MCA vice-president Datuk Seri Dr Ng Yen Yen, who is the first woman to be elected to the post in a Malaysian political party and the first Chinese woman to be made a full Minister, shares her views on politics, family and how she hopes to attract tourists to the country.
MANY of those in the MCA who believe in fengshui think that a lot of Datuk Seri Dr Ng Yen Yen’s success can be attributed to her name.
“I think my name is very suitable for politics as it is easy to remember,” says Dr Ng. “I am very glad my parents named me ‘Yen Yen’ which means ‘swiflet’ – a bird that produces valuable, nutritious nest for the benefits of others,” she beams.
She laughs as she drapes a shawl around her signature outfit which she playfully calls kebasamin as it features elements from the Malay kebaya, Chinese cheongsam and Indian saree. She said Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad once remarked that her dress looked nice but it was “neither here nor there,” to which she responded: “Yes, but it allows me to be anywhere and takes me everywhere!”
Nicely settled into her spacious Tourism Ministry office at Menara Dato’ Onn, Putra World Trade Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Dr Ng has been so busy with the MCA elections earlier this year and her duties as Tourism Minister, that she hasn’t had the time to look into changes for her workplace. All she did was hang up her oil paintings since she took over the portfolio from Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said in April last year.
“Some people think I got to be where I am today in the blink of an eye but they forget I joined the MCA back in 1975. Only now am I MCA vice-president!” she says.
It has taken 35 long years before the doctor rose to become an MCA minister, and 24 years before becoming Wanita MCA chief, MP for Raub, and Deputy Culture, Arts and Tourism Minister in 1999.
She made history on March 18, 2008, as the first Malaysian Chinese woman to be made a full Minister. Prior to that, she was Deputy Tourism Minister, then Deputy Finance Minister, before being appointed Women, Family and Community Development Minister. Then, she returned to the Tourism Ministry last year, this time as the head. However, the sweetest accolade must have been her recent triumph in the recent MCA party elections when she garnered 1,528 votes, the highest among all contestants, to become the first woman in the country to be elected vice-president of a political party.
“I felt strongly that it was important to move up another level from making decisions at Wanita level to policy-making in the MCA mainstream,” says Dr Ng who gave up her Wanita MCA chief post to contest a vice-presidency. Her success proves that MCA politics is a genderless arena. “I deal with all issues now, not only those restricted to women’s welfare. The scope is now unlimited and it’s important to address all matters that affects Malaysians, such as environmental issues, climate change and other global issues,” she explains.
She was well aware that she was wading into uncharted territory. Over 90% of the party delegates were men. Of the close to 2,400 vote-casting delegates at the party elections in March, only about 300 were women and it was not to be presumed that a woman would vote for her own gender.
“I was one of four full MCA ministers so if I was not involved in mainstream decision-making, that would not be consistent with my position. In the MCA’s hierarchy, after the president and deputy, there are the four elected vice-presidents, followed by the Youth and Wanita VPs (which come with the posts) so I would have been eighth in line,” she recalls.
“I expected to win but not with the highest votes. There were many disagreements and groupings prior to the election.”
Based on the overwhelming votes, she says the message is clear. “I am to be a peace-maker and negotiator, and work with other chosen leaders to heal whatever rift there is. This role is not difficult. I have been involved in this all my life, and I draw from my experiences in conflict management and negotiating between my three sons,” she says.
Dr Ng stresses that the president must be able to unite the party and be non-partisan.
“I looked at the big issues as we cannot compromise MCA for a personal agenda. I had to differentiate between personality and issues. One has to be clear-headed and reasonable, and be able to agree to disagree. I have always claimed to be an MCA person, an MCA grassroots leader, not just an MCA leader’s biggest supporter,” she states.
Dr Ng says her triumph has humbled her. “It’s not easy but I am convinced that if a Chinese woman can play a part in nation-building, then she must do so. If you expect comfort, then politics is not for you. Politics has toughened me up and made me realistic about the way I see people. I am able to differentiate between genuine and so called ‘friends’. I have learnt to be patient. In life and not just politics, there are no permanent friends or enemies.
“But luckily for me, real friends are not hard to find. My philosophy is to be true to myself, be forgiving and compassionate as no one is perfect, least of all myself. I try to build, not hurt and destroy. If I can bring on a smile, so much the better.”
Women need the support of their husbands, children, parents and even in-laws when they venture into politics, she says.
“Children must get used to sharing their mother with others who are practically strangers. Fortunately, my family never held me back but allowed me to reach my potential,” says this Christian mother of three sons.
“I was first asked to stand for election in the 1980s but I declined as the timing was not right. My children were too young and needed a full-time mum. I had to sort out my priorities as wife, mother, doctor or leader,” she adds.
Sons Dr Terence Chin, 36, works in Melbourne, engineer Julian, 35, lives in Kuala Lumpur and Justin, 29, is a lawyer in Hong Kong. She is a proud grandmother of two grandsons.
Generally, Dr Ng doesn’t encourage women to go into politics full-time when their children are young. The good doctor advises: “Children need nurturing and guidance until their late teens as their characters are still being moulded. At this stage, women should only get involved in the periphery by working as volunteers or in the secondary tier of politics, not in the mainstream. This will prepare them so they can decide if they are cut out for politics later.”
She adds cautiously: “This is my personal view but if other women think differently, I respect that. To each her own.”
Many of her diehard supporters are casting the net wide and far as they foresee a female MCA president in the offing. “We live in dynamic times. In the 21st century, we are all supposed to be equal. Who would have thought that back in the 90s there would be a woman minister?”
Would she contest the next level if pressed by supporters?
“I am a worker, not a speculator. I don’t waste time thinking about such things as there are too many ‘ifs’. I am committed to my work which occupies all my waking hours. There is a time and place for everything. The wisdom is to know when.”
When she was Women, Family and Community Development Minister, she focused on poverty eradication and raising the quality of life, especially for women and the disabled. She pushed for the Disability Act to be passed last year and made Malaysia a global signatory so that this country would be a disabled-friendly nation. “Poor people find obtaining welfare difficult simply because most do not know where to go and how to apply. I launched Projek CARI, and we sent 200 temporary welfare officers to the isolated kampungs and also to the urban poor to help these people.”
Last year, she was asked to captain the Tourism Ministry in the midst of a global slump. She did not see it as being in the right place at the wrong time, but a challenge. Despite the odds, she brought in more tourists and increased revenue during one of the world’s biggest slowdowns in the tourism industry.
“Malaysia was also hit by the H1N1 flu last year, and airlines were closing or reducing flights. Tourism is very important to Malaysia as it is the second largest earner. In 2008, tourism brought in about RM50bil cash, and the figure rose to RM54bil last year. The initial target was RM49bil from 19 million arrivals. Instead, we achieved 22.63 million arrivals, up 7.6% from 22 million tourists in 2008 so I am very happy! We moved up two notches in the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) ranking to become the world’s ninth most visited destination. We are also among less than 10 countries that showed an increased in tourist arrivals,” she says, adding that the Toursim Ministry’s target is 35 million tourists by 2020.
The figures sound impressive but some have accused the ministry of padding the numbers to include day-trippers from Singapore and Thailand.
“No day-trippers were included!” she wags a forefinger. “We only counted those staying more than 24 hours. We cannot concoct the figures ourselves as we get them from the Immigration Department.”
Dr Ng laments that there are fellow Malaysians who are quick to deride ourselves. “Some don’t believe we can do it. They don’t believe in their own country and are willing to run ourselves down. “These figures are submitted to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation for their annual country report and verification.”
To earn the tourist dollar, Dr Ng’s ministry has to create interesting, creative products. Last year, it was Tarian Cuti-Cuti 1Malaysia to stimulate domestic tourism, followed by the Fabulous Food 1Malaysia campaign to make our country a food paradise.
At present, Dr Ng is knee-deep in the MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions & Exhibitions) industry. The recent Malaysia International Shoe Festival had 45,000 visitors raking up RM5mil in sales over three days.
“We all know about the world’s most famous and talented shoe designer Datuk Jimmy Choo but many are unaware that shoe-making in Malaysia is a century-old industry. We have 1,200 factories exporting US$600mil (RM1.93bil) worth of products and our local shoe market is worth RM500mil. I think our recent shoe fest is the first of its kind in the world. We plan to make it an annual event and turn Kuala Lumpur into the regional shoe capital.”
She is now grappling with Malaysian hotel rates, which she claims, are too low. “You would think low prices bring in tourists but this is not necessarily so. Some tourists have the wrong perception that cheap rates mean poor facilities, bad service and rundown buildings. Only when we charge international rates can we convince them.
“I know locals may be priced out so I’m proposing a two-tier price system. Currently, the Government does not regulate rates but leave them to market forces,” she says.
Dr Ng sees Malaysia as a “family-oriented” destination, with emphasis on nature and ecology, culture, shopping, golf, sports and medical tourism. There’s also the Malaysia My Second Home programme. “There will always be a debate on which tourism model to follow but I think it is a case of ‘to each its own’. We prefer a more family-nature approach,” she says.
Her path has not always been smooth but she maintains that she always focuses on “objective issues and try to move away from the personal and emotional perspective.”
“It helped me get through tough times. There were many times when I asked myself: Do really I need this? I am a doctor and I can easily open a clinic and take it easy. But I am a fighter and I will not be cowed by political bullies.”