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.
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.