Can you tell us about your cultural background, and where you were before you decided to become a politician?
I’m a really proud Asian-Australian, I’m really proud of having that as my identity. I was born in Kuala Lampur in Malaysia in 1985, and my family migrated to Australia in 1989. So I come from a Chinese-Malaysian background, with family descending originally from Fujian province in China, and so my family historically speaks Hokkien, as well as Mandarin, Cantonese, and Bahasa. My parents have taken a real special effort, like many other families, to make sure that our connection has been maintained to that part of our culture. So through, whether it’s that understanding of our cultures and traditions as well as, coming from a Malaysian background in particular, food of course is a key part of making sure that we are in touch with that part of our heritage as well. I’ve also got plenty of relatives in Malaysia, lot’s of aunties, uncles, cousins that we keep fairly regularly in contact with, so it’s really wonderful to be able to engage with that part of my heritage as well.
But moving away from the cultural background to what I was doing before I decided to run for Parliament, and run for the seat of Banks. At university I studied law and political science at the Australian National University, and since then I’ve largely had a career in the public service and in different areas of public policy. That included some time in the Australian Prime Minister’s office, when Kevin Rudd was prime minister many moons ago, as well as serving some time in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, including being an Australian diplomat where I was posted to Afghanistan. I also spent some time in the NSW Department of the Premier and Cabinet, where I worked as part of their strategy division in particular, having to set up a unit called the Behavioural Insights Unit. I also went over to the UK where I spent some time in a special unit that became a bit world-renowned, called the Behavioural Insights Team – which applied behavioural economics to different areas of public policy.
Kind of underpinning all this was a real passion, for me, in education policy. So from 2005-2008, I was a board member at the NSW Board of Studies, which was a curriculum authority in New South Wales, and being able to get that first hand experience about how curriculum decisions are made was really enlightening for me. While I was in the UK, one of the areas where I specialised in was the application of behavioural economics in education policy, and really understanding how students learn, and different techniques that teachers can employ to teach most effectively. Up until I went full time on the campaign, I was working for a body called the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, where I was the senior executive making sure that the resources the institute was providing was informed by the best evidence and research, as well as to understand the impact of what the organisation was doing. So that’s a bit of the potted history of my career in the lead up to running for the seat of Banks.
When you were part of the NSW Board of Studies, you were, was it the ACT Young Australian of the Year?
Yea, so I was Young Australian of the Year for the ACT, so that was a really humbling experience and genuinely a great honour. It was really rewarding and inspiring to meet a lot of the other candidates who won the different awards, and to see the amazing work they had been doing in their various communities. So yea, I found that experience incredibly humbling and exciting to be a part of that process.
How has your cultural background shaped the way you have interacted with politics in Australia?
I think the way that it’s kind of helped shape it is, it’s part of my identity, but it’s also helped inform my viewpoint. A big part of why I am also excited to run is to make sure that the diversity of modern Australian is represented in federal politics, and politics at all levels. So being able to run and stand up I think is really important because it is a community that needs to be a part of that representation. The Banks electorate that I’m running in has a significant Asian Australian population, and I’m looking to represent the whole of the electorate and every part of it, but I really want to give that voice to Asian Australians as part of that process as well.
So look, for me, it’s shaped it in many ways, and it’s shaped part of how I view the world as well. I think that being an Asian Australian is something I’m very proud of and something I’ll bring to being a politician, if I’m lucky enough to be elected.
Unfortunately during elections multicultural communities have been used as tools for a vote, which means that we only matter once in every four years. So definitely having more representation will mean more voices, and more opportunities for minority communities to be heard at a federal level, all the time and not just every election cycle, so it’s great that you share that sentiment.
And obviously, our parents’ generation are not always too happy with that, but we need to break that cycle of not wanting to get into politics and actually make that change ourselves.
And I understand parental concerns, it’s just they want their children to be safe and happy and healthy in many sorts of respects, but there is a way to do that, even in politics.
That’s true, and politicians are not positively represented in Asia so I can understand why a lot of Asian parents don’t want their kids to be involved. At the same time, it is very different in Australia and it’s a lot fairer, and more equitable, to participate in the political process.
How were you supported as an Asian Australian in entering the political scene?
You know, I’m not from a political family, but I have been lucky enough to have wonderful people in the community support me through becoming a political candidate. I’ve been receiving lots of support within the Labour party – whether it’s at the local level from the former federal member, Daryl Melham, here in Banks, through to former state members like Alan Ashton and Kevin Greene. Obviously at the current leadership level the Labour Party, like Anthony Albanese , has been incredibly supportive, as has Richard Marles, the deputy leader.
I was lucky enough to have Penny Wong in the electorate of Banks earlier on in the week to make an announcement with me, and then you’ve got others in adjoining electorates, like Jason Clare, Tony Burke, Linda Burney really show their support, as well as former state leaders and state premiers, who have really been able to provide their support and guidance as part of the process.
I’ve also had a wonderful and diverse set of volunteers from all backgrounds – many of which are young Asian Australians as well – who have helped out on the campaign, and continue to help out, and it has given me great encouragement that being a candidate has brought all those people into the campaign, and [for young Asian Australians] being able to see themselves being represented was really touching.
I was supporting Jason Yat Sen Li as part of the by-election here in NSW, and on the night after the election there was a get together for all of the volunteers and there was a particular gentleman who was supporting Jason. We started chatting and he said, “I can’t wait to come out and support you in Banks”, and we were just talking a little bit and he was saying how it lays the foundation for others like us to be able to run – whether it’s Jason or myself, or the Sally Sitou’s of the world. It’s words like that, whenever you have early morning starts, or late nights on the campaign train, you acknowledge that it’s the campaign in front of you, but also the broader campaign to shift the dynamics of politics in this country.
I think, especially from an Asian background, that the collectivist culture of having a community to support you, and people to support you, is a very important aspect. So it’s great to see that there’s a solidarity within the Labour Party in supporting diverse candidates in running for the election because it’s something we like to see at AAP.
I know we’ll get to it in later questions, but there’s also a bunch of stuff happening within the Labour Party to help facilitate that. Because, again, it’s recognition of how important it is.
How would you explain the lack of Asian Australian representation in Parliament, given how large the community is?
I can’t speak for all Asian Australians as to why perhaps that’s the case, but look there are some challenges that we’ve got to overcome, and in making sure we have the systems in place to do that. I think some parts of it is ensuring that people from diverse backgrounds feel like politics is something they can participate in, and making sure we remove as many of the barriers – whether it’s formal or informal – that stop people from diverse backgrounds from engaging and sticking up their hands.
I think there’s a couple of things worth reflecting on. One is making sure there is that role-modelling aspect. As is often cited in different contexts, it’s hard to aspire to something when you don’t feel like it is for people like you. So when you have the likes of Penny [Wong] at that senior cabinet level, it is an example of a senior figure within the Labour Party that can make you feel like it is a path you can go down. I think having that is really important.
Another part of it is not knowing how to navigate the political system. For a young person who has had little exposure to politics, even attending local branch meetings or political events can feel a little intimidating. In reality, I’ve seen it play out really nicely where young people have been really embraced by these meetings, but you don’t know that beforehand until you show up – so it can be quite an intimidating experience. But, as I alluded to before, there are some really exciting initiatives within the Labour Party that are trying to make sure that diversity really plays a role.
In the 2021 Labour Conference, party offices were directed to develop systems to collect information and present in its annual report to the Admin Committee poll representation in public office, and in party office positions as well. The other [initiative] I’m particularly excited about is the NSW Labour Diversity Fellowship Program which has been endorsed now to support people from diverse backgrounds to participate in the Labour Party and in politics. It’s about giving these fellows exposure to different parts of the Labour Party, alongside training and guidance to navigate the system. Again, I think that’s all really important to do that.
On a personal level, there’s stuff you have to consider – we talked about my Malaysian background – so under Section 44 of the [Australian] Constitution you have to renounce any kind of overseas citizenship as part of that process. You also have to, as part of Section 44, particularly if you’re a part of public service – whether you’re a nurse, or a teacher, a doctor in the public system, or in my case you’re working in a policy capacity – you have to step out of work. For a lot of people that is not something they can afford to do.
[On Section 44] I wouldn’t say it is becoming an issue, but it is becoming an acknowledgment that it is a lot more complex than just renouncing your citizenship. Many of my friends from Asian countries can’t get their [Australian] citizenship – or they don’t want to – because they don’t want to renounce their heritage and home country citizenship.
For them, it is a deeper tie than just a legal status. It is that connection to your culture, and your family, so giving that up for an Australian citizenship is not worth sacrificing. So it is definitely more complex, particularly for Asians where culture is passed down, and there is an expectation that you will carry it on, so I can understand how that can be a difficult situation to put some Asian Australians.
What would you say to young Asian Australians voting for the first time in this election?
I’d really encourage young Asian Australians to engage in the political process, and to understand the parties that are running, why they are running, some of the policies they are going on, and to really give serious consideration to that. Obviously I hope they give serious consideration to the Labour candidates in their areas in particular, but ultimately politics does matter.
I remember, if I can just reflect a bit on my own experience, the reason why I got interested in politics in the first place was when I realised how important it was, and the power it has to shape people’s lives. Politics affects everything – whether it’s health policy, education policy, immigration to trade – it really has that impact on people’s lives, whether you like it or not. So it’s really important that people engage in part of that process.
For me, and particularly those who might be reading this that are in the seat of Banks, they should look for candidates that can reflect their views, their perspectives, and someone who is dedicated to giving voice to some of their concerns and the issues that they’ve had. That’s a big part of why I am running. I want to give a voice to the community I grew up in and that I live in, and I want a government that thinks about the future, that cares about the education of young people and issues like the cost of living, excess billing of healthcare, and that is committed to expanding job opportunities – particularly in the COVID environment – and that will take action on things like climate change. So I encourage all young Australians, particularly Asian Australians, to think about these issues and these key questions, and look at Labour as they do that.
You’ve seen in the last few years young people have become more politically active – especially those in Years 7, 8, and 9 – and there seems to be quite a lot of cynicism and disillusion with the whole concept of government in general.
What would you say to Asian Australians who are sceptical with the process, and want more change than what is offered right now?
That goes to a big reason why I stuck up my hand to run for the seat of Banks. The way that I know how to change and shift things is to stick up your hand and be a part of that process, so I would encourage them to get involved. I know at this point it might be a trite thing to say, but decisions are made by those who show up, so I would encourage people to be active in their communities and to get involved, in one way shape or form. I know you have to balance it amongst education or work commitments, or home and family life, but it is important to involve different parts of your community.
” The way that I know how to change and shift things is to stick up your hand and be a part of that process, so I would encourage them to get involved. I know at this point it might be a trite thing to say, but decisions are made by those who show up, so I would encourage people to be active in their communities and to get involved, in one way shape or form.”Zhi Soon
If anyone who is reading is interested in politics, we’d love to have you come and join the Banks campaign. If that is what it takes to help you understand part of the process and how it works, I would love to show you what I know, and have a lot of the other volunteers do the same. I want all people, and all volunteers, when they start to campaign to give back to them as well so that they learn and develop as part of that process. So whether it’s politics or other parts of the community, I would really encourage you to get involved and get engaged, and learn how the system works. If you are frustrated by some things – get involved to shift it, and the way to do that is to stick up your hand, at least in my view.
I definitely agree. It would be difficult for some Asian Australians because we are quite passively engaged with politics. Politics, like you mentioned, affects everything – your education, your health, trade, housing affordability, so it is interesting the way Asians frame politics as if it is separate from everything else.
What advice would you give those who actually want to make a change in their community?
I think it is about understanding the issues that you are interested in, and getting that knowledge and making sure you can apply it. Learn both sides of whatever argument you are interested in, come to your view, and then get involved with part of that process – whether it’s on the politics side, or just different parts of your community. I know social media has given people new avenues of doing that as well, but at the same time get involved as well with institutions, and meeting actual people and hearing how those issues affect the different people experiencing them – [that] is really important.
Even outside of politics, if you want change in your community – talk to people. Understand the nature of the issue, how it got to the situation that it is now, and if you have a particular viewpoint of where it should be, figure out the best way to get there and who you have to talk to in order to get it to that point.
Getting into politics, or social change, can be quite overwhelming for some people. I think we are very lucky in Australia that there are so many organisations and so many opportunities where you can get involved – environmental issues, racial issues, human rights. I think that can actually be overwhelming at times, so I do think that is a good way to explore your passions and how you can get involved.
Final question – If you had to introduce one aspect of Chinese-Malaysian culture to the broader, non-Asian community, what would it be?
That’s a great one. I know food is one that’s done a lot in Asian culture, but I’m loving how much Chinese-Malaysian food – and Malaysian food in general – has started to take off in Australia. Also the broader parts of the culture – especially elements of the melting pot of cultures and how they can come together is something really exciting that Malaysians and Chinese-Malaysians can bring to the table. I guess it would be a combination of things – that sense of tradition, that food aspect, and that attitude of life and just getting on with things – which is [all] really important.
Do you have a favourite Malaysian restaurant?
There’s a place that does great Singapore Chilli Crab in Oatley that I went to not too long ago, and that was fantastic. But [I] am always on the hunt for a new laksa place, or hainan chicken place. If you’re in Sydney, there is a [laksa restaurant] on Hunters St in the city that is quite famous – in my opinion, one of the best laksa places in the world.