It’s 4.00pm on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, and the Malaysian Parliament is in session. As I’m ushered into a meeting room for my interview with Yang Berhormat (the Honourable) Hannah Yeoh Tseow Suan, I’m told by her senior secretary, Jennifer, that Members of Parliament have been debating issues late into the night.
YB Hannah Yeoh is no exception. Hers is one of the busiest portfolios, being Member of Parliament for the Segambut constituency, and serving as the Deputy Women, Family and Community Development Minister. She could be called back into Parliament to vote at any given time, I’m informed.
Such is the need for urgency of action. Over a year in after the monumental events of 9th May 2018, the euphoric glow of Pakatan Harapan’s victory has started to flicker, giving way to the nation’s expectations that this new government walks the talk, posthaste. And indeed, walking the talk and making a change is what lies at the forefront of Hannah’s mind.
It is a credit to her sense of responsibility that, even in the midst of this busyness, she carves out her valuable time to sit down for a chat with Makchic about politics and parenthood – issues dually close to her heart.
We speak first about this world that she has been immersed in over the past decade. From starting off as the Selangor State Assemblywoman for Subang Jaya in 2008, to being sworn in as Malaysia’s first woman speaker in the Selangor State Legislative Assembly in 2013, the political arena isn’t exactly new to Hannah.
Yet, GE14’s turn-of-the-tides has thrust Hannah into a role of larger responsibilities – and less personal time. “It was a move for me out of my comfort zone,” she says, of her new status quo. “I was very excited, but at the same time, I knew I would have less time with my children at home”.
As a former lawyer turned events manager, turned politician, Hannah was inspired to enter a career in politics, driven, in her own words, by “a desire to do what is right for my generation, and just to be counted.“ As she says this, idealistic as these words may seem to the cynics out there, they nevertheless carry a genuine ring of truth on Hannah’s part.
Just another day in the life of a Minister
Struggles and Setbacks
Hannah credits her increased profile for giving her the opportunity to be able to work on policies of significance that can be translated nationwide (such as her work with the protection of child rights), calling this her “greatest motivator for coming to work every day“.
That isn’t to say though, that she hasn’t suffered some setbacks in our new government’s bid for change. “Lack of data,” she says, with an air of frustration, when asked about the challenges posed to her. “There’s not been enough done for many years“.
As a Christian however, Hannah attributes her faith in God as her motivation to keep pushing forward, yet staying grounded. “My God talks a lot about servanthood, about serving the people without expecting [a] reward in return. Only God can reward me. That means I don’t do things for promotion, or position, or for the praises of man,” says Hannah resolutely.
Not content with just “cutting ribbons“, as she puts it, she also speaks of the heavy sense of responsibility and accountability she feels – to her God and to the rakyat.
It is in the midst of this discourse on the highs and lows of life in the public eye that I turn to Hannah’s life in private. I ask her about her equally important role as wife to her beloved husband, Ramachandran Muniandy, and mother to two beautiful daughters, Shay Adora Ram, eight, and Kayleigh Imani Ram, five.
Quality time with her daughters.
The weariness on her face from the demanding day lifts momentarily as she describes the differences between her girls.
“Shay is very mature for her age, into a lot of girly things. Kayleigh is more innocent, she’s not into any of the girly stuff. It really doesn’t bother her if she’s not wearing a hairband [unlike Shay]. But both of them love their gadgets – which means I have to be very careful when I don’t have time with them that they don’t spend an excessive amount of time on [their devices],” she says, in the oft-repeated (and very relatable) refrain of every modern mother dealing with the issue of kids and technology.
I ask Hannah if she could share some of the most valuable lessons she has learnt as a mother. She cites a conversation that she had with her husband, “the leader at home” and her source of guidance and support, shortly after the birth of their first daughter in 2008, as being a key teaching point for her.
Hannah recalls an incident in the early days, of her carrying her baby daughter in one hand, with her other hand being permanently attached to her mobile phone. “[My husband] told me, it’s meaningless if I make time to be at home, present [yet] not really present with them. I might as well just go out to work. That hit me; that when I’m with them, I must make the most out of it”.
She is also a firm believer in the importance of spending quality time with her children. “If I don’t do it now, I will have to pay the price when they are teens when they rebel! It’s better to start off right. So even though I struggle a lot now, juggling my time to make sure I find that balance, I’m hoping that it will pay off when they’re older.”
Commitment, Compassion and Child-Proofing
Admittedly, achieving this ever-elusive goal of “work-life balance” is something that Hannah continues to grapple with. “I’m still adjusting and struggling with this new timetable. It just means that I really have no time for myself…[not even] two hours to just walk in a mall to destress [or] time to take an afternoon nap! I don’t think I have the answer for this, but just prioritising and make my time with them count. I don’t want my daughters not to even have any memories of me providing any meals for them, so when I have a rest day, I try. Even though I don’t have time to cook them a luxurious meal, I try and make them, at least, pasta in a pot!“, she says with a self-deprecating laugh.
Her love for her family is evident, and her commitment towards doing right by them in the best way she can is admirable, particularly given the many directions she’s often pulled away in.
Hannah’s compassion as a mother has also helped to shape her as the leader she is today. “Spending time with people matters a lot to me. I do that a lot with my residents; paying attention to the details. Being a mother helps me to be more sensitive to the needs of children. Things that I would never [have been] concerned about last time, now concern me – [like] when I’m walking up the stairs, up to Parliament, [and I wonder] “Is it child-proof? Is it safe? What are the potential dangers?”
Of Friendships and Fathers
I also raise the subject of her daughters’ multicultural heritage (they being of mixed Chinese and Indian backgrounds), at a moment in time presently fraught with undertones of simmering racial tension. Hannah is both conscious and respectful of a need to foster a love in her daughters for the beautiful diversity in Malaysia. She stresses the importance of her girls appreciating the Malay language and having friends from different communities and backgrounds from their own.
Role-modelling – Ramachandran with their 2 daughters.
When asked about her advice to fathers on how they can help to raise strong, empowered young daughters, her reply is emphatic. “Fathers need to be that protective figure for girls, to lead. They have to show a good example in marriage to their girls because they will use you as a yardstick for the life partner they choose and for the men that they will settle down with.”
Hope for the Future
Hannah’s musings on families lead, invariably, to our continued discussion about her role as Deputy Women, Family and Community Development Minister. I am curious about the intended changes that the government plans on making, in order to safeguard a more hopeful future for Malaysia.
“With regard to areas of priority, for me as Deputy [Minister], I want to put in place [safeguards for] the protection for children. The first and immediate thing we are working on is a “Working with Children Check” to ensure that every person who is going to work with children or have access to children, must go through the basic screening of [having] no [prior] convictions. We’re targeting to have that completed by 2019. We [also] need to save and use the money within the government on meaningful projects…cutting down on expenditure, partnering a lot with NGOs, not wasting unnecessary resources and just networking to share resources.”
She also credits Malaysia’s move to appoint more women leaders in key positions, such as Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and Bank Negara Governor Datuk Nor Shamsiah Mohd Yunus, as a step forward for the nation.
Addressing Social Issues
Next, I raise the fiercely debated topic of child marriage in Malaysia. Despite a growing call for the government to eradicate this practice, Hannah concedes that the issue might not be as clear-cut as it seems. “A lot of people say wipe out child marriage, without understanding [what this means]. Their minds immediately think about the 40-year-old men with 10-year-old girls, when those are not the majority cases. For grooming cases, I’m all for wiping them out and that would mean you filter it by ensuring that these people are charged for grooming. But for teenage pregnancies, teenage sweethearts- with a lack of sexual education in Malaysia…how do you resolve it?
Championing causes that keep children from harm.
“If you say no, what happens to the [unborn] child in the child’s womb? What happens to the welfare of the illegitimate child? I’m all for banning child marriage, but you have to be responsible also to all these young lives. So there are things we are working on – we need to make sure to, number one, enhance our sexual education and number two, raise the compulsory age for education [for girls in schools] to 17 [from the current age of] 12.”
The cause of working mothers and the issue of female participation in the labour force are also matters of significance to Hannah.
“To bring mothers back to work, you need to ensure that there is good support infrastructure, to ensure that their kids are taken care of. One of the first things I want to do is impose compulsory childcare in government offices. We also hope to encourage the private sectors to give subsidies to their staff, send their kids to registered childcare centres [and] encourage employers to adopt flexible working hours [or allow their staff] to work from home. We are working closely with TalentCorp Malaysia under the Ministry of Human Resource to talk about some of these issues.”
Our time for the interview is drawing to a close. Before I depart, I ask Hannah about the legacy that she hopes to leave behind – as a political leader, as well as a mother. She pauses for a moment, slightly pensive as she reflects on this question. “I think I want to leave behind a record that, during my time as a Deputy Minister, I’ve done everything I could; I’ve explored everything to make Malaysia a safer place for our children.“
She’s far from done for the day- there is another interview to attend to, immediately after this one, before Hannah heads back into Parliament for another long night. She stands up, shakes my hand and straightens her shoulders, the same shoulders that are helping to carry the weight of our nation’s future on them, before taking her leave – ever honourable, ever hardworking, ever Hannah.