WITH her youth and a Masters in Philosophy in Advanced Chemical Engineering from Cambridge University, it is no surprise that Yeo Bee Yin is an inspiration to many women.
After all, the 35-year-old is taking helm of a portfolio which is not just broad – the Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Ministry – but also one that is extremely technical.
But then, Yeo knows quite a bit about being inspiring. After all, it was another woman who has first inspired her.
Her aunt, Yeo Swee Lan, became the first woman from the village to enter university.
Batu Anam, where Yeo was born on May 26, 1983, was – and still very much is – a sleepy hollow near Segamat in northern Johor surrounded by rubber and oil palm plantations where nothing much happened. In fact, Yeo tells, as a young girl, she had been quite contented to live out her life in Batu Anam apart from two serious incidents: as a toddler, she hit her head on the edge of wooden sofa, requiring a long spell in ICU, and shortly after, was hit by a car.
But her aunt changed her mind.
“It’s a very small kampung where nobody – no woman – went to university and my aunt became the first one.
“She inspired me that as a girl, I could go to university as well, and I wouldn’t have to end up my life by just marrying somebody,” she shares.
As she had noted in her personal blog some time ago, most women tended to only play complementary roles to men in her community then or the way that princesses were always rescued by their knight or Prince Charming in Disney films.
Having an aunt who successfully graduated from university, she says, inspired her to do more. It also opened her eyes to the need for good role models for young women and girls.
“When I was young, I never thought myself as a politician because there is no role model. It was even difficult for me to imagine myself going to university,” she admits.
It is precisely this lack of role models, according to Yeo, that is contributing to the current deficit in the number of young women and girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, and even in politics.
Yeo once lamented about the “uncles only” phenomenon in DAP and other political parties in her Reimagining Malaysia series on her blog, which was compiled into a book and realeased in April.
For that girl from Batu Anam, however, she did not just get to enter university. She became one of the few women who studied chemical engineering at the Universiti Teknologi Petronas (UTP) under a Petronas Scholarship – graduating with a first class honours – before completing her masters with a commendation in Cambridge under the Gates Cambridge Scholarship.
In between, she had a stint with Schlumberger Limited, the world’s largest oilfield services company, working in, among other places, Turkmenistan, where she spent close to two years, and Alexandria in Egypt and Baku in Azerbaijan.
With women making up less than half of the graduates in engineering and technology in Malaysia in 2015, this is a situation that Yeo is personally trying to reverse.
“I will now accept invitations to get me to speak on women for engineering, science, STEM – all this, I will go because I think that’s part of my role,” she vows.
It is a role that Yeo hopes other women engineers and scientists will pick up as well – by speaking to female students and convincing that they, too, could equally excel in STEM subjects.
“We can also do whatever man can do and even more than what men can do. So, role models are important,” she stresses, adding that girls are only being held back by cultural differences and psychological barriers.
“There is no biological differences,” she points out.
Asked if there has been anyone who had ever told her that she could not do it – as critics and naysayers are aplenty in the political minefield – Yeo says: “There have been but not my parents.
“I don’t look at what people say I cannot do. I only take the positive comments. I ignore negative comments.”
Yeo is indeed used to naysayers.
In fact, after finding out she would not be allowed to defer her 10-year bond with Petronas despite being accepted into Cambridge, she went to work with Schlumberger, turning her disappointment into an opportunity to work overseas.
It was also during that time – on May 9, 2008, to be exact – that she began her journey into politics. The then Pakatan Rakyat had denied Barisan Nasional its two-thirds’ majority in Parliament in the GE13, a historical first.
“ When I opened The Star online and saw the news on the political tsunami, I realised how I still love and care about my country,” she says.
That moment touched Yeo, who after half a year, quit her job.
“I wanted to be back to make a change to my nation so that our next generation do not need to wander around the world for a better future because the better future IS in Malaysia,” she recalls.
After fulfilling her personal dream of studying in Cambridge, she headed back to Malaysia with a new vigour, joining DAP 2012.
Picked to contest the then Damansara Utama state seat in the general election in 2013, Yeo won with a 30,689-majority, making her the youngest assemblyman in Selangor.
For the 14th General Election, despite being a first-term assemblyman, she was moved from Selangor to her home state, standing in the Bakri parliamentary seat in Johor as one of Pakatan Harapan’s frontliners in its bid to capture the state.
She trounced her opponents with a 23,211-vote majority – the highest majority ever achieved for that constituency.
As a young, single woman in politics, Yeo is no stranger to unsavoury comments – just check Google and Lowyat.
However, Yeo, who, besides being Bakri MP for DAP, is also its National Assistant Publicity Secretary as well as vice-chairman of Pakatan Harapan Youth, has learnt early on in her political career to dismiss such destructive criticisms and comments.“In politics, as in life, a lot of people are going to say a lot of negative things.
“Your life is going to be miserable and it’s not productive to look at the negative things that people say.
“I would rather spend more time and get more energy from people who encourage us, who want the best for us and those who want us to do well in life.”
Sounds like good advice, Yang Berhormat.