Saturday March 6, 2004

Ng Yen Yen

Life has been kind to her

Her name may sound cutesy and her bubbly personality disarming, but underneath it all is a steely resolve. Since becoming Wanita MCA chief and a deputy minister in 1999, Datuk Ng Yen Yen has gone from strength to strength. As election fever rages, KEE HUA CHEE chats with her about the events that helped mould her dynamic personality.

With her dynamic personality and impeccable dress sense, Datuk Dr Ng Yen Yen invariably makes an impact whenever she enters a roomful of people. And of course there is that ability to shift from English to Bahasa Malaysia, to Cantonese, Hakka, Mandarin and her native Hokkien when she speaks.

Born and bred in Kota Baru, Kelantan, she was among the first few women to graduate as doctors from Universiti Malaya in 1972. She joined the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) in 1975 and rose through the ranks after 20 years to become Wanita MCA deputy chief and MCA national deputy secretary. In July 1999, she became Wanita MCA chief and by year’s end was elected a Member of Parliament for Raub and appointed Culture, Arts and Tourism Deputy Minister.

Last June, Dr Ng was made Deputy Finance Minister. Besides her party and government positions, the youthful-looking, 50-something wears other hats too. For one, she is the deputy president of the National Council of Women’s Organisations of Malaysia (NCWO), an umbrella organisation for women’s NGOs. As a medical doctor, she is also well-suited for her role as Governor of the Malaysian Children Resources Institute, an NGO that looks after abused children.

Datuk Ng Yen Yen in her role as Wanita MCA chief.

“A few assume I entered politics in 1999 and became all three (Wanita chief, MP and deputy minister) in one go. Obviously in politics you cannot do that. You have to start from the grassroots and prove your worth as you go along,” explains Dr Ng.

“And if you are truly committed, then you have to give up your career and become a full-time politician. I decided to devote myself completely in 1995, so I closed my clinic in Temerloh. I couldn’t practise as a doctor and be in charge of Wanita MCA at the same time.”

The early years

When she was posted to Mentakab, Pahang as medical officer, she realised many rural women were ignorant about children’s health.

“They didn’t know the importance of innoculation or immunisation against tetanus or diphteria. Young children were suffering unnecessarily. I saw how high the mortality rate was and decided I had to educate these mothers. They needed to know how to look after their family’s health as the young generation will inherit our country."

On her own initiative, she organised local health seminars, embarked on immunisation campaigns and gave talks on preventive care. Soon she realised she needed a platform to further her reach.

“As a doctor, I treated patients on a one-to-one basis. It was not easy to get people to attend my talks so I needed a more effective platform, the MCA. In 1974, MCA was mostly Chinese speaking and there were few English-speaking branches. Certainly not in Raub,” recalls Dr Ng. “So I started an English-speaking branch as I wasn’t very proficient in Mandarin. At that time, there was gender bias so I had to rope in my husband (Old Victorian) Dr Chin Chee Sue. He was chairman and I was secretary.”

Becoming a doctor

Her parents were primary school teachers and not well off. The last thing on her father’s mind was for her to become a doctor, considering he was prepared to accept a dowry for her hand in marriage at 17!

“One day, I came home and saw chickens, baskets of food and marriage paraphernalia. I asked my mum what was going on and she said, ‘Oh, someone has come to ask our permission to marry you to their son.’

“Luckily for me, my mother turned down the offer, insisting I should continue my education. That was a narrow escape. I might have become a bored housewife!" grins Dr Ng. “To this day, I don’t even know who I was supposed to marry. I thank my mother for her decision because she believed in education.”

Dr Ng got herself into the first batch of science students in Sekolah Menengah Zainab in Kota Baru. “But at that time, there were no Pure Science classes and my headmistress discouraged me, saying no girl had passed before.

As a young doctor, the health of children was Dr Ng's prime concern. She still works for them in her role as Governor for the Malaysian Children Resources Institute.

“I said ‘Never mind, I will learn my way through’. So I hired a tutor from SIC (Sultan Ismail College), but to pay him, I had to give tuition classes to my juniors! In hindsight, everyone thinks it’s so funny I had to give tuition to pay for tuition but my parents couldn’t afford it otherwise.”

After Form Five, she moved to Kuala Lumpur to do her Form Six at the Victoria Institution.

The priorities of life

She got married in 1972 and in the 80s, her priority was family. “It’s normal for every mother to concentrate on her family. The 80s was the ‘maternal period’ as I had to raise three sons. The eldest was born in 1974, then my second came in 1975 and third in 1981.”

Her eldest son has followed in his parents’ footsteps. The second is an engineer while the third is studying law. Dr Ng’s youngest was a late starter.

“I had to spend far more time with him than the other two as he was, well, different. “He was very sensitive and would weep copiously at the death of a pet bird and would go to great lengths to bury a dog. But he was very kind-hearted. At one stage I told my husband maybe we should buy a farm for him to run so he could be surrounded by the animals he loved so much and by nature."

She ended up spending a lot of time with him in Australia.

“But it was all worth it as he has turned out so well today! He graduated in finance and is now studying law,” she says triumphantly.

“Now that they are grown up, I am back in public service. I have such a good life that everyday I thank God and count my blessings. I am not rich but very comfortable. In my position, I am honoured and humbled to be able to serve my fellow Malaysians every day. We must strive to maintain what we already have as everything can vanish overnight. Never take things for granted.”

Her priority is the people

Everything Datuk Dr Ng Yen Yen worked for came to pass in 1999. She became a Member of Parliament, Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) Wanita chief and Culture, Arts and Tourism deputy minister.

“I must check my feng shui to see what I did right!” she laughs.

“I started thinking about new ways to ‘sell’ Malaysia to emerging markets like China. My boss, Datuk Abdul Kadir Sheikh Fadzir, gave me all the support and space to perform my duties. I was given a golden chance to excel and I made sure I took it with both hands! If given the opportunity and trust to make decisions, women will deliver the goods. I am always beseeching women to think beyond the ordinary. The Minister asked me to ‘create a Chinese diaspora for tourism’ so I went to China and Taiwan to promote Malaysia.”

The facts speak for themselves. When she became Deputy Minister in 1999, there were 170,000 tourists annually from China. When she took up the post of Deputy Finance Minister in 2003, there were 600,000 tourists coming in.

A flair for fashion

Her flair for style bloomed along with her career. Like all women, she wondered about suitable attire. Unlike most, she did something about it and came up with an ingenious ensemble encompassing the Malay baju kebaya, Chinese cheongsam and Indian sari!

“The collars are mandarin but the embroidery and cloth detail are reminiscent of the traditional Nyonya kebaya while the shawl is Indian. The long sleeves are what the Chinese call ‘wind sleeves’, a pattern first used in the Tang dynasty. Of course I have shortened them for modern use. If I wear my shawl in a U across my bosom, don’t you think I look like I am wearing a Punjabi suit? If I let it fall over one shoulder, it looks more Malay. I mean, this is something the Chinese don’t wear in China but I hope a Malaysian style will evolve to become our national costume.”

She even has a name for it – “kebasamin”. No prizes for guessing it is an amalgam of ‘kebaya’, ‘cheongsam’ and ‘Indian’. Once she met Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in a lift and he commented, “Hmm, your outfit looks nice though I must say it’s neither here nor there.” Quick as a flash she quipped, “True, but it allows me to be anywhere and can take me everywhere!”

What does she know about finance?

In June 2003, Dr Ng was appointed Deputy Finance Minister. “I was as surprised as everyone else when the news broke,” Dr Ng recalls. “Initially I had mixed feelings as I loved my job at the Culture, Arts and Tourism Ministry. I was excelling in it and there were proven results. But in life, one must move on. “I was honoured because it was seen as a more senior post and the first time a Chinese woman had been given such an opportunity.”

There were snide remarks and barbed comments about her competency. But, like a seasoned politician, she answers: “Is there a course on how to be President, Prime Minister or Chancellor? Not all Health Ministers are doctors either.”

Already she’s got her financial jargon right. “It involves a lot of common sense and working with fundamentals and proven principles. In my position, I have to look at the big picture, at macro and micro economics. We work out the overall blueprint that benefits the most number of Malaysians and then experienced professionals take over with the nitty-gritty. The people working in the Finance Ministry are very able and competent, I assure you. Now I can help women in the work force with tax rebates, childcare centres as well as parental care centres for older folks.”

She is the first to admit she does not know everything. “My advantage is my natural curiosity. I ask questions if I don’t understand something. I am not shy or embarrassed as asking does not expose ignorance. Hiding it is far worse.”

Her platform for the coming Elections

“It’s the same as all Barisan Nasional (BN) component parties – to serve every Malaysian and bring our beloved country to the next step of development which is as an industrialised nation. At the same time, we are concerned about our own cultures, heritage and traditions. Our culture, education and lifestyle must progress concurrently. Only BN is able to guarantee a multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious society. It will have Islam as the official religion yet allow the freedom of worship.

“We are all firmly behind Pak Lah (Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi) and share his vision of a prosperous and equitable nation. As he always reminds us, we are here to serve. We all support him in his anti-corruption drive as we are here for a purpose that does not include illicit self-enrichment.”

Chances are high Dr Ng will defend her Raub seat in this year’s Elections although nothing has been confirmed yet. She hopes it will be Raub as the people know and appreciate what she has done there. She got a century-old police station upgraded, built a tourist information centre, got a RM 1 million road to Bukit Berumbun built as well as two new smart schools.

She is particularly proud of the trend towards multi-cultural shows. “Previously, it was all Chinese, all Indian or all Malay dance shows. Now we have a mixture. Diversity is our strength and we must celebrate this blessing.”

She serves her electorate with a passion and that includes solving their problems. But she has a caveat. “They must be solvable problems! Some I can’t solve and I tell them straight away. Also, I tell voters to be realistic and reasonable. Elections are not the time to indulge in bargaining, threats, arm-twisting or blackmailing. I try to fulfil my voters’ expectations but I can’t please everyone and I accept this.”

She is also serious about empowering women. “I want to bring all women together, from office workers to glamorous beauty queens. I want them to start thinking politics and about which party is good for them. Women must be aware of political issues because these will affect them, directly or indirectly.

“They must know the facts and make an educated choice. Women from all sectors must come together for their own good. Women can excel in anything including and especially politics, without losing their grace and feminity!”

Despite her exhortations about empowering women, Dr Ng is remarkably pragmatic. She is known by her maiden name rather than “Mrs Chin” though her clinic in Temerloh carries her husband’s name. He commutes from Mentakab every weekend so that they can spend time together. She says their week day separation is ideal, though traditionalists might think life would be easier if husband and wife were to stay together in Kuala Lumpur.

Her response to this? “Of course not! My husband’s clinic in Mentakab is very established and he needs to work to support me!”

From The Victorian, 1966

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