HANNAH Yeoh Tseow Suan is a household name these days. When she made the move from Subang Jaya to contest Segambut’s parliamentary seat, she found herself treated like a celebrity. And her meteoric rise continued with a thumping 82% win in GE14 and her appointment as Deputy Women, Family and Community Development Minister.
The journey has come with some changes.
“In Subang Jaya for the last 10 years, I was able to walk around malls and public places without being recognised. But now I find that it’s quite a problem to go out without being stopped for photographs. We are all learning to cope. I think it’s a Malaysia Baru thing,” Yeoh tells Sunday Star in an exclusive interview recently.
She even found herself getting dolled up for a glamour photo shoot for Malaysia Tatler’s August issue, something she says she isn’t particularly used to.
“Everyday, I don’t use make-up, because it’s time-consuming. But we did it simply because we wanted to engage young voters and women. For me, it’s important. That is part of my portfolio and I need to reach them with my message. Not everybody comes to a political forum, not every voter reads political news. And therefore, if you have a message, if you have a voice and a platform, that is your golden opportunity to engage voters from all backgrounds.”
Still, the former lawyer and mother of two has gained a reputation for hard work and is not about to let things go to her head.
“We need to constantly get feedback from the ground and be in tune with the grassroots. We have a team of assistants in Segambut to help us manage Monday to Friday; Saturday is when I go down and meet as many residents as possible.”
She is also keenly aware that the honeymoon period for the Pakatan Harapan government won’t last forever. Activists like Fahmi Reza, Siti Kasim, Marina Mahathir and Fadiah Nadwa Fikri are among those who are already pushing the new government to do more than it seems to be doing.
“There are a lot of reforms that the Home Ministry can do and must do, for one. It is fair for activists to feel frustrated and I think it is very unfortunate that Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has been unwell. The ministry must change the way it works and understand the spirit behind this new government,” Yeoh says, urging the Home Ministry to resolve pending issues like the use of bad laws against activists.
She stresses that the nation rebuilding work will not happen overnight.
“It is not going to be easy because we have look at our budget before we can fix things and it will take time because we need to review past policies.
“Even in our ministry, we have to look at past policies – what is effective and what is not effective. You cannot do that on your own, you have to consult the stakeholders and there are multiple stakeholders.
“Anyone can run programmes. But policy, that’s where we lawmakers have a duty – to fix those policies – and that is what I hope to see more of in this Malaysia Baru.”
Yeoh mentions an issue repeatedly cited by members of the Pakatan government – that of an intransigent civil service.
“One of the greatest challenges now is to move the civil service along with us,” she says. “In Selangor we took some time, about 10 years, to finally be able to convince civil servants that there is a new way of doing things. We don’t waste money anymore (in Selangor). We want that in Putrajaya too.”
She adds that when advocating progressive policies regarding issues like breastfeeding, policymakers also often get short-sighted responses from the business community.
“And when we are talking about maternity leave, and what is good for a child, we should not be arguing on dollars and cents because the value of a child is important. They are our nation’s asset.”
When asked about her role models, Yeoh says, “I try not to focus or place my hope in Man. My constant pillar of strength has to be God, my faith is very important and crucial to my work.
“I want to prove to people that you can enter politics and remain clean and survive, and it is possible to excel without engaging in corruption. So my goal is to encourage more young people to join politics. I want to be able to be a light to show that politics affects so many people, and is about responsible policy making.”
This is clear in her book Becoming Hannah: A personal journey, where she wrote of how her unwavering faith – with a little help from family, friends and the countless strangers from the constituency she was then contesting in, Subang Jaya – gave her the strength to overcome adversity on her journey into public service.
Yeoh has also found herself cast as an inspiration for young women.
“It’s hard for me to comment on the quota for female representation because I’m one of the women in there. I believe very much in meritocracy, but I also understand why a quota is needed in an unlevelled playing field. You need, for example, to have young mothers involved in decision-making. So for me, you need a quota for the entry point. But once you get in, you have to compete on equal ground. You have to be good in your work.”
Yeoh says the onus is both on citizens to get involved and political parties to make changes.
“The highest women’s representation in the cabinet now is from the DAP (Theresa Kok, Yeo Bee Yin and Teo Nie Ching being the others). I remember in Selangor DAP, when we fielded a lot of fresh young women, people criticised us, saying that this is not a beauty pageant. That is missing the point. When you field a woman, you are creating that space for half of the population. And you need to intentionally create that space for women and young people.”
Yeoh has found herself defending her Minister, Datuk Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, whose handling of the child marriage and LGBT issues has come under fire. She feels her boss is misunderstood.
“I am blessed to be able to work with Kak Wan. I feel that many don’t understand who she really is. She doesn’t have an ego problem. You can attack her all you want in the media and she will not feel compelled to react. I think it takes a lot of strength to be able to control yourself and say look, I will not take it personally, I will continue to do my job.”
An issue that keeps cropping up is that too many of the same old faces have been dominant in Malaysia’s political scene for too long. Does Yeoh see it changing any time soon?
“Malaysian politics is very much based on personality. Whether you like it or not, politics is about leadership and charisma. So these veteran leaders have created a name for themselves, and are liked for it and condemned for different reasons.
“I think it’s a good balance now. I was told we have 222 MPs, and more than 100 are fresh, first-term MPs. I think, in the last GE, we wiped out a lot of old faces. But the new Malaysia is not just about changing government or changing leaders – if you don’t change your mindset, you are going to end up with the same thing,” says Yeoh.
“I’m very thankful that I fought for a cause and it has taken me 10 years to see the fruit. But people like Lim Kit Siang fought for a long time to see this fulfilled. Also there are people who fought but never had the chance to see this, like the late Karpal Singh.
“I count myself very privileged to be able to witness May 9. Because for the longest time, everything that we did, we were always defined by the ‘cannots’. A lot of that negative mindset resulted in brain drain, but now we have the opportunity to rebuild.”
She calls on Malaysians to set new standards and not fall for any racial and religious arguments.
“May 9 has created a good reputation for Malaysia globally again. People want to hear what the PM has to say now, people are happy that Lim Guan Eng can be the Finance Minister and Tommy Thomas is the Attorney General and we are not looking at skin colour. What is more heartening for me is that, at every point when I need to escalate a matter, I know it will fall into good hands.”
Highlighting a Chinese quote that says ‘A good horse does not turn back and eat old stale grass’, she notes: “Moving forward, we have to be alert and conscious. If you see the trend of how the other side is attacking, I feel that LGBT is their new scapegoat, they have used hudud and race before. We need to be conscious all the time of what they are doing. And be smart enough to tackle those issues.”
Yeoh seems to be revelling in her new responsibilities, yet she longingly recalls a time when she wasn’t so busy that she could indulge in some simple pastimes.
“I like shopping. Even if I don’t buy things, I de-stress by walking in shopping malls and if I see colours I get very happy. Little India in Klang used to be my favourite hangout place to look at Punjabi suits and sarees.
“I also don’t have a lot of time to read now, which is a concern for my husband because he believes you need to read a lot.
“And I enjoy cooking but I don’t like the cleaning. I don’t have the time now, but those were the things I used to enjoy doing.”
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