Can you tell us a bit about your cultural background and where you were before deciding to become/run as a politician?
My cultural background – I’m Southeast Asian, my family is from India. I’m from a pure conservative catholic Indian family. As kids, we used to go to church almost everyday and specifically Sundays as well. That’s how I was brought up. Those values are always with me because I think that the principle of this is to serve the people rather than be served yourself. Before politics, I’ve had a wide spread of experiences, both in terms of career and life. My father had a serious health issue – he went on to become permanently disabled when I was a very young age. I’m the eldest of my siblings. How it works in India, my father is the sole worker, the women don’t normally go out of home to work. My father was disabled and had kidney issues. So he was on dialysis and had subsequent issues relating to that, and there were a lot of bills because of that. So in 10th grade I had to leave studies for two almost two years and I was working just for survival. It was very hard for a young person who hadn’t even entered society to get into working culture. It was very difficult because there were 4 of us plus medical bills. My mother used to work as a domestic help. My father, to afford the medical bills for his kidney issues and other issues, was a huge struggle. We also relied on charitable trusts. There was one charity that helped us that allowed us to complete our education. I completed a Bachelor of Engineering and Bachelor of Information Technology and went on to work with one of the biggest MNC software developers. That’s when life really changed for me. That is an experience which I carry as motivation for helping people. There is a lot of struggle and pain in life and you have to go through it at a certain point. That’s an experience that I bring forward, that I was able to overcome at a young age and I was able to learn the importance of being social. From there I did an online degree in policy development. I worked with the UNHCR, I worked this Southeast Asian, Sri Lankan, and Tamil refugees, I also worked with Muslim refugees who migrated from Myanmar I helped in regard to promoting these groups and education and sanitation, which is always a major concern there. After that I worked on the UN sustainability projects in which I worked with major organisations in India to understand strategies for reducing carbon emissions as a third world country.
In 2013 I migrated to Sydney, Australia. I had a similar experience here. In India I had a settled life. When I came to Australia, I had to start from scratch. I had little support and social life. I started off working as a medical service coordinator, working 12 hours every day. I was not sure if I was in the right career for me, which is when I had an interview in Melbourne for a public sector organisation, water utilities firm, Southeast Water. I’ve been working with them for the past 7-8 years.
I’m always a positive person, which is the main lesson I learnt through all my experiences. I want to keep encouraging and empowering people. I want people to be able to empower themselves. And if I can help, I believe that that’s the best thing I can do in my life.
It sounds like you are a resilient person, and that from childhood it has shaped your worldview, especially the values of ‘serving not be served’ into adulthood.
I just wanted to add one thing. What I believe is that politics is not a job but an experience. I believe a politician should be someone from an ordinary background. We can have bureaucrats who but a politician should be an ordinary person who understands people and not necessarily someone who holds a lot of power. Someone who comes from from filthy rich background or from a large organisation won’t necessarily understand the issues of ordinary people or how to resolve these issues.
How does your cultural background shaped the way you engaged/looked with Australian politics
From someone who comes from a third world country, you see so much social inequality when it comes to power or exercising your own rights. You still feel like a minority and you’re struggling for your own rights, you also do not have proper education and you are struggling to make ends meet. That’s what I’ve learnt from being in that situation. We only think that these issues exist in developing countries or stay in those countries but when you migrate and see the reality you feel almost the same. Nothing has changed. We are still considered as minorities, we are not given a chance to move on in life. Even if we want to be in positions of power, we are currently not. I don’t think political parties encourage minorities to be in power, they don’t want to see it because they think that’s people’s choices. There’s huge discrimination around us even in immigration of us, it’s a widespread example. A recent example is with the Ukrainian refugees, and I’m not saying they don’t deserve protection but Western countries are one step ahead because they are European refugees. They don’t think about whether they speak English or not, or whether they are educated. But when it comes to us, they need to understand everything, they do a background check and whether we can assimilate into this community. And most people think that we come to ‘steal their jobs’.
I was talking to the Afghani community in my area and they told me that they have had racist slurs directed at them, such as ‘they should not be in this country’, ‘they are not Australian’, and, ‘they should not use their welfare money’. Coming from a conservative Christian family but also from a South Asian background, I believe that this is something we have to do, change people’s mindset. I ask my Australian friends, ‘Do you know anything about Asia?’ and they only know about Bali, but they know a lot about the United Kingdom and Germany. But do they know about Sri Lanka, what do you know about them? Do they know about Indian culture, what do you know about that? No one knows and no one is interested to know. That’s the thing I’m struggling with. The Chinese community in Australia have been treated badly as well, and I’m surprised because the Chinese were one of the first immigrant groups to come here and it is shocking that they are projected as bad people. I’m not sure why the hysteria has been created like that. We can’t base our opinions on bad people that are in government in China and that all people from China are criminals. So that type of mindset needs to change, and that can only be changed if people from our background are in politics or are in power, because it shows to people that we can be good people as well.
How were you supported as an Asian Australian in/contending to be part of the political scene?
Politics is something I was always interested in, but I didn’t know how to get into politics. I would say it just ‘happened’, I did a policy program at St Vincent’s de Paul and then one of my friends who is close with Samantha Ratnam, and from that I knew I wanted to join the Greens. They are definitely promoting a healthier society which is not biased against any particular community. Suddenly, it was the election and the preselected candidates for the area, so it was a bit of a shock when they asked me if I was okay to stand in for Holt. And I asked, ‘are you sure?’. The Greens are a very dominantly white party, there are very few Brown or Asian people. It was also partly because I wanted to do some groundwork before I entered into politics, so this suddenly all happened to me. And I took it with both hands. And they thought Holt is a multicultural community, as there is a large South Asian community here. In Cranbourne, it is still quite white dominated but the new estates in Clyde North and Hampton Park have growing multicultural communities that are moving from Dandenong.
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?
If we’re talking about our community as an example, when we migrate it’s not a simple migration (in terms of just moving from A to B). When we migrate we either are migrating as a student, or a skilled migrant. We come from that culture where we reply on work, we’ve never given importance or thoughts to politics. Same with the Indian community, they’re happy to go to work and come back and relax with family and friends, and that’s the end of the story there. I was surprised when I asked, ‘what is the interest in politics’, 80 out of 100 would say they had no interest. When I asked, ‘do you know who your local MP?’ majority of them did not know, when I asked ‘which party is representing your electorate?’ they also didn’t know that, nor did they know about the politics of the party representing their electorate. This is an example of misinformation that is rife within the community, and we need to educate the community. If you’re never educated, you will never be interested in particular things. It’s not only about what you gain but also what you can share. It is something I strongly believe. People don’t feel comfortable to come out of their box, and politics is something where you have to be in front of people and the media. It’s a really demanding profession, and they don’t want to step out of their box to feel uncomfortable. English language ability is also a problem as well, because people make fun of our English.
That’s the mindset, but that’s not because people are comfortable but we’re actually not actually making them comfortable as well. I was talking to an Asian community member, and they asked, ‘what benefit would I get from voting (as an Asian) when there’s such a large cultural difference between myself and the majority Australian population?’. Change has to start someone, if you sit back and relax and think a white political leader is going to make a difference for us, no they’re not. They’re never going to understand our community or culture. Someone from our community who understands our culture can only make a difference for us. That’s why you need to come out and vote. You don’t need to be a political candidate, you can still participate by casting your vote and showing the strength of the community. I told him that, and that’s when he changed his mindset, to him it made more sense. So if people are in positions of power, that’s when we would see policy differences. You have to foster a community so the Asian community can rely, believe and trust someone.
Were/Are there any barriers you’ve had to face? And what were they?
There were barriers so I wouldn’t say it was a smooth run. Most of the barriers were racism as it still persists in Australia. Australia is such a diverse and multicultural society, it’s a lot more accepting than most other countries, however in actual fact there are always people who are pro-white majority. The Greens, which is a white dominated party, have to accept me and I have to accept their ideology and include that into my personal beliefs. This is how it is. When you’re a candidate or a person in power but you’re not from the majority culture or community, it’s hard to convince people. But that’s the barrier that most of us find ourselves in. No one would like someone who’s leading them that is not necessarily from the same culture or community. When I see barriers, I see a gap between the way people think.
When I went door knocking to meet people, they’re a bit reluctant to have a chat versus when a white person goes and door knocks, the person is happy to have a chat. There are people who make comments when we post on social media, racist slurs such as ‘you don’t belong in this country’ or ‘go back home to your country’. The mindset is the issue. When we say we’re a multicultural country, are we saying this to integrate and form a unify Australia? Is this something that is actually happening? If so, why are there still crimes against Asian people? Why are they still crimes against people who follow different faiths or religions? Those questions I find are still unanswered but hopefully with the new generation they are a lot more accepting and open minded.
When I went to Monash University once, the students were really open hearted and listened whereas when I’m in the community meeting families, there is a clear gap between opinions between the kids and the parents. There is a bit of positive change, but we need to do a lot more. But I don’t think it’s we that need to do a lot more, it’s they who need to do a lot more. We have done a lot, we have contributed a lot and given too much to this society, but it is now their turn to accept us. We don’t have to change for them to accept us. I don’t think a person should be judged on how well they can speak English, there’s no sense in that. I can understand that this is an English speaking country but I don’t think that should be a standard to judge someone on. These barriers are something I’ve felt and faced. I have only to look at the positive outcomes, I believe that we don’t have to change but society has to change to accept us the way we are.
What would you say to Asian Australians who are voting for the first time in this election?
They should exercise their vote. For young Asian Australians, I would say whoever you vote for, you should do some research beforehand. Not only on the party and their policies but also the individual as well. What sort of benefits do you get from voting this person in? Don’t go with your own community, I’m not saying you should only vote for someone from the South Asian community only but whoever is running is going to represent you. That person will become your voice, and for them to become your voice, you need to vote. You also need to question those people in power as well, say ‘so I voted for you, what sort of difference have you made since then?’. These questions I would encourage you to ask them. At the end of the day, young people need a secure job, good healthy life, housing for future families, and financial stability. I’m not sure when we’ll find financial stability for young people, they’re still relying on their parents to support them which is very sad. Education is also one of the most important thing and one of the most basic human rights. Everybody deserves an education. Education should be free, why should you need to pay for that? At the end of the day, when you educate a person, you benefit a country and an economy. If you’re charging for that service and making students go into debt, that’s not how a country will be able to progress because you’re not thinking about the future. These are strong points which I would like young people to ask. Am I voting for the right party? Am I voting for the right candidate? Are they doing anything for my future? So that’s what I would say to them.
What advice would you give to those who want to make a change in their community?
Being politically active is one of the biggest ways to contribute. For example, your organisation is one of the biggest and brightest examples of that, you’re not actually joining politics but you’re running a campaign forcing people to come out and speak. Those voices are coming out and those voices need to be heard by people in power. As a migrant community, we have a voice, and that voice is being represented by young people like you. At the end of the day, that’s what I believe. That’s where we can change, doesn’t mean you have to enter politics to make change but you can connect with the community and support those people in the community who are in politics, and ask them questions. Questions such as, ‘so you’re a South Asian member of parliament or someone in leadership?’ you can ask them ‘what have you done for us?’. That’s where the change happens. To start there is important, to ensure we have a voice first. Another way is also to build relationships in the community. It’s not about just celebrating cultural events, it should not just be limited to cultural events. People are very much happy to get funding to celebrate cultural events but that is not where all connections are formed, it’s only one part. I was talking to the Indian community when they were celebrating Holi, but there were only Indian people there. How is a connection going to be formed if there’s only Indian people there? We are not forming any connections with the outside world? We’re only connecting with people who come to celebrate Holi. When I asked my white friend if they know about Holi and they don’t know anything about that. Is that how we want to make our community visible to people? I don’t want our community and connections to be limited to cultural events. All these parties only think about that. I want our communities to come out and have proper engagement not just through social media but physical engagement, and impart knowledge about our culture but also to say ‘this is what is happening in politics, these are your rights’. You don’t have to listen to one particular cultural group who’s organising those events, there’s a broader and wider community out there. Communities need to feel free and not be afraid of raising their voices. Because if they raise their voices, they should know there are people to support them or there is someone in power to support them. That’s the type of thing I want to see in society.
If you had to introduce one aspect of Indian culture to the broader non-Asian community what would it be?
The mindset of Indian culture is to be accepting. Our boundaries are not closed to any particular thing. Politics paints us and the Chinese as being hostile but the mindset of normal and ordinary people is not that. The community I come from is particularly accepting of every community. That’s how it is. It’s about emphasising one common goal in the community. How are we going to make an effort if we look at other communities and only see differences? If we are going to unify we need a common goal. Ultimately, there will be differences but we can have conversations and just talk about how we can reach a common goal. Our enemies are climate change, student debt, medical care, and social inequality. Those issues are much more important than any cultural differences
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