BUKIT Mertajam Member of Parliament Chong Eng bucked some traditions in her younger days. Coming from a Chinese new village, she was the first girl in her family who managed to persuade her father to let her continue secondary school. Her interracial marriage later on was also considered uncommon, given her background.
Born in 1957 in Kerayong New Village, Pahang, Chong Eng learnt about gender inequality at a young age by observing how women in the village often did more work than men. Later, she would discover ethnic and language inequality as a student.
She joined the DAP in 1990, first as a staff to help with the general election that year, and subsequently as a member. Now head of the Wanita DAP, Chong Eng met The Nut Graph in Parliament on 14 July 2010 to trace how her growing up has shaped her politics.
TNG: Can you trace your ancestry?
Chong Eng: My parents were born here, but my grandparents came from China. My mother, when she was about seven years old, was left behind in Malaya together with her elder sister. Their parents went back to China because their father was sick. They took along their sons and a younger daughter. My mother and her sister were sold as tong yan shi – girls who were sold to be married later to the sons of other families. It was common at the time, and my mother’s parents needed the money to return to China.
So my mother grew up in my father’s family. She was expected to do all the house chores and she never went to school. My father went to school for only two to three years. They were poor and it was during the Japanese occupation. My father and mother got married when she was about 18 years old.
My parents worked as rubber tappers. At one time, my father ran a coffee shop. I also seem to remember him not working for a period of time. It was mainly my mother making a living for the family.
On my father’s side, I never saw his parents. For one, he didn’t know where his father was while growing up. And his mother passed away quite young. So I didn’t know my grandparents on either side. However, we now know where the graves of my father’s parents are, and we visit them.
Where did you spend your childhood, and what was it like?
I was born and grew up in the Kerayong New Village, in Temerloh, Pahang. Now it is in Bera. There [were] ten children in our family. An elder brother, followed by six girls and three younger brothers. I am the fourth child.
Our family was poor and even the children had to work. My two elder sisters tapped rubber for RM3 a day when they were in Standard Five and Standard Six. They didn’t go to secondary school because at that time, you had to pay RM7.50 every month per student. If they went to secondary school, it’s not just the school fees, but loss of income for our family.
I told my mother that I wanted to go to secondary school. At that time, my role models were women teachers. I told my mother, women don’t have to tap rubber only, they can also be teachers. My mother said this was a decision my father had to make. Surprisingly, my father said okay.
So that’s how I got to go to Form One. In remove class and Form One, I still had to get up at 4am to tap rubber before going to school. I earned RM3 a day. My mother would only give me 20 sen to go to school. That was enough to buy a few kuih.
After me, my younger brothers and sisters could go to secondary school as long as they passed Standard Six. It was easier for them as the economy had improved, too.
What stories did your parents tell you, or what lessons from your childhood do you remember until today?
Not so much stories that my parents told, but I think my life is very much influenced by my mother. My mother never went to school, but she could do a lot of things. She could count and calculate money because she not only tapped rubber but sold it. She was also very prudent. Today, she would be called a “green consumer”. She reused, recycled and repaired old and broken things. She also avoided problems with people or quarrelling with them.
Did you get your sense of women’s rights from your mother?
No, I got my sense of women’s rights when my sisters didn’t get to go to secondary school, but my elder brother did. From there I realise there was inequality. Girls did not have the same opportunity to further their studies.
Also, being in a rural community where everybody went to work in the morning, I saw that after work, the men were the ones relaxing in the coffee shop. Only the women had to continue working. We picked firewood, fed the pigs, cooked for the family. The girls had to do all the chores. We girls took turns to wash shoes, including all our brothers’ shoes. We washed everybody’s clothes and the dishes. But not the men and boys.
How have these childhood experiences shaped your identity as a Malaysian and a woman?
If you ask me what my identity is, I will say I am a Malaysian Chinese woman.
As a woman, even though I’ve had the chance to go to university, I still see that society is male-dominated. Men make all the decisions, and the rules of the game are also male-formulated. And I think women today do not feel the difference and inequality between men and women. It has become mainstream – that the rules are made by men, and women just assimilate themselves into it. They are not conscious that there is a gender gap.
People say, “What’s the difference, women are allowed to do a lot of things, so what?” I think it’s only when you reach a certain level that you feel the inequality and the difficulty. People don’t see that the glass ceilings in society are due to gender inequality. They say, “As long as the law doesn’t discriminate, what’s the problem?” They say, “You can contest [in elections] as long as you are good.” But they do not see the gender barriers.
So what challenges do you face as a woman politician?
There are very few women politicians. In Parliament, only 23 out of 222 Members of Parliament are women. Women are really a minority at this level of decision-making.
In politics, the focus is often about the economy, Gross Domestic Product growth, and physical development. But nobody talks about social or human development. And such development will continue to be marginalised because there are already very few women leaders to begin with. On top of that, some women leaders will only talk about mainstream political issues. Because that’s how you get attention and support to move upwards. “Softer” issues do not get as much attention. The mainstream view is wary or resistant to what you are trying to lobby.
I see this as the biggest challenge: how to make those in the mainstream, the decision-makers, see that women should be considered. Because women are half the population, they take care of children, the senior citizens and the disabled. Women do a lot of work but are not influential. They cannot influence policy or the national budget, because the budget factors in race and geographical considerations, but not gender.
That’s why progress on women’s issues is slow. The United Nations has the [Convention on the Elimination on All Forms of Discrimination Against Women], which a lot of countries have signed but until now have not implemented it because it is not the most urgent thing for them. Malaysia has also signed it. For politicians [in Malaysia], as long as something does not negatively influence your support or voter base, if it doesn’t bring harm and doesn’t oblige you to fulfill it, you just sign lah, because even if you don’t [fulfill it] you will still get elected.
What about your identity as a [Chinese] Malaysian?
I first saw racial inequality after I finished Form Five. I was a science student and got okay results , which entitled me to enter Form Six, except for the fact that I did not get a credit in Bahasa Malaysia. I come from a Chinese-education background so Mandarin is my first and best language. I did Form Six in TAR College instead.
I had also wanted to be a teacher in a Chinese-language school. But because I didn’t have a credit for Bahasa, I couldn’t go to a teacher training college. So it was the first time I felt unfairness and inequality in language. I wanted to teach Mandarin in a Chinese primary school, why couldn’t I, even though my Bahasa was not that good? I felt that making it compulsory for students to get a credit in Bahasa marginalised students like me.
After TAR College, I went to university and saw that people with much worse results were getting into good courses. People with 2.0 as their aggregate were sent overseas to get their Masters and to come back and teach. I felt it was really unfair.
In university, the medium was Bahasa. And again, I felt that our language policy did not take into account students’ ability or what might be the best language for them to learn in. Our education and language policy is politically motivated rather than being focused on human development.
You married an Indian Malaysian. Did you face any challenges in your relationship coming from different backgrounds?
We met at a university sports meet. His family is more open because his brothers have married Australians and New Zealanders. But my family, being from a Chinese new village, had never known Indian [Malaysians] as neighbours. To my parents, Indians are JKR (Public Works Department) workers. My parents worried and didn’t understand why I wanted to marry an Indian when there were so many Chinese [around]. It was my elder brother who managed to persuade them.
What kind of Malaysia do you hope for in the future?
A Malaysian Malaysia! That’s why I joined the DAP. I feel it is the party that can give equality to all. Not just racial equality but also gender equality, because without gender equality there won’t be social equality.
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