Can you tell us about your cultural background, and where you were before you decided to enter politics?
I was born in Malaysia and my father was Malaysian-Chinese. His dad was Cantonese and his mother, my grandmother, was Hakka. My dad had a scholarship to study at Adelaide University, where he met my mum, who was from an anglo-Australian background and she lived on a farm. My parents got married when the White Australia policy was still in place, so it was an unusual set of circumstances. My grandmother took care of me often when I was younger as Mum went back to work. My parents separated when I was eight, and mum and my younger brother and I came to Adelaide.
I always knew I wanted to do something that made a difference, due to my experience early on with racism and prejudice when I came to Australia. I probably reacted to that in two ways. One was; I thought I was just going to beat them in everything. I suppose it’s not a very mature response but at least it was constructive. The second one was that I developed very early on that I wanted a life where I worked for change. And I didn’t really know what that meant, obviously when you’re younger. As lots of good, young Chinese girls do, I studied a Master of Chemistry and got into Medicine and decided it was a bad idea as I didn’t like the sight of blood. The idea behind it was I thought I’d work for Médecins Sans Frontières, or an organisation like that. I ended up doing law and got involved in the Labor party.
Although I got into parliament young, I didn’t start in my 20s thinking I definitely wanted to be in parliament. I had my doubts on whether you could actually affect change and would it be better to be a lawyer or work in areas representing people who didn’t have a voice, or work in human rights or something similar. I suppose over time what I came to realise is that politics is not perfect and you almost never get precisely the outcome you want, but decisions are better for Labor governments, and decisions are better for good people being in the room, and I made the decision that I wanted to be in the room.
I think that’s a common theme we heard a lot from the politicians we spoke to, that you have to be in the room first in order to make change.
How does your cultural background shape the way you’ve interacted with Australian politics?
I think it’s been central to my personal and perceived identity, and of course the latter means it’s been a vector for abuse and discrimination. In that way, it is defining because your response to that is such a central part of your identity and your work. It’s interesting over time actually. When I first went into parliament I had a lot more grief about being Asian, and then through the Gillard period I got grief about being female, and then through marriage equality I got grief about being gay. It’s interesting to observe the extent of which prejudice and discrimination can be fermented. I always think there are some people who are just bigoted, but they are the minorities. For most people, prejudice does not survive personal engagement and personal relationships. It also reminds us that what is condoned, what is accepted and what is said by leaders does have an effect of shaping those norms and attitudes in society, and influences what people think they can and can’t say and do.
” What is condoned, what is accepted and what is said by leaders does have an effect of shaping those norms and attitudes in society, and influences what people think they can and can’t say and do. “Penny Wong
The White Australia policy ended in our lifetime so it wasn’t even that long ago. We’re quite close in the timelines of people’s lives, and it’s an interesting thing to think about in the history of Australia.
How are you supported as an Asian-Australian in entering the political scene, considering that you entered in the 90s and early 2000s?
My party supported me for number 1 on the Senate ticket. In terms of institutional support, that’s been really strong from the Labor party. It was a difficult period. I remember when I first went to Parliament and I rang my mum and said there was ‘Tsebin Tchen who was the Taiwanese senator for just one term. There’s the woman in the library and the cleaner and I, who were Asian. It was possibly an exaggeration but that was my perception. It was one of those places you walked around and you think ‘wow there is really nobody who looks like me and nobody is Asian here’. It has taken a very long time for parliament to start to better reflect the community in terms of cultural diversity. We have a lot more Asian-Australians running in this election and I think it’s a great thing.
It was a really lovely moment when I went to the Seat of Banks in Riverwood and spoke to Xian Zhi Soon. He’s from Malaysia and I felt really moved actually, and felt emotional that this was the first time there was someone in a seat (from a similar ethnic background). I told him he’s like my younger cousin. I also went to Sally Sitou who’s running for Reid who’s of Chinese heritage but from Laos. She is so energetic and committed, and I think it’s a really wonderful addition to our caucus. I feel both moved and glad we have your generation running.
How would you explain the lack of Asian-Australian representation in parliament given how large the community is?
I posit two streams of explanations. First is, in the political sphere, I don’t think political parties… as is always the case, changing communities takes time to translate into institutions and political parties have taken longer than you might have hoped to translate or reflect the change in the composition of our community in their own political party composition. That lag is not unusual. You can see the same phenomenon with women- its community, leadership in the community, the changing role of women in society, then the change within political parties takes time and women entering parliament. But that does not explain sufficiently how long it has taken. I suspect there’s some attitudes in the community that may have been against it. I didn’t run for the House of Representatives because of my race, and bisexuality, but I think race was a bigger thing.
I think the 2nd point is one that one of you had touched on. A lot of Asian Australians and communities for cultural and historical reasons are not going to see politics as a valued choice. There’s a number of reasons. If you think about where the different Asian communities have come from, a lot of communities would have come from countries where politics is not a secure way to provide for your family. A lot of people would come from circumstances or made the choice to leave for example because the political context/institutions were not reliable. If one of the first priorities for migrant families is security and being able to provide for yourself, you can understand why it would not be your first priority. I was probably a part of that. Financial security matters more and the ability to be secure no matter what the government does. From my perspective, my father wanted me to focus on my education as that is one thing they cannot take away from you. That was about resilience and security in the face of the State not doing the right thing.
I think another aspect of it, and why it’s not surprising that there have been more second-generation Asian-Australians entering politics than first-generation, is because I think it has been harder for people who were first generation migrants to become accepted more broadly as good political leaders. If you are someone like Zhi Soon and you have a very personal understanding of the broader Australian culture, you can put people at ease, it makes it harder for the kind of discrimination and prejudice to be applied. A lot of Asian-Australians from my generation became commercial solicitors, they didn’t become barristers. I think it was a judgement about how they might navigate that.
That’s a very interesting insight. I definitely agree with financial security, and I don’t want to over-generalise but Asian parents tend to want the best for their kids. And sometimes that means wanting them to have the best job with financial security. Like you said, it’s resilience in the face of instability and sometimes that is not necessarily guaranteed, particularly if you are in politics as well.
If you had to introduce one aspect of Chinese-Malaysian culture to the broader non-asian community what would it be?
The care and respect of the older generation. I think about my grandmother, and admittedly in Malaysia there aren’t strong support systems. She was cared for by my cousins who lived in the same house until the day she died. We aren’t set up like that here but I think about the care and respect from my culture.
There was a documentary that showed an aged care facility that brought four year olds in. There was a woman there who had 2-3 kids and a number of grandkids and no one had visited her in months. It was incomprehensible to me.
Talking to my grandparents about aged care seems like a really touchy subject. Deep down I know we have to look after them. It’s a really interesting dichotomy between the aged care system in Australia and how we perceive our relationships with our older generations. It’s a really nice thing to reflect on.