Hannah Yeoh on balancing politics, family life

by Gan Pei Ling, 22 Jan 2018 © The Malaysian Insight

HANNAH Yeoh made history when she was sworn in as the youngest, first female state speaker in the country at the age of 34 on June 22, 2013. She also became a mother after giving birth to her second child earlier that year.

Barely a few months into her term though, the new Selangor speaker was thrown into the deep end when PKR initiated the controversial “Kajang move” to remove Khalid Ibrahim as the Selangor menteri besar.

“That was probably the most challenging time in my five years as speaker,” Yeoh told The Malaysian Insight at her office in Shah Alam.

Nonetheless, the political dramas that ensued did not distract a focused and driven Yeoh to cement the legislative reforms her predecessor Teng Chang Khim had initiated.

In 2014, the Selangor assembly amended its standing orders to make it compulsory for the opposition leader to be made the Public Accounts Committee chairman.

The state assembly also amended its standing orders to make it mandatory to broadcast live its proceedings and to give the opposition leader a last chance to speak at the end of a sitting by introducing opposition time.

Although Selangor Barisan Nasional has not made full use of these opportunities, Yeoh said it is still important for her to push through these democratic changes to set the Selangor assembly apart from the others.

“An opportunity like this doesn’t come to an ordinary girl my age. I wanted to make full use of the time and prove that a woman can perform when we are given the opportunity to do so.”

She also introduced Adun Muda (youth assemblyman), allowing youth age between 18 and 24 to experience debating in the state assembly.

“The experience is unique to them. The whole idea is to make the state assembly a more human place. If we want to encourage young people to become lawmakers, we have to start them young.”

If there is any regret for Yeoh, it would be the failure to push through the Selangor Legislative Assembly Service Commission Enactment (Selesa) 2009 that would restore the state assembly’s financial independence.

Yeoh, who won Subang Jaya seat by 13,851 votes and 28,069 votes in 2008 and 2013, said she is contented with being an assemblyman and has no aim to become a member of parliament.

Here, she shares the challenges of being a female politician and the wisdom she has gained after a decade in politics.

TMI: Do you face challenges to your job as a speaker because of your sex?

Yeoh: Thankfully, no. I never saw it as a disadvantage. The only thing I didn’t like is the costume of the speaker. I requested for the height of the songkok to be lowered so that I look like a woman. It’s not feminine enough, that’s my only complaint.

Also, when I attended official functions with my husband, they didn’t know how to treat him. He was with the wives of the other excos (executive councillors). It was awkward in the beginning.

TMI: How is the relationship between you and the menteri besar?

Yeoh: I think it’s a healthy tension that every speaker needs to have with the head of the executive. I will be more worried if the speaker feels indebted to the head of the executive.

Azmin Ali is a very hands-on menteri besar. He is always in the house. He takes down notes as the assemblymen are debating.

The house becomes a real platform for assemblymen to raise issues when they know the head of executive is there listening.

I think Selangor and Penang have also worked out a good model where the head of legislative and executive come from different parties.

TMI: You joined politics in 2008. It has been almost 10 years. Can you share some of the key lessons learnt?

Yeoh: I think politics have done a lot of good for my soul. My stress level is a lot better compared with when I was a lawyer.

Last time, I would have been easily stressed out by a nasty email. Now I have learnt not to take it personally. You know you have to deal with malicious lies and full-time cybertroopers who will use your faith as a weapon against you.

After I gave birth, I gained weight and they would always choose the fattest photo, who would want that permanently on the internet?

(But) when you are faced with this kind of challenges every day, you have to force yourself to remain sane. You cannot be stressed out.

You have to be very disciplined at what you carry at the back of your head when you go home. I’m also a mother and a wife, if I allow that kind of stress to affect me then I cannot function as a mother.

As a working mother, when I’m at work, I feel guilty for not being with my children and when I’m with my children, I feel guilty for not being at work. I don’t know whether other working women have that kind of tension within them, but I definitely do.

TMI: Have your children or husband complained?

Yeoh: My children are not old enough yet to physically stop me from going out. But they have asked me why do I have to work at night.

Weekends are supposed to be family time but as a politician, we are expected to work over the weekend.

My husband always says we have to be fair to our kids. They never signed up for a public life. Finding the work-life balance is crucial.

I have not been the perfect mother. There is a lot of room for improvement. It’s still work in progress.

TMI: Is your husband supportive?

Yeoh: I don’t think I can find a more supportive spouse in my role as an assemblyman and as a speaker.

I think it’s crucial for women in politics to have a spouse who is equally interested in politics. I can discuss politics with my husband.

I tell a lot of single women who want to join politics, you have to make sure your spouse will understand you. The work is very demanding and time consuming.

I think with the right support structure – family, spouse, party and coalition, you can flourish.

TMI: Does this mean you will stay in politics?

Yeoh: I will continue for as long as I’m needed. I think the danger of people who see politics as their life calling is that you can overstay when the people don’t want you any more.

There are a lot of politicians who feel entitled, that they need to continue, that the nation needs them. I actually look forward to the time when I’m no longer needed.

There are some politicians who don’t know what to do if they are not in politics. I don’t ever want to be that. I don’t want to change who I am just to win power or win votes.

I surround myself with people who can still speak to me and tell me to my face “no you’re doing the wrong thing”. (Laughs) I have a lot of friends like that. It keeps you grounded. It’s so important.

Don’t change your friends when you’re in power.

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