'Harry Potter Wong' casts his spell

As new kids on the block, Kelana Jaya MP Wong Chen and Kuala Selangor MP Datuk Irmohizam Ibrahim intend to bring a fresh style to the local political scene by engaging the people in national issues and vowing to fight corruption.

WONG Chen says he was just 12 when he organised his first strike. He was at boarding school at the United World College (UWC), a prestigious international school in Singapore, when the matron of his house introduced a point system where students received points for making their beds.

Feeling that the system was unfair and skewed towards certain people, he, as chairman of his age-group for the house, got the other students to leave their beds unmade in the morning as a form of protest.

And it worked. But before that happened, he was hauled up to the principal’s office, where he saw the matron crying. However, the school listened and dropped the point system.

“My mother raised us, her children, with a clear sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. And we were always taught to stand up to bullies,” he says with deep admiration for his mother, a housewife and member of the leftist Parti Sosialis Rakyat Malaysia (PSRM), now Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM), and whom he describes as a “very nice person.”

From his father, a successful businessman, Wong Chen learnt the skill of being direct, “to speak fairly and plainly” and to show up on time for meetings and appointments.

All these things, he says, went into his genetic make-up as a kid.

Even though the UWC was a rich man’s school with students from 60 countries, Wong Chen hung out mostly with those who were super idealistic, who studied peace and conflict studies even at that young age, discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, listened to Bob Marley music, and wanted to save the world.

Wong Chen went on to read law. Now 45, he specialises in corporate and acquisition law and deals a lot with the buying and selling of companies.

He admits that he loves closing deals as it is a bit like “a little boy’s game”. He says it’s fun, satisfying and gives him a testosterone high.

But he also finds IT law fascinating and intellectually stimulating and is constantly on the look-out for new challenges.

Which is how he got into politics.

In 2008, Pakatan Rakyat was looking for a lawyer to help draw up the Pakatan Rakyat constitution and one of Wong Chen’s clients, who was sympathetic towards Pakatan, asked if he would do it. He agreed and the client paid for the legal services.

“That is how I got to know the leaders. I was impressed by what they were trying to do. They were very idealistic but the one thing they lacked was good professional support. So when they asked me if I could take on a more active role, I said ‘yes, let’s do it’.

“I am interested in economics and policy making. I like getting the facts, talking to academics, people on the streets, the business community and analysing data and helping put it together into a policy. That’s my skill,” says Wong Chen.

In the recently-concluded general election, the father of two (a two-year-old and a six-month-old) stood as the PKR candidate for the Kelana Jaya parliament seat and won with a comfortable majority of 28,827 votes.

But his candidacy came with a price. On nomination day, a senior partner in his law firm called him up and asked him to resign because one of their major clients, a GLC, had threatened to take their business elsewhere unless Wong Chen quit the firm.

“I’ve had a fantastic working relationship with my seven partners but I didn’t want to injure their livelihood, so I agreed to step down.”

While financial stability is important to him, especially now that he has two children to raise, he says he doesn’t value materialism all that much.

“I am not one of those money-grabbing lawyers. I like to keep a low profile. I used to drive a Kancil but now I have a (Suzuki) Swift. And because I have a family, we also have a (Toyota) Camry.

“But I have no fixation to buy a bigger car or bigger house. That’s not in my DNA. Materialism doesn’t mean anything to me. What I value is a good holiday and to eat reasonably well,” he says.

His wife who is two years younger is a political economist and an “organic nut”.

Both don’t smoke or drink.

In fact, whenever he can help it, he avoids areas where people are smoking because he doesn’t like to breathe in the cigarette smoke.

Wong Chen paints, loves competitive sports and plays basketball, football, tennis and badminton. He also enjoys camping and trekking and has been to the Himalayas three times, and done gruelling eight-hour treks in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

He also picked up horse riding and polo in, of all places, Kota Baru where he worked for three years after university.

“We were just a bunch of guys who love horses. One had a workshop, another was an architect while a third traded in Ramly burgers; and all owned a horse each.

“I too had a horse and we played polo three times a week. It was the best thing in the world. It was like war on horseback,” he reminisces.

Although Wong Chen was born in Petaling Jaya, he considers himself a Kelantanese because his parents moved there when he was two. So, all his early childhood memories are of running around padi fields, coconut and rubber trees in Kelantan.

In primary school, he was the only Chinese student in an all-Malay school and made good friends. Not surprisingly, he speaks fluent Kelantanese.

“It’s the language, the friendships you make, the food you eat – that’s how you become Kelantanese,” says Wong Chen who is a big fan of eels, budu, jantung pisang and ayam percik.

When he stood for elections, his trademark was his round Harry Potter spectacles. Even kids as young as five recognise him because of the glasses.

“I’ve always had round glasses because I am a John Lennon fan. But kids have been calling me Harry Potter,” he laughs.

He has another pair of “normal-looking” glasses that he puts on when he is out on business or wants some privacy, like when he is with his family at the shopping mall.

“Being recognised is nice but it’s also a bit alarming. So while I still have some semblance of a private life, I want to enjoy it while I can,” he says.

Wong Chen describes himself as more of a technocrat and confesses that he doesn’t have a natural disposition towards politics.

“I am still grappling with public speaking. I still feel awkward when I give speeches at a ceramah,” he says.

But he is in his element during dialogue sessions because, for him, it’s like having a direct conversation with people, which is something he is totally comfortable with.

During the campaign period, Wong Chen had eight dialogue sessions with the people in the Kelana Jaya constituency and each session was a hit.

The first dialogue was with about 250 people. As word got around, more people started showing up and towards the end of campaigning, he had about 1,000 people coming to find out his views on issues.

Now as a Yang Berhormat, Wong Chen plans to continue to engage the people in the same way. He hopes to have such dialogue sessions every two months and whenever some big issue worthy of discussion comes up.

One issue that fires him up is the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which is a consumption-based tax on goods and services that the government plans to introduce to broaden their tax base and bring down corporate and personal income tax rates.

Wong Chen says the tax base in the country is extremely weak with only 10% to 12% of the working population here paying tax. He believes this is because people’s income levels are just too low.

To impose a GST on goods and services (even though essential goods and services are exempt or zero-tax rated), he says, would only burden the poor whose salaries are already low.

“Are you saying that the poor do not deserve semi-luxury goods like Astro? Or that they are entitled to only eat fish and not go to a cinema or a restaurant (because he deems it will be expensive because of the GST)?”

He says his team has been crunching out their data on the GST to challenge the government to release theirs.

For him, it is crucial for the government to stamp out corruption, “irrational spending” on mega projects with inflated prices and low-cost benefits.

“You can’t solve the tax base without tackling the corruption and inflated price problems first.”

He says the MRT project is good but questions why the government has not gone for cheaper alternatives like fixing the bus lines first.

On bad planning, he points to the existing LRT lines and asks why there is a stop at Abdullah Hukum, a station where no one gets off or on, when it would have made more sense to build it a few hundred metres away at Midvalley Megamall instead, where thousands go to every day.

“How do they plan the stations?” he asks.

He likes the highways in the country but says the 60-year concession period given to the toll operators is not justifiable.

“I know how much it costs to build a road. If I am going to be a toll operator, I’d be filthy rich. Projects with obscene profits are just wrong,” he says.

He feels the same with housing. The government, he says, has huge land banks and it should think like a developer, understand their motivation, financial structure and find out the kind of margins they should be making and come out with a financial model.

“If they want a 20% margin, the government should ask if they are willing to accept a 12% margin instead and if they would build a certain percentage of houses priced at RM250,000, RM400,000 and RM150,000 and below. Then, the government can adjust the cost of the land accordingly.

“Right now, developers are over-building on the high end, while the lower income group can’t afford housing.”

On the poll results, Wong Chen says many people, including businessmen, have come up to say that Pakatan should accept the election results and not be sour grapes.

“The norm is the government has gerry-mandered the system to their advantage. If you think the norm is acceptable, then you should accept the election results.

“We don’t, so that is why we are fighting. Do you want a situation where you get a bigger majority but still lose the election and your kids go out on the streets fighting for change? Or do you want to go and change the rules of the books so that they have a fair chance to be heard?”

On people feeling tired of both Pakatan and Barisan Nasional always being at loggerheads, Wong Chen says both sides of the political divide can sit down and work together on issues of common interest, like crime, but there has to be transparency.

“The one holding the big stake (Barisan) should make the gesture for reconciliation, You can’t whack us all the time using the government machinery and the media and expect us to be nice and bipartisan.

“Right now, they are not offering us an olive branch, so how do you expect us to react?”