“WAIT till we get to Putrajaya,” Teresa Kok laughs. The three-term Member of Parliament for Seputeh in Kuala Lumpur says even though the Pakatan Rakyat swept into power in 2008 to form the Selangor government, it still faces discrimination. “We are still treated like the opposition,” Kok, who is also state assemblyperson for Bandar Kinrara and a Selangor senior exco member, tells The Nut Graph in an interview in Petaling Jaya on 30 Sept 2010.
The multilingual politician of Hakka descent joined the DAP in 1990, 18 years before the opposition would take over five states and gain significant ground in Parliament because of the 2008 elections.
Kok started out in the party as then parliamentary Opposition Leader Lim Kit Siang‘s political secretary in 1990. She was the first woman to occupy the position, which she held for five years. Today, she is the DAP’s national organising secretary, and the party’s national secretary for the women’s wing. In 2004, she co-founded the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus and has been its secretary since.
Kok won her first elections after her second try at national politics. Despite failing to win the Ipoh Barat parliamentary seat in 1995, she won the Seputeh seat in 1999 and again in 2004. She retained the seat in the 2008 elections with a 36,492 vote majority – the highest in the 12th general election. She was also voted in as an assemblyperson in Selangor during the 2008 elections, after which her name was even submitted as a possible candidate for the position of deputy menteri besar.
Kok believes that only a two-coalition political system can save Malaysia from the continuation of racial politics. In this interview, she talks about being told that Chinese Malaysians had no chance in Malaysia, and how, despite her childhood experiences, she has no problem identifying as Malaysian first.
TNG: When were you born?
Teresa Kok: 31 March 1964. That means I’m 46 now! No more young! (Laughs)
And where were you born?
Kuala Lumpur General Hospital. My childhood home was in Jinjang, Jalan Ipoh.
How long did you live on Jalan Ipoh?
I think up to secondary school. After that, I studied in Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in Penang. After I came back, I rented a room in Petaling Jaya. It was opposite the DAP headquarters (laughs). How loyal, right? But actually, I wanted to save [on] travelling time [to the workplace].
When did you become aware of politics and decide to join the DAP? Was it in USM or earlier?
It was mostly during my time in USM. I went to university in 1986. Operation Lallang happened in 1987. I saw how innocent people, from church and NGO (non-governmental organisation) activists to educationists and politicians, were all taken in, including a lot of people that I knew.
This really had an impact on me. I still remember at that time, I did a signature campaign on my own on campus. And then I got people to sign on Christmas and Hari Raya cards to send to the ISA (Internal Security Act) detainees.
When I did all these things, I got a lot of scolding and criticism from my USM peers. I remember, even a rather senior person in the church said that I shouldn’t do this on my own because it was risky. I just went ahead [anyway]. Of course, I never expected that I would be put under the ISA 20 years later! (Laughs)
What happened after you returned from USM?
I never thought of joining any political party. Never. You know, I was just like one of you guys. I was supposed to be a journalist (chuckles). I studied communication in USM.
[But] in the 1990 general election, I helped Dr Kua Kia Soong in his campaign (to be elected Member of Parliament) in Petaling Jaya. That’s how I got involved in a political party campaign and started to know about realpolitik on the ground. And that was also the first time I was involved in DAP activity.
Then, after the election campaign, Lim Kit Siang [needed a new secretary, and] I was recommended.
Let’s go back to your childhood … What kind of memories do you have? What is your strongest memory of the place you grew up in?
I wasn’t born in a well-to-do family. My mum was a teacher and my father was involved in a small [hardware] business. So, we were not rich.
I still remember 13 May. At that time, I was in kindergarten. I [was five years old]. I did not know what actually happened, but I know my parents went to the sundry shop to buy foodstuff. They talked about politics a little. They talked about “emergency” and warned us, “Don’t go out of the house because the Malays will come to kill us.” And I also heard that people died. I still remember that my father went to buy a lot of acid.
He put the acid into the spray [that they used to spray lallang] … He said the acid was meant to be sprayed into the eyes of the Malays …
… when they come to attack us. We didn’t have guns mah!
If they came to attack?
Were you frightened? Was there a sense of fear in the household?
Yes. Of course, now when I recall it, it’s quite sad, you know. When I grew older, I realised what actually happened. Of course, I still remember after 13 May, when I was in primary school, my father said, “There’s no future for the Chinese in Malaysia. The Chinese won’t be able to get any business, any work. All the policies of the government are to protect the Malays.” That was the adult conversation during my primary schooldays.
Can you trace your ancestry?
My paternal grandparents were from Hui Zhou in Guangdong province [in China]. It’s a Hakka-speaking area. We are from the hometown of Yap Ah Loy.
Are you related to Yap Ah Loy in any way?
No lah! Last year, I brought my parents to Hui Zhou for the first time. We managed to meet with long-distant relatives, and it made a good impression on my father. He realised that things had changed so much in China although he had never gone back before. People had become middle-class in China. He managed to go back to the ancestral home and the ancestral altar. It was quite a moving experience for him.
But my father was born in Malaysia.
What about your mum’s side?
My mum’s side is also from Guangdong province, but in another area. I did not manage to go to her kampung.
Was your mum born in Malaya or China?
My mother’s mother was born in Ipoh. She went back to China to get married and had my mother there. Then my grandmother brought my mother back to [Malaya] during World War II when China was in poverty and war. They came back by ship.
Do you know how old your mother was when she was brought back from China?
I’m not sure, but she was quite young. I think the striking part was the injustice in those days towards women. My [maternal] grandmother was forced to marry a boy younger than her, and she was born in Ipoh but she was deprived of an education.
When we were young, my grandmother always grumbled [about] her father. Her siblings, all boys, had a chance to go to school, but she was forced to quit studying at Standard Three, so she didn’t manage to pick up words.
[The] kind of marriage [that she had wasn't] happy. So, when the war broke out, she brought my mother back to Malaya.
On her own? Or with your grandfather?
On her own.
Did your mum have siblings?
No, she was the only child.
… I only started to feel support from my [family] when I started to contest in the 1995 elections. Before that, [when I was young], my parents always wished I could become a teacher.
Like your mother?
Like my mother. Because only work half a day and then you can, you know, take care of the family. Because this is what they achieved. They thought that was the highest level that a Chinese could achieve in Malaysia. They always thought that a Chinese [Malaysian] could not get into local university. But finally, I managed to get in to study communication. They didn’t know what I was studying (chuckles). But they were happy I got into university.
When I graduated and joined the DAP, I think I disappointed them a lot.
Oh, how come?
Ya, they kept warning me that I would be arrested by the police, put under the ISA. I was scolded and criticised by my parents, especially for five years when I worked with the DAP headquarters (between 1990 and 1995).
They only started to support me in the 1995 elections when I had to travel to Ipoh to contest in the elections. This attracted their attention to my work. From then on, I went all the way in politics. Something they didn’t expect me to do. Something I didn’t expect myself to get involved in.
What aspects of your identity, if at all, do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian?
I don’t face difficulties identifying myself as a Malaysian. Over the past two years, I’ve been to China a few times to try to get investments [for Selangor]. They are very impressed that I’m able to communicate with them in good Mandarin. [But] when you go to China, you don’t really feel like you’re part of them.
Anyone of us who has travelled abroad will still appreciate Malaysia and coming home. Even though I can survive well in China, I still think that Malaysia is my country and my home.
Do you subscribe to the belief that your father had, that there is no opportunity or hope for non-Malays in Malaysia?
No. This is a globalised world. For me, globalisation forced Malaysia and other countries, including China, to change.
I feel sad because I think Malaysia can actually do better if we can have proper and just policies and do away with race politics. And if our policies are based on merits and needs, we can do much better.
But unfortunately, the country has been under this raced-based political rule all these years, until we all forget that all Malaysians should work together as one nation. We’ve all been dividing ourselves by looking at [one another's] skin colour or religion. That’s why we’ve become uncompetitive compared to neighbouring countries …
Only a two-coalition system can save Malaysia from the continuation of racial politics. Because when you are in a coalition, you have to show that you can take care of all races, all religions.
The book Found in Malaysia, featuring 50 of our best interviews plus four previously unpublished ones with Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir and Ramli Ibrahim, is now available at all good bookstores for RM45.