As I turn 40
I have been a Member of Parliament for almost a decade and visible in public life for several more years, but I often refrain from talking about myself. As I turn 40 today on 27th November 2017, let me indulge in sharing some personal stories that have shaped who I am today.
How I got attracted to politics
My interest in politics began 1986, when I was nine.
My parents first met in Kuala Lumpur in the 1970s when they were both members of a Chinese choir – one of the few “healthy” and non-political social organizations for the youth after the May 13th incident. When they could afford it, like other working class families aspiring to be middle class, they sent both my sister and I to art and piano classes – both are not my cup of tea. I was “liberated” from these unhappy demands on my time and attention when the family finances went on a downward spiral as a consequence of the 1985 economic crash. The piano had to be sold off, to my parents’ sorrow, and my mischievous delight.
The school syllabus did not interest me either. From 1986 onwards, I spent at least two hours a day reading two Chinese-language newspapers from cover to cover, trying to understand all the high dramas of the world on my own.
One such drama which had prolonged coverage over the early months of 1986 was the death of billionaire Loh Boon Siew’s heir Kah Kheng in Batu Feringghi, Penang. This young Subang Jaya boy would never imagine that just over two decades later, I would become the Member of Parliament for the constituency where Boon Siew’s bungalow still stands.
There was great excitement during the August 1986 general election. Suddenly the roads turned colourful and lively with posters and flags of political parties. The late Poh Ah Tiam, my father’s then business colleague at a multi-level marketing company, contested as a MCA candidate in Melaka. He went on to become a State Executive Councillor (EXCO).
That year, public sentiment was against MCA, in part due to the deposit-taking cooperative scandals which saw some high-profile MCA politicians convicted of cheating the life savings of ordinary Chinese. My father’s other colleagues cynically joked behind Poh’s back that the collars and the sleeves are the dirtiest parts of a shirt. The Chinese word for leader, “ling xiu” (领袖), is made up of the words “collar” and “sleeve”. It took me, a nine-year old, an entire day to comprehend the meaning of that casual one-liner.
Coincidentally, Poh died of cancer on 15th March 2007, the day I was appointed to my first national role in DAP. I was appointed Election Strategy Advisor to the DAP Secretary-General, two weeks after Tony Pua’s appointment as Economic Advisor, as part of Lim Guan Eng’s effort to groom new leaders in anticipation of the 12th general election.
At the end of the 1987 school year, our class teacher in SJK(c) Puay Chai in SS2 Petaling Jaya asked each of her Standard Four students to declare their ambition. Many aspired to become doctors, teachers and lawyers. The teacher was visibly stunned and the class confused when I announced that I intended to become a “statesman/politician” (“政治家”).
1987 was a particularly tumultuous year for Malaysia, but a fantastic way for this kid’s political self-education, as newspapers would attempt to provide extra background explanation when major incidents occurred.
That year saw Dr. Mahathir Mohammad beating Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah in the contest for UMNO presidency with a razor thin margin; racial tensions flared between UMNO youth and Chinese educationist groups; Private Adam’s shooting on 17th October in Chow Kit (only four students of my class turned up for school the next day); and, of course, Ops Lalang on 27th October. The incarcerated Lim Kit Siang was the hero and Dr. Mahathir, as well as Anwar Ibrahim, the villains.
I was rebellious. When I was in Standard Six, I wrote a letter to the headmaster complaining about a teacher. Many years later, in 2013, Dad revealed that the teacher summoned Mum to school and scolded her in public that her son “acted like Lim Kit Siang”. The statement was meant in a derogatory manner, in case people think that Lim Kit Siang had always been revered by ethnic Chinese. In the decades before 2008, DAP was the party of the working class and the less well-to-do, with many others looking at them as weirdos.
In a strange twist of fate, for the last decade or so, I have been working alongside Kit Siang, then Anwar, and now Dr. Mahathir. It is indeed a privilege to work with the political giants of my childhood. The 14th General Election that will happen in a few months’ time is not going to be an ordinary affair. To these towering figures who have been the protagonists of Malaysian politics since the late 1960s, this is likely going to be their final battle. For the first time, Kit, Anwar and Dr. Mahathir unite to steer the nation on the right path for the generations to come.
Nevertheless, it pains me to think of the humiliation my mother faced by that teacher in 1989, who probably looked down on us because we sold lottery tickets on the street.
Economic hardship and empathy
The economic hardship my family went through taught me to empathize, which I consider the most desirable trait for a politician to acquire, and to understand deeply the economic consequences of government actions on ordinary folks, across racial lines.
Both my parents came from the poorest quarters of Kuala Lumpur. Dad’s family house was in the cemetery area of Sungai Besi. In 1987, when my father was under tremendous financial stress, he contemplated selling the Subang Jaya house to move us back to the family house surrounded by graveyards. The thought gave me many nightmares. Job security and financial security impact not only a breadwinner’s self-identity but also their children’s psychological well-being.
Dad was among the top of his class but he didn’t have the financial means to finish secondary school. When I was born, he worked as a minibus driver. Business was thriving, until one day, the retired Special Branch officer who owned the permit decided not to rent to him anymore. He then became a taxi-driver and later on set up a shop selling Chinese prayer items. The business venture did poorly and he was forced to venture into multi-level marketing.
In the subsequent years after the sharp economic downturn in 1985, the figures showed that the Malaysian economy improved significantly. Yet, that was not how we experienced it. Sometime in 1988, when my father’s work in Malacca was not going well, my mother and I walked a few kilometres to the more affluent bungalow area nearby to go from house to house in the hope to sell our stock of bottles of shampoo and other household items for cash. We didn’t have enough money for food. That probably prepared me well to knock on doors to ask for votes as a politician.
In the final days of December 1988, my father came home from his work in Malacca to announce that he had lost everything in his already very modest venture, and was in debt. For a month, he didn’t know what to do. I could only watch in despair.
Mum was a clerk until my younger sister was born, she then became a housewife and also helped out in my father’s small businesses.
In January 1989, someone told us that a new lottery ticket (Big Sweep) was about to be launched. Mum took the plunge to become a lottery ticket seller, often working 16 hours a day, seven days a week. Between 1989 and 1991, I also sold lottery on the streets at nights and during school holidays.
As most of the sales were at eateries, even a week-long rain could mean poor sales or major losses as people stayed home. Sales was also affected by other economic forces at work or government decisions and actions. People at the bottom rung of the economy, especially those in the informal sector like my parents, are usually more economically vulnerable and struggle to bounce back. Visiting the pawn shops or scrambling to find the last RM50 cash to clear a RM10,000 cheque issued earlier were some of the unforgettable scenes I experienced.
Even during the boom years of the 1990s, we were only doing alright but not out of debt, the 1997 crisis sent us back to square one. Because I saw firsthand how the bubble burst in 1997, I have been advising friends not to be enslaved by housing loans when prices are high.
The economic discourse in this country is highly racialized. Often, both Malay political leaders and Chinese business tycoons speak as if all ethnic Chinese are rich. Racial ideas blind us to the fact that there are also many poor Chinese, who actually share very similar experiences with their Malay, Indian, Kadazan, and Dayak compatriots who are at the bottom of the economic food chain.
I despise elites who speak as if those who don’t do well economically are of inferior intellect or do not work hard enough. My parents are smart, honest and extremely hardworking, but often just didn’t have luck on their side as each crisis hits those at the bottom more than others. Empathy is the key to a better society.
Kit, Reformasi and joining DAP
I submitted my application to become a DAP member in December 1999, weeks after the worst election outing for the party on 29th November 1999 which saw the shocking defeats of Kit Siang and Karpal Singh in Bukit Bendera and Jelutong respectively.
UMNO propagandists often try to portray the DAP as a mighty and malignant force. I would tell them what I tell DAP members younger than me: DAP’s strength is not propped up by resources, money or government positions. Our strength lies in the fact that we have lost everything before (in 1999), yet we persevered. Having gone through hell and back, we are mentally prepared to build a movement from ground zero.
A lot of this had to do with Kit Siang’s strength as a leader.
Bill Clinton spoke of visiting JFK’s White House as a young student and the impact it had on him. In 1990, I joined a parliament tour organised by a teacher at my school, Kwang Hwa High School in Klang. The teacher was active in DAP and eventually became a one-term state assemblyman in Negeri Sembilan.
In those days, Parliament started its day at 2.30 in the afternoon. We were fortunate to watch an exciting exchange between Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir and Opposition Leader Kit Siang. Kit Siang accused Dr. Mahathir of not being democratic but the latter said “when you speak, I sit down to listen.”
Today, you can’t expect Prime Minister Najib Razak to face off with the Opposition or to have any non-scripted engagements with anyone in Parliament.
The second time I saw Kit Siang in person was in June 1996. Kit Siang was to speak at an English forum organised by DAP Klang. The room was nearly empty. Fifteen people turned up. I counted at least 10 of them were DAP members. My classmate and I were one of the few “members of the public” at the forum aimed at engaging with the public.
I was nineteen and critical of DAP. Most people were, after their major defeat in the April 1995 general election. Just days earlier, Kit told DAP to “reform or die”. So, I asked him, in a rather critical tone, what would DAP do to engage with the young as I observed that the party was not emotionally-connected to my generation then.
I still remember Kit’s gentle reply: “Young man, great men think alike. But for change to happen, get involved and do something useful.”
Gradually, as I started attending more and more DAP events I got to know quite a few leaders. To this day, I still laugh at Teresa Kok for asking me to become Kit Siang’s driver, upon learning that I quit studying at the end of 1997 due to the Asian Financial Crisis. Teresa, with her usual good intentions, did not even ask if I possessed a driving licence. The irony is that for the past twenty years, Kit Siang has not had a dedicated personal driver, despite being a senior political leader.
Since the early 1990s, I attended many talks at the KL-Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall. I met Hew Kuan Yau (also known as Superman) in July 1997, when he returned from China after completing his master’s degree. For the subsequent two years or so, I attended his philosophy class almost weekly. While others had to pay, he exempted fees for me as he thought I had potential in politics.
1998 was a year of upheaval. From studying a business course in the American Degree Programme at a private college, I switched to be among the first batch of students in New Era College, a local college founded by the Chinese educationist groups. The thinking then was that even if I couldn’t afford to study overseas, it would be better to stay in a college environment instead of giving up studying altogether, as I might regret giving up later on.
I was majoring in Chinese literature. But during the two years I was there, I was effectively “majoring” in the Student Union’s affairs (I was the founding President) and minoring in social movement (we took part in numerous demonstrations organised after Anwar was sacked on 2nd September 1998).
On 6th September, I was among several young Chinese students and activists who visited Anwar’s house in Bukit Damansara, where daily solidarity ceramahs were held. We were probably some of the earliest Chinese who visited, given that Anwar was closer to Muslim activist groups. The next day at New Era College, both Kua Kia Soong and Lee Ban Chien were upset by our visits. “How could you trust Anwar as he was the Education Minister in 1987 when the tensions flared?”
When Dr. Mahathir launched the Citizen’s Declaration in March 2016, I told many sceptics to engage with him and not rush to shut the door, as some of those who refused to trust Anwar in 1998 eventually became his most ardent supporters and defenders.
The Reformasi movement brought the Chinese student groups closer with Muslim and Malay student/youth groups aligned to Anwar. It was a great year of getting to know people and collaborate. Anthony Loke was then at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia which forbids opposition events. We co-organised an event with opposition leaders at New Era College -which is a train ride away from UKM- so that his peers could attend. Almost two decades later, we still collaborate.
DAP was vulnerable and weak during this period. Guan Eng was sent to Kajang prison on 25th August. The worst ever factional strife in DAP’s history, which saw the most organised challenge to Kit Siang’s authority in the form of the KOKS (kick out Kit Siang and Karpal Singh), had just concluded during the National Congress on 23rd August.
By 1999, I was also close to friends in Parti KeADILan Nasional. Then, Tian Chua was a instant idol for young people.
Hew Kuan Yau insisted that I should campaign for DAP in the 1999 election, which I did. After Parliament was dissolved on 11th November, I was arrested at Kota Raya on 17th November while distributing leaflets. It was quite a comical experience. I was very thin then. The police probably profiled all young men who are thin and suspected them to be drug addicts.
A plainclothes policeman disguised as a shoe-shiner asked me for my Identification Certificate. We were trained by SUARAM to ask back “show me your police ID”. He was stunned but agreed to show me his ID. Then he wanted to take down my IC number. I asked for his ID and wanted to take note of his number.
Suddenly, he got angry and handcuffed me, hauled me in a Black Maria to IPK KL (State Contingent Headquarters). I was kept there only for less than an hour or so. The policemen at the criminal investigation department panicked as soon as they found out that their colleagues took in someone related to a political party.
When Hew Kuan Yau sent me home from the police station, he told me that he would want to relinquish his post as Kit Siang’s secretary if he wins the seat he was contesting and would recommend me to Kit as the latter’s new secretary. I was surprised at the suggestion as I didn’t even have a degree back then.
Anyway, Kit, Karpal, Kuan Yau and many others lost in the election on 29th November. Kit Siang resigned as DAP’s Secretary-General, succeeded by the late Kerk Kim Hock. The entire party was in shock. For the first time since 1969, Kit Siang did not have a seat in Parliament. In any case, he was no longer the DAP Secretary-General. The mainstream media hounded Kit Siang daily, asking him to retire from politics completely. It was only two months later in February 2000, that Kit Siang announced that he would continue the fight despite being pushed to retire.
I agreed to work for Teresa Kok as her first ever staff a week after the election. I started work two weeks after; and in the third week of December, decided to join the DAP officially.
At that point of time, no one expected DAP to bounce back less than a decade later in 2008 and least of all, nobody imagined Kit would take the leading role to venture into new ground in the 2013 general election. Kit Siang was indeed a comeback kid in the most unexpected manner.
Then, I was just thinking of doing my small part to save a respectable party that was in danger of oblivion.
Like life, the journey since then has been fulfilling and uplifting. The struggle continues.