start to become politically aware.

I am proud to be Malaysian because we are known for our rich diversity of cultures. I’m proud of the fact that we’re able to live together. But we’re never known for good governance. So I don’t mean that I’m proud of our political system or government. I’m becoming very aware of the actual political conditions in this country and how leaders try to split us. It’s [been] hard for me to feel proud in recent times.

With husband Ramachandran Muniandy

And yet you want to work in politics for a better Malaysia?

I’m a Christian and I’ve learnt that there is a greater purpose than just living life for myself. So even though I would really love to go overseas and get a career that gives me a good life, I think about others here who cannot afford the education that I had.

There must be a season of your life, if not your entire life, when you give back to society and for me this is the season. I don’t know where this will take me. I just suddenly found myself in this. There was a need for young professionals [to contest] in the 2008 elections and I had to do my part.

What kind of Malaysia do you wish for?

I want a country with [colour-blind] policies and government. I also want a Malaysia that is corruption-free. Only then will your local council function well, and will taxpayers’ money be spent on contracts that give the people value for money. Without corruption, quality of life will improve. Malaysia will be a country that works for everybody. favicon

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29 Responses to ““A country that works for everybody””

  1. Azmi says:

    I hope and wish all the efforts made by the younger generation will bring positive results to the nation. Hannah has just started on her journey and all of us must get our act together so that she and those like minded will be our future leaders.

  2. M.K. says:

    An excellent piece. I sometimes visit her blogspot to see what is happening in her constituency mainly because my daughter and family live in USJ 14.

    I believe her responsibilities are heavy, considering that Subang Jaya is mainly an upper-class area. Nevertheless, for a first-timer who is so young and inexperienced, she has been doing a great job so far with her team of capable assistants. Hannah, keep up your good work and may God be with you always.

  3. danny leebob says:

    I used to have dreams like Hannah, after coming back from overseas studies. Over the years I have come to believe that it is impossible to achieve that Malaysia I aspired. May be not in my life time. Hannah, you made my dream [come] alive again. Thanks for your dedication and sacrifice.

  4. Rhan says:

    “Even if I were to go to China, I don’t think I will feel like I belong there because I cannot speak the language, and I cannot relate.”

    Can I say if you go to US, UK and Australia, you would feel like you belong there? Typical confused Anglophile that often relates language to patriotism/nationalism. [You] may take another few dozens years to prove your loyalty if you don’t truly understand what diversity is about, and to stand firm towards this belief.

  5. sunny bunny says:

    I wish you good luck in politics. May you rise above this evil in political Malaysia. Doing your part as an individual is touching, and it inspires me to do the same, albeit more in social participation.

  6. Tan says:

    Hannah, you had done a great job for the nation even though you are just serving your 1st term as Adun. Political life is full of uncertainty and challenges in Malaysia, until those recalcitrant YBs are removed from office.

  7. sad_klguy says:

    Hi Hannah,

    I live in Kepong, but on and off I read your blog because I feel that you [represent what] the young generation [thinks] of nowdays.

    Yes, we need a better government. I cannot say [if things will be better] after changing to a new government, [but we have to at least try]. For 50 years, we have been struggling to survive; now is the time for us to create a better life for our future generations.

  8. James Tan says:

    Hannah, you’re simply the best and an awesome modern politician…You will always have our support…

  9. Hwa Shi-Hsia says:

    I think Yeoh brought up China because certain other politicians keep saying that the Chinese and Indian [Malaysians] are pendatangs to the point of insinuating that they should “go home”.

    And to address your point directly, while one’s ability to speak the common language of a country should not be a gauge of loyalty or patriotism, shared language is necessary for a sense of community and belonging. How could a person feel at home in a country where she or he could not speak with anybody except other members of the same minority?

  10. Merah Silu says:

    Yes, this [is] the story of the descendents of the economic-seeking-immigrants. Now in politics and is trying to build Malaysia according to her mould. I too came back with my doctorate in the late 80s and saw the country no longer belonged to Malay [Malaysians] only. Things are getting worse now. I pray and pray that Malay [Malaysians] will still be in this country 50 years from now. I pray and pray that Malays in Malaysia will not be like the Malays in Singapore.


    You realised in the 1980s that Malalysia no longer belonged to Malay Malaysians? But as of 1963, didn’t Malaysia start belonging to Malaysians?

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

    • neptunian says:

      Wonder what the doctorate was for?

      To quote you: “found out Malaysia don’t belong to the Malays only.”

      Since when did Malaysia belong to the Malays only? Here are some facts for you:

      1. Malaysia was formed in 1963. Malays did not own Malaysia then.
      2. “Independent” Malaya was formed in 1957. There was no Malaysia and Malaya did not belong to Malays only.
      3. The Straits Settlements (Penang, Malacca, Singapore) was formed in the 1800s. There was no Malaysia then and the Straits Settlements did not belong to the Malays only.

      Nonsensical talk should belong to the likes of Perkasa ONLY, not to supposedly educated and well-read people.

      • Flag of Truth says:

        @ Neptunian

        Yes, Malaysia belongs to the Malaysian. But we have to accept the fact that the privileges of the Malays and Bumiputra is sealed within the constitution of Malaysia.

        If you have the intention to change that, then you should do it legally, by changing the constitution. That means you must gather 2/3 majority (in Parliament).

        One more thing. This might be annoying but it’s the truth. A country belongs to whoever [is favoured by the demographics] of that country.

        The American Indians (Red Indians, Incas etc) once owned the American continent but the truth is now it is those who [are] the majority [who] own it. The majority will dictate what kind of policy they want.

        The truth can sometimes be painful to swallow.

        • neptunian says:

          Nice of you to use USA as an example. Please check the “racial” makeup of USA, then tell me who owns it. The Americans own it. The last I checked, Americans (North Americans, excluding Canada) means any citizen of the USA. So if you want to use USA as an example, then Malaysians own Malaysia, not just Malaysians of Malay ancestry. BTW, please also check the definition of Malays. It has been changed. The people we Malaysians happily call Mamaks not too long ago are now Malays. One of them actually became the prime minister.
          Of course we all still go to the “Mamak” stall for teh tarik and nobody (as far as I know) think that’s racial.

          • Flag of Truth says:

            @ Neptunian

            I love the way you answered it :). Then I suggest you to check the demography facts of Malaysia :). The thing is you must learn to accept what is coming and embrace it. Not by questioning it :).

            Right. Let us go to the mamak stall together and discuss this further :).

          • JW Tan says:

            Malay Malaysians cannot ‘own’ Malaysia. That is just tyranny, and apartheid. Whatever your demographic arguments, Malaysians who want the ideals of justice and fairness will fight that.

        • Kong Kek Kuat says:

          @ Flag of Truth

          Haha… I don´t know whether to laugh or to take you seriously, because the last I checked, the majority of voters voted for the prospect of living in a Malaysia which does not belong to the majority race of Malaysia. Are you still living in denial?

          • Flag of Truth says:

            Well you can check it again later [at the] next GE. If the [M]uslims feels that their support for Pakatan Rakyat will undermine Islam, they will not hesitate to change their mind. Honestly I am one of the [people] who support [a] change of government BUT looking at [the] current situation, I fear that Islam will not be respected as it should.

            For your information, [in my view], urban [M]alays hate the current government, but do listen to me. Things will change if people like you […] still want to meddle in [M]uslim affairs.

          • JW Tan says:

            Whatever accommodation Muslim Malaysians reach with non-Muslim Malaysians, it must be done in public, with discussion, and via a vote in parliament. This is not non-Muslims meddling in Muslim affairs. This is Malaysians getting together to decide the future of their country.

            Even PAS realises this.

  11. bunny says:

    I love this interview, and to Hannah: Good luck. 🙂

  12. Rhan says:

    “I think Yeoh brought up China…..”

    So did Hannah reply help to lessen the insinuating? The reality is that she will have a hard time to score the continuous shifting goal post.

    “How could a person feel at home in a country where she or he could not speak with anybody except other members of the same minority?”

    Agree, but how does this reply address the point I raise? The fact is most of us can speak [the language common to the majority] although the level of flunecy varies.

    I think you assume too much.

  13. Daniel says:

    Merah Silu,

    Malaysia belongs to the Malays? What about the Orang Asli then? Don’t tell me they are immigrants too? The fact is, the Malays are very much immigrants as the Chinese and Indians are. People seldom bring that up because the Malays will get all angry and threaten 13 May again. But facts are facts.

    Will the Malays still be around in 50 years time? Of course they will, their population growth rate is the highest in the country! What are you worried about?

    In my opinion, the Malays in Singapore are better off than their counterparts in Malaysia. They enjoy a better quality of life, better governance, have strong work ethic, and a sense of morality, justice and entitlement. Malaysian Malays think everyone owes them a living. The government, the Chinese, Indians, everyone. They don’t work hard, don’t have determination to succeed, and just wait for handouts and scream and shout when they don’t get what they want, like a spoilt child. Does that make them better than Singaporean Malays? I don’t think so […]

  14. YJ says:

    I agree with the comment by Rhan.

    I’m Chinese school educated and I’m studying my undergraduate degree in China. Although we [are] not the same with English-educated Chinese, but we still have [our] roots and ancestry. It’s not a matter of you not understanding your mother tongue that your roots are cut off. Why [is it that] Chinese Peranakans can [know] Chinese culture better, rather than “Chinese” themselves? Is it because they understand or speak Mandarin?

  15. Ahmed says:

    Rhan & YJ,

    I think you’re missing the point. She meant it in terms of feeling a sense of belonging. If you can’t speak the language to interact with the people around there, how can you feel a sense of belonging hence have a love for that country?

  16. cna training says:

    Terrific work! This is the type of information that should be shared around the web. Shame on the search engines for not positioning this post higher!

  17. jy says:

    For those who still wish to defend themselves…go ahead…during my growing-up years..1990s…I saw people of every race just trying to grab a piece for themselves. Why? Because the government is splitting us…so we will never have a united voice for any injustice and question the government for their wrongdoing. People are fearful about politics and nobody dares to challenge for improvement. Now I see even the Malays are waking up …it has comes to their realisation that we will not progress if we continue to be like this..and very true…nobody [is entitled] to accuse anybody of being “pendatang asing” as we all are…equality and human rights is the basic thing for a developed country.

  18. Flag of Truth says:

    @ JW Tan

    My argument is based on demographic factors. I am saying what is inevitable in 10 or 20 years time. Unless there is a major population change, the Malay [Malaysians] and the Muslim [Malaysians] will continue to play important roles in determining which way this country should be govern[ed].

    I am just being honest, and we all should embrace the truth.

    • JW Tan says:

      That’s not what you said. You said that ‘A country belongs to whoever [is favoured by the demographics] of that country.’ You used the word ‘belongs’. I’m sorry, but as a member of a minority who is not favoured by the demographics, Malaysia belongs to me too, as much as it may belong to you. Malay Malaysians do not own the country, in exclusion to other Malaysians.

      Be as honest as you like, just say what you mean.

      • Flag of Truth says:

        # JW Tan

        Well we can always deny it or learn to embrace it. :). I don’t think that there is any confusion in my statement. I always stressed about the malays and the muslims.

        Anyway, If you say that you love this country then you must be able to show that you are willing to defend it until the last of your breath. And surely people will always make excuses to say that patriotism can be shown in other ways.

        The act of a certain group who were photographed with an up side down Jalur Gemilang is a situation which shows that they don’t feel that sense of belonging.

  19. semuaok says:

    A situation which shows that they don’t feel that sense of belonging.


    To nurture a sense of belonging by all Malaysians then there should not be the practice of calling others “pendatang” and discriminating against them.

    Malay Malaysians do not own the country, in exclusion to other Malaysians.


    JWtan, that’s right. By the way the term Malay today also refers to a sizable number of pseudo Malays – those whose grandparents are not from the pre-Merdeka era. Many are newly-minted Bangla-Malays, Indonesian-Malays, etc, etc.

    I once came across an African-Malay family and it sure looked odd, not like the Kampung Malays I know.

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