Comfortable in Her Skin – Teo Nie Ching

First-time Member of Parliament for Serdang Teo Nie Ching was quietly serving her voters until she became a household name after her recent visit to a surau was somehow deemed as “insulting to Islam” by some factions. She spoke to The Rocket on what being a Malaysian should mean and why politics matters despite the challenges.

What made you interested in politics and DAP?

My father was active in DAP for many decades so when I was young, I often heard his views on various current issues. This is where my interest in politics began to grow and as a part of the debate team in secondary school, controversial issues of human rights and politics were a common topic of discussion.

So through this I began to gain knowledge about what was happening in my country and unlike many young people who may feel reluctant to get involved in politics or feel indifferent, I found it interesting. I also began to wonder about some of the unfairness that was occurring in Malaysia.
As I had grown up attending DAP dinners and was familiar with it, I knew that if I ever joined a party, it would be DAP. My father had been in the Labour Party before it was dissolved and then he joined DAP. He is very open in terms of politics and always encouraged me to get involved. He particularly likes Fong Po Kuan (MP for Batu Gajah) and always wanted me to be like her! (laughs)

My father didn’t mind if I joined DAP or another party such as MCA because he just felt that politics is a fundamental way to change the current situation. Previously I did think of MCA because DAP used to only be the Opposition whereas MCA was a governing party and had more power to create changes.

But as I grew up, I realised that many of our country’s problems stemmed from not having a two-party system. I believe we can never trust one government for too long because absolute power breeds absolute corruption. For the sake of check-and-balance, I decided to join an Opposition party instead. Of course, today the political situation has changed and the Opposition is now also the government in some states. But it is important for this to happen at the federal level as well.

In 2010, we’ve seen religioun mixing more and more with politics. With your controversial visit to the surau still fresh, how has it influenced your political outlook?

Surau Al-Huda was not the first surau I have visited as I have been visiting various mosques to give out allocations ever since I became an MP.  Visiting various places of worship to give out funding is part of our job. So I did not think much of it when they invited me and I went to just spend some time with them.

But after the incident, I have come to realise that UMNO often uses racial and religious issues for their own benefits. They try to portray themselves as the guardians of the Malays and of Islam but I think what they are doing will actually bring more harm to the Muslim community. The Prime Minister himself has spoken of the “Islamophobia” which is rampant in the Western world due to a lack of understanding of Islam by non-Muslims, leading them to fear the religion.

The same thing is happening in Malaysia as well and Utusan Malaysia made my surau visit into a front page national issue when it is perfectly normal for a non-Buddhist to enter a temple or a non-Christian to enter a church. All religions welcome non-believers to join them in their place of worship to create more understanding and this is true of most Muslims who are sincere in faith.

But with UMNO, they used this issue to project DAP as anti-Islamic party. Actually, when they do this, they are creating a sense of fear among non-Muslims. For me, my conscience is clear and I will continue to visit mosques when I have their permission to do so. But what about the non-Malay public? They may become afraid to visit the mosque even when they have been invited by their Muslim friends. This is where fear of Islam is created due to misunderstandings and despite UMNO claiming to be the protector of Islam, they are actually causing more harm to the religion.

I feel sad because while Malaysia is a unique country with its many religions and races, we actually do not appreciate it. In fact, our government constantly tries to emphasise that we are different. “Islam is for Malays, non-Malays should stay away.” This is not the way to help people feel like we are all Malaysians so what is the point of the 1Malaysia slogan?

But I think the surau incident has made me more motivated to continue on. I must admit that I am a very “Chinese” Chinese because my whole family speaks Chinese and I went to Chinese schools my whole life. But now I feel that despite our race and religion, we should really put in the effort to make everyone feel that they are Malaysian first, which is the DAP slogan.

I have received many responses from the public through Facebook and my blog with Malay supporters telling me they are happy to see a Chinese MP visiting their place of worship and mingle with them. So I feel this is the actual desire of Malaysians who are sick of racial politics and want to have a nation that is for all. This is not just a dream but it is workable as long as we have the support of the people who are willing to join us in this process of change. I am now reaffirmed of my task as an elected representative to show the people that we can live as Malaysians first and as Malays, Chinese and Indians second.

How have you adapted to the challenges of being a first-term member of Parliament?

The first challenge about being an MP is that I realise I have so much to learn! I am quite new to politics and there are many issues that I have to familiarise myself with. The most important learning experience is when I “turun padang” (go down to the ground), particularly when I visit the Indian temples or mosques. It makes me realise how ignorant I was before!

I thought I was quite a multiracial person but now I have to ask myself how much I really know about Indian culture or Hinduism which has so much detail and history attached to it. It is my job as an MP that has shown me there is so much richness to discover among my fellow Malaysians. The challenge is to pick up as much knowledge as I can about a variety of issues so that when people come to for help, I can assist them properly.

I also had to adjust my lifestyle because my personal time is much less than before. On the weekends and weeknights when my family and friends are free, I am often busy because of my service centre and other events. My personal space is also less private now because people sometimes recognise me even if I am just out buying some groceries. It required some adjustment to get used to being in the public eye but I remind myself that it is much harder for people like Lim Kit Siang who get recognised everywhere they go, even in East Malaysia! (laughs)

You are able to speak many languages. Is this important in terms of DAP’s growth and relevance as a mainstream party and what other factors are involved?

Actually, I only speak Malay, Mandarin and English. There are some like Teresa Kok who can speak many of the Chinese dialects but if I speak Cantonese, people would start to laugh! But of course, the more languages one speaks, the easier it is to serve different groups of people. As to DAP’s growth, I think we all realise that the party is often perceived as a Chinese, chauvinist and communist party – the 3C party!

Even though our party constitution and principles state that we are a multiracial party for all, there are still people who perceive it as a Chinese party. Some also see DAP as an alternative for MCA that is cleaner and better but still, that makes us a Chinese party. As the younger generation of the party, even though we have great support from the Chinese, that strength of ours is also a weakness in terms of our status as a national party.

In one way or another, the Chinese population in the country is lessening and Malays are, of course, the majority in Malaysia. So if DAP limits its influence to the Chinese community, I think our future would be very limited. Many of the younger leaders like Hannah Yeoh, Anthony Loke, Tony Pua and Liew Chin Tong realise the importance of reaching out to the other communities, particularly the Malays.

We need to show the other communities that regardless of the fact that many DAP leaders are Chinese, we still want to serve any member of the public and are open to anyone joining us. Each DAP leader needs to make a concerted effort to get this message out to the people. I think the Penang government is doing a good job in proving to the Malays there that even though the state government is largely Chinese, they are actually taking better care of the Malays than the previous Gerakan-UMNO leadership.

If we do not take this task seriously, we will always be perceived as a Chinese chauvinist party and if the Chinese population were to keep dwindling, that would be the end of DAP.  But I do feel since March 2008, our efforts can be seen by the other communities. In fact, a Malay lady just wrote on my Facebook page to enquire about joining DAP and this is very encouraging.
One of my assistants, Firdaus was actually someone I met at a night market during a voter registration exercise in Bangi. When we do the voter registrations in a non-Chinese area such as Bangi, it is also a great opportunity for the Malays to get to know DAP leaders through casual chit chat. These small interactions can eventually be fruitful in the long run.

For instance, Firdaus said he was impressed to see an MP at the night market doing voter registration, so he not only registered but also became a DAP member and then became one of my assistants. So we cannot see the effects immediately, but what we are doing now will bear fruit in the future.

Coming back to the surau incident, I also received many messages of support from the mosques and suraus that I had visited prior to Surau Al-Huda. To me, this proves that what we do today will eventually bring something positive for the party. In the coming months and years, perhaps we will see more Malay members in DAP and this will flow upwards into Malay leaders and elected representatives who are from DAP. It will not just be good for DAP but for the nation as we do not want to be race-based like BN. So the task is for DAP to transform itself and together with PAS and PKR, we can show that we are a coalition based not on race but on principles.

You’ve said that living abroad helped you to identify more with your nationality than just your ethnicity. In what other ways can Malaysians learn to be more Malaysian?

I truly feel that all Malaysians need to be more open and approach friends of other races. Racial tension does exist in this country which is why some Muslims were upset when I entered the surau due to what I was wearing. Then when I revisited the surau with a scarf covering my hair this time, I received criticism from some Chinese, particularly caused by MCA and Gerakan, who felt that I was kow-towing to the Muslims. In the Chinese community, it can be perceived as “losing face”.

From my view, I don’t think either side is to be blamed because after 53 years of racist politics, this is what would eventually happen. Each race has developed its own prejudice against the others so there is a strong need to be more open and to know each other.

To me, a costume is just clothing and if I wore Indian clothes, no Chinese would say that I am kow-towing to the Indians so why does it matter when it comes to Malay clothes? It is because there is a sense of insecurity and worry that one day we will not be able to speak our own language or go to our own schools, and so on. There is a fear among some Chinese that others are out to take away their culture and heritage and this is why we need to be more open and confident in ourselves.

We must understand that just because we interact with other people, it does not mean that we are changing or losing our own culture. It is actually just an interaction that can promote mutual understanding through greater knowledge about each other. If we always restrict ourselves to only mixing with our own race in order to keep our culture pure, it only shows our lack of confidence.

So I am happy to say I am a Malaysian first but no one can deny that I am still a Chinese. I am still able to speak and write in Chinese just as well as I used to and no one can change that! (laughs) My knowledge of Chinese literature is also still there but now I also know about Malay literature and Indian culture. Yet my character is still the same and I am still myself.
We like to say this is a multi-religious and multiracial country but if we say so, it also means that we need all the religions to exist – otherwise we would be a mono-religious country! So we should make friends with people of various faiths but it does not mean we have to try to change others into becoming more like us.

Where do you see DAP heading in the next five or ten years?

I think we are heading in the right direction and I believe that in the next decade, we would be stronger than we are now because we have many young leaders in the party that have been entrusted with a lot of responsibility which gives us the right platform to grow and learn. This is very crucial because eventually, the future of the party would depend not just on the current leadership but also on the younger generation.

So it is good that we are showing the public that we have capable young blood in the party which helps us to always generate new ideas. DAP is also attracting many professionals to the party which is especially important in light of forming the federal government in the near future. If we were happy to just remain as the Opposition, then it would not matter if we had professionals because they are still a small segment of society as compared to the working class or grassroots who are more important.

But if we want to be seen as a viable choice for government, we have to prove to the public that we are ready in the sense that we have the talent required for ministerial posts later on. In that respect, the party is moving in the right direction with young professionals such as Tony, Chin Tong, Hannah and so on who each have specific knowledge to contribute to the party. Furthermore, whenever we see young talented people, we do our best to attract them and absorb them into the party.

I believe we would be able to do even more in the next decade if we constantly remind ourselves of the larger picture and of our original intentions when we first joined DAP. The challenges in the next decade will also be larger because previously, our conflicts were due to differences of opinion but now that we are governing, there are conflicts of interest to deal with; many of which are personal interests..

What has been done so far in terms of political education among party members?

We must admit that we have not done enough. In Selangor, we do have political education classes for new members but it is not enough as we are a large party that is spread throughout the country. We need to educate not just the grassroots members and new members but also the leadership and elected representatives such as myself. Occasionally, it would be beneficial to have brainstorming sessions which are crucial for the party’s growth. Hopefully in the future, political education will be given greater priority by the party.

What are the key challenges facing DAP at present?

Besides political education, communication is also an important issue for the party to work on because sometimes the flow of information gets stuck in the middle. Most of the top leadership and elected representatives are internet-savvy but we cannot deny that some of the grassroots leaders are unfamiliar with such tools as email.

So sometimes we have communication breakdowns such as in Selangor where we may feel that the Exco level is making decisions which have not trickled down to the grassroots level. These are areas we definitely need to improve on because previously, the number of assemblymen and Parliamentarians that we had was much more limited. But now the numbers have increased greatly so we must figure out how to communicate more effectively. The solutions for this will take time as there are many factors involved but we must focus on it, otherwise misunderstandings will occur more frequently.

But the party has strong core principles which are guiding it such as the CAT (Competency, Accountability and Transparency) even though we may still struggle sometimes when it comes down to the issue of implementation. There is definitely room for improvement especially in Penang and Selangor where we are governing because this is where people will look to as examples of our leadership.

What is your personal vision of reform and some changes you would like to see?

For the country, I hope that in the near future, we can really have a two-party system; not just for one term as it would be insufficient, but perhaps for two or three terms as the federal government. Maybe we would then be replaced by BN if they have reformed! (laughs) But a true two-party system is crucial in order for the country to be truly transformed.

Personally, the issues I am most concerned about are human rights issues including the Internal Security Act (ISA), the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) and other archaic laws which pertain to freedom. We need urgent reforms but it cannot be achieved until we have power at the federal level for at least one or two terms for these changes to materialise.

As for the party, the most urgent reform we need is definitely in terms of DAP being perceived as multiracial. That is our biggest stumbling block even though it is not as bad today as previously because now we have the assistance of PAS and PKR. But we cannot just rely on them; we need to gain support from the Malay community on our own; the sooner the better.

Besides becoming more multiracial, Karpal Singh has recently raised an issue that has not been discussed properly, regarding the adoption of a “one candidate-one seat” electoral formula in the next general election, with the exception of the Penang chief minister to contest both the state and parliament seats to safeguard public and state interests.

I fully agree with Sdr Karpal on this issue. Though it has been a party practice of 44 years for fielding certain candidates to contest both federal and state seats in the polls, it is time for us to seriously consider abandoning such tradition in the coming elections. The dearth of talented, capable and qualified candidates was the main reason for DAP to allow candidates to contest both seats in the past.

But as a ruling party in Selangor, Penang, and Kedah, and a federal government- in-waiting, we should not have such constraints anymore. We need to allow more capable and qualified party members to join in the national electoral fray. In the long term, it will be good for the party and nation.

Is age an important factor to determine change?

I believe one can never be too young or too old to create change. But in my case, one of the reasons that I decided to join politics at the age of 27 instead of waiting till I am older was because I worried when I grow older, I would eventually become indifferent and inactive.

Often, people associate youth with terms like “impulsiveness” and “impetuousness” which are used negatively. But there is also a good side to it; impulsiveness may result in reckless action but at least there are some actions, which to me is very important. I really dislike those who just sit there and complaint, but refuse to do something constructive to correct what is wrong.

If someone breaks into your house at night, would you be indifferent and just continue your sleep? Or would you take some immediate actions to defend your family and property? What is happening now in our country is just like someone is robbing the nation, though the robbers do not come from outside. They are not from Singapore or Indonesia or Thailand. They are from Malaysia. All of us, regardless of age, should not continue to sleep and should act fast, or we will soon be a bankrupt nation.

Many women leaders have experienced various forms of harassment and double standards in our political system. How do you handle this?

As a woman politician I have indeed faced various forms of harassment, day in day out, both verbal and physical.  A recent example happened in Twitter where a person named “MCAJB” made inappropriate comments such as “Date me, for i wont ask u to wear a tudung, or rape u without it” (sic).

How to handle this? I think the best method is to simply ignore them! This MCAJB has just openly admitted that they are paid RM300 per month by a political party for their work as a “cybertrooper”. They are paid assassins, what can we expect from them? Eventually, the public will judge their credibility and character through their words and deeds. Let them reveal their true nature and embarrass themselves.

Other than this type of harassment, another problem which only female politicians will face is comments on our appearance which I often receive about my clothes and attire. Surprisingly, these comments usually come from males, not females. I doubt if our male elected representatives such Tony or Anthony will face the same problem!

It is impossible to please everyone, so I have no intention to try to for this matter. Besides, I sincerely believe that it is not part of my KPI to dress up beautifully. That is the job of Angelina Jolie and I have no intention to compete with her!

What are some of the best moments in your time with DAP, which motivates you to keep going?

(laughs) There are so many! Some may not be “happy” moments but rather, moments where I have been moved and touched. During this surau controversy, I have received so much guidance, advice and support from the party leadership. Lim Guan Eng, Lim Kit Siang, Teresa and Tony have all helped me without any reservations. Many other leaders such as Charles Santiago have called to assure me of their support and that I have done nothing wrong.

That has been a huge relief for me especially when the incident was first blown up by Utusan. Now that the incident has come to pass, I am very certain and sure but when the controversy first started, I was asking myself if I had really done something very bad that would cause damage to the party. So I was very grateful that none of the leaders were upset with me; instead they consoled me and gave me solid support.

This reinforced to me that DAP is a family and I did not need to stand on my own when something went wrong. It does not matter how many times I have interacted with a particular leader, but they automatically came to encourage me.

The other thing which encourages me is when I sit down to chat with the veteran members. They share their tales of struggle in the old days and it is very moving to realise that our so-called hardships today are nothing much compared to what they had to endure. It is really amazing to see how our party has managed to survive throughout the years. When I look at things in this way, I honestly feel very lucky to be a part of such a party.

I am also grateful that despite only joining the party in January 2008 in order to help the election candidates out during the campaign period, I was actually offered a candidature in February. Furthermore, I was able to accompany Lim Kit Siang on his monthly trips to Sabah so that I could learn from him personally to see how he handles things. These are the many opportunities given by the party and without it, I would not have the platform to perform and grow so I am very thankful. -The Rocket