Chetan Sahai

चेतन सहाय

Can you tell us a bit about your cultural background and where you were before deciding to become/run as a politician?

Both parents are of Indian descent, my father is from Bihar and my mother is from Sindh. My grandparents had to flee during the partition, there was lots of fighting and riots and they were leaving with their clothes on their back. I haven’t been back to that country, as a result of that tragedy of British imperialism which had decided the fate of millions of Indians. My parents met in India, and moved to Singapore where they raised his older brothers. They moved to Australia in 1992, which was after I was born. I was raised in Melbourne, born in Bahrain. We settled in 1999 in Sydney, I did high school and university in Sydney. I got my engineering degree, I did chemical engineering and computer science. I worked in a software engineer as a product manager. Then halfway through last year, I reached a point where I was ticking all the boxes and having a well earning salary in a prestigious career. However, there was no possibility that I could buy my own house, which means my wife and I would not be able to settle down. Having a house and children would not be in the question at this point.

There was recognition that the way things are going, we’re not able to fulfil our potential of having a house and family. It really comes down to the structural issues, it comes down to the political space, and it also comes back to the parents about ‘work hard to get where you are’, and that promise is falling away and is false. It’s not in terms of housing affordability, but also the cost of living and climate change. Our lives will be more difficult than our parents, dealing with climate change, drought, conflict etc. I got to a point where I could continue into the private sector, but what I want to do is help. It doesn’t take much to look at Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott who don’t care about leadership in this country. I need to do it or else I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. I can’t be the best version of myself when there are people who are suffering much more than me and those problems are much more acute. I have had the luxury of working from home but so many people don’t have that and are at the front line.

How does your cultural background shaped the way you engaged/looked with Australian politics

I think my experience is quite common from those from an Asian Australian background. For my parents to live in this country, we have an extremely racist immigration system that is biased against those from South Asian or an Asian background being able to get a visa to work here, to get permanent residency or citizenship. So for my parents it was the case getting in via that skilled migration program which essentially is having to prove your worth to the economy and it’s only at the leisure of the system that you’re allowed to be and to be somewhat considered equal. That really influenced my parents’ perspective on what it means to be here: you have to fight and earn your right to be here because you’re constantly under threat. There’s an implicity understanding as much as Australia likes to think of itself as a multicultural melting pot, it is very much of a case that if you’re non-white, you’re not quite a second class citizen but you’re never treated as full equal or fully Australian. No one will accept your answer if you look like me and they ask ‘Where do you come from?’ and I would say ‘Australia’. It is something we all understand implicitly even though we don’t talk about it all the time. So for me growing up in that kind of environment: hyper competitive, it’s all about getting the best grades, getting the best job, it’s about earning your way in this economic system to earn a right to live a life of dignity and be able to be the person you want to be. I don’t know if it’s my personality, but it didn’t really gel with me. I did all those things: got good grades, went to uni, got a good job but I didn’t really like the idea of going down a certain path just to earn the right to exist. I don’t think anyone should have to go through that. As a human being, it should be a human right that you are treated with dignity and respect no matter your background. We should have to go through this eugenics hoop jumping thinking to be able to justify your own existence. I was always at a tension with that idea. 

Politics is one of those things that is considered a luxury, the thing that rich white lawyers get into, not something that hard working immigrants get involved with, because that’s not how you earn the right to be a part of this country. Nonetheless, that is where the decisions are made and what are the terms of which you are part of society. That is where all the racism comes from, the discrimination and colonial mindset of this society was born and bred. When I returned here as a primary school kid, it was around the time where Pauline Hanson was making a big splash in the late 90’s. For me who came from Dubai where there was a mix of different people from different backgrounds and no one care if you had a different accent or if you were Hindu or Muslim. Coming into Melbourne, mostly a white school, the politics of Pauline Hanson was amplified and taken seriously, I was put into the world where I was the outsider and the problem. Where people around were thinking of me using that ‘yellow peril’ mentality which has been around since the 1850’s, which says ‘you don’t really belong here’. As a child, that instilled a sense of injustice but it was a political class that was making sense of it and they were happy to throw us to the wolves if it gets them elected. That is the cycle of racism and discrimination that exists in this country, and that’s something I want to break. I know there will be backlash and people who won’t be particularly happy about it but I’m willing to put my neck on the line, again, if I don’t do it, who will?

Chetan dressed in traditional Indian garments (Achkan) at wedding ceremony.
Photo Provided By: Chetan Sahai.

How were you supported as an Asian Australian in/contending to be part of the political scene?

2019 was the first time that I really got involved in politics in a small way. Before then, I had never gone to a branch meeting but I attended a few protests here and there. In 2019, I went to an extinction rebellion and other activist groups, and one of the things I noticed was how white those spaces are. As you said, politics are not becoming for people of immigrant backgrounds, it is the domain for the white majority who might mean well. When I decided to join the Green Party, one of the big inspirations for me was Mehreen Faruqi, Senator for NSW, and member of my local group in South Sydney. I went to my local group meeting and she was there just as a member contributing and being a leader in all ways, being someone who had the backing of the party in a formal and informal sense, as she had people’s trust and believed in her even though she did not look like them. Also Jenny Leong, our state representative for Newtown, who is also part of my local group. The leaders are not the same type of person. A lot of the elected members are white, generally white men, at least I could see that it didn’t always have to be that way. That I could see people from similar different backgrounds or outsiders like me who are empowered and supported. It was one of the things that made me think, ‘I could do this’. There was no hesitation or doubt if I wanted to run or wanted to be actively involved, no suggestion that I couldn’t do that. It was implicitly supported and that was really great. And I know that is not the case at every place, questions asked such as ‘would electors vote for a brown or muslim or Asian person?’, those questions never came up, it was the case of ‘people thought you were the best candidate and you should go for it’. I think the political class is generally 20-30 years behind everyone, so they think it’s progressive to have the Labor Leader from an Italian background but it’s not 1970 anymore so it’s actually not that progressive and people don’t think that anymore. These are the same people who say ‘you got a name we can’t pronounce’ or ‘a skin colour we don’t trust’, ‘we don’t want to risk putting you out there’ when in reality, voters are way past that, and yes, there are a small handful of people who are still stuck in their ways. For the most part, I think the electorate has changed significantly for the most part than what the  lot of the political establishment want us to believe.

How would you explain the lack of Asian Australian representation in Parliament/why is there such a lack of Asian Australian representation, given how large the community is?

Two word answer: white supremacy. The broader answer is that we are still not even two generations removed from the White Australia policy. Even today, our immigration system is jumping through hoops and needing to prove yourself, especially those from Asian descent compared to those from European descent. It is a case of ‘you need to assimilate or you don’t have the right to be here’. That is very alienating to people and imbue this psychology, that if you try to rock the boat you can get kicked out. People like Peter Dutton are more than happy to do fufil that promise, he loves to talk to talk about ‘stripping people of their citizenship’ if they find themselves on the wrong side of the law. But I think even more than that, which is section 44 of the Constitution, you cannot hold dual citizenship, for a lot of people, you want to hold dual citizenship so you can visit your family, and maintain a connection to your heritage in a way that would otherwise be very difficult. Luckily for me, India doesn’t allow for dual citizenship but it can become an issue. But for the Constitution to say you are not allowed to maintain connection to your country of heritage, it ends up dissuading people who are keen to be involved in the political system but are from migrant backgrounds from making that jump. Baked in our constitution, in our immigration, in our political parties. Let us not forget that the White Australia Policy was brought by the Labor Government back in the day. At the end of the day they’ll do whatever is politically necessary, just like the Liberal Government. It’s people from non white backgrounds that will get thrown under the bus, they don’t value us as equals.

Were/Are there any barriers you’ve had to face? And what were they?

For me the biggest problem was the Section 44 issue, where I had to dig into my parents ancestry and find out when my grandparents were born, where they were born, and when they get citizenship. Essentially to prove my allegiance or loyalty to the Australian State. For me, it wasn’t that bad, but I know it can be for other people but I know it’s still a lot of work. It does make you question your place and I didn’t realise how confronting it would be to prove who my parents are, who my spouse and her family were, give them all this information to them and to prove that they were all Australian. Luckily I’m in a party and area where I’m not facing much discrimination or barriers within my party. And I think as well Sydney is a very multicultural seat, people don’t bat an eyelid when they see someone like me going up to talk to them about politics and asking for their vote. If anything, I’ve seen positive responses towards people with Asian, or South Asian backgrounds in particular who are excited to see someone who looks like me, who looks like them, standing up and asking them to be counted. I think I’ve had a pretty good time, but I know that’s not certainly the case in other parts of the country or in other political parties either. 

What would you say to Asian Australians who are voting for the first time in this election?

That there is a better way. I can understand being cynical and thinking that you know we have to rely on the two party system and the best that we can get is kind of the bare minimum but I think it is possible. Luckily, we have a preferential voting system, that means that you can vote for candidates who actually care about issues of discrimination, of anti-racism, of climate change, and housing affordability. These things that make it that are making it harder just to get by they can be addressed, the main parties don’t have any imagination to be able to address them but there are options for you. I mean obviously I would say the Greens are that option, but essentially that only way that you’re going to see meaningful change is to really get yourself involved and to understand who you’re voting for and what they’re about and to put pressure on them to speak out because I know what it feels like as the candidate.

A lot of people reach out to me to find out what I’m standing for, what I believe in, to push me on things and to pin down a position on certain things and it’s very rare that is coming from communities of colour, it’s very often a particular type of person who feels empowered by the political system, which is generally all the white people. They get what they want for that reason. So I would really encourage people from Asian Australian backgrounds that if you see something and you have a problem with it or if you’re wondering why it’s going to be so hard for your kids to be able to live in the same suburb as you, and to raise your grandkids nearby to get yourself involved. If politicians don’t hear from you and you’re not making your voice heard, they’re not going to do anything about it for the most part, at least from the major parties. The best thing you can do is just get as involved as you can. Wear your politics on your sleeve as well. I think there’s this culture in this country of not talking about politics, it’s considered rude or passe but the more you talk about politics, the more normalised it will be. People will realise that something needs to be done and you can actually affect political change.

Politicians if they don’t hear you if you’re not making your voice heard they’re not going to do anything about it for the most part released from the major parties and so yeah the best thing you can do is just get as involved as you can into wear your politics on your sleeve as well I think there’s a culture in this country of not talking about politics it’s considered rude or it’s considered passe but the more you talk about politics the more normalised it will be in the more people will realise that something needs to be done and you can actually affect political change

What advice would you give to those who want to make a change in their community?

I think getting involved as much as you can in community activism is what you can do. Pretty much everywhere you go in this country there’s going to be some issues-based campaign going on. In my area it is to save public housing, in certain other places it is to prevent land clearing. There are groups of people who care, who are coming together but, they are often the same types of people, which is often older white people, who again, have already felt empowered enough to feel that their voice matters. I think it’s a tough thing to internalise, but it is something that has to be internalised, which is that your voice matters too and if there are issues that you care about that no one else is talking about, you actually have the ability to start organising or find groups to help you organise around those issues. I think in particular groups like Democracy In Colour, groups like your own as well, where they talk about issues such as anti-racism and discrimination. If you just want to be in an environment that’s not dominated by white privilege, seek out those spaces and if they don’t exist, to do as much as you can to create them in whatever group you are in. Whether that’s in your workplace, in a union, or in your school, to try to create those spaces where you can have the tough conversations. I think that’s too often something that is undervalued. The ability to just be able to talk through things to convey your point of view and to analyse and interrogate the political system and the decisions that are made on your behalf that you don’t agree with.

” If you just want to be in an environment that’s not dominated by white privilege, seek out those spaces and if they don’t exist, to do as much as you can to create them in whatever group you are in. “

Chetan Sahai

I think on a higher level, what we would need is to do as much as possible and, you touched on this as well at the start of the interview, is to build solidarity between and across cultures. Whether we like it or not, a lot of the differences that exist outside of Australia between someone from India versus someone who’s Chinese Malaysian versus someone who’s Vietnamese, a lot of those differences start to evaporate as soon as you step foot in this country. Though we certainly should be seeking to hold onto our cultures to the fullest possible extent, we also have to recognise that we were fighting the same battle and we’re only going to get crushed if we don’t stand together against white supremacy. Even though we have our differences, we have our different cultures, we don’t speak the same languages, we should still strive to stand together against the machine of colonialism that is operating in this country and its political system in society because if we don’t do that, at best, it will be assimilation but worst it could go in any direction if we don’t speak up or stand up.   

If you had to introduce one aspect of Indian culture to the broader non-Asian what would it be?

That’s a very good question. I think the culture around weddings, maybe it’s just because I really love Indian weddings, but I tend to find Christian weddings a little bit dry. I like the party atmosphere that Indian weddings have, where you’re just having a good time. Yes the bride and groom are doing whatever it is that they’re doing and all that sort of stuff but everyone else is just hanging out having a good time, eating food, chatting, listening to music versus the kind of sombreness of the occasion. I guess a Christian wedding it’s all very quiet, there’s organ music where no one’s allowed to speak, the children have to stop fidgeting all that sort of stuff. What I love about Indian culture, in that way, is that people are just free to be who they are, whenever and whatever they want. If it’s a wedding, it’s going to be a celebration, so why not just let loose and do whatever you feel like. Make as much noise as you want, let the kids run around, and the bride and groom, they’ll be dealt with, don’t worry about that

2 responses to “Chetan Sahai”

  1. […] that’s something that Chetan said as well. Like, that often or not, the current state of, I guess Australian politics is like an […]

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