Half-Malay, half-Chinese Jamaliah sees bridging racial divide as key

·15-min read
Half-Malay, half-Chinese Jamaliah sees bridging racial divide as key
Half-Malay, half-Chinese Jamaliah sees bridging racial divide as key

MALAYSIANSKINI | Her election in 2018 as the Bandar Utama assemblyperson in Selangor marked a high point in the meteoric rise of Jamaliah Jamaluddin, who began her political journey just three years earlier.

In her 20s then, she was among young faces such as Muar MP Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman and Batu MP P Prabakaran who took office as a result of that watershed election.

However, no one anticipated the chain of events that saw a perfect storm of political betrayal, a deadly pandemic, and an economic crisis, all of which challenged political leaders with far more experience than Jamaliah.

Then again, her story is no ordinary one. Born in Hunan, China as the only child to radio DJ and political columnist Jamaluddin Ibrahim, she is also the granddaughter of independence fighter Shamsiah Fakeh, a prominent member of the Communist Party of Malaya.

She began volunteering in politics with the DAP and was appointed as a city councillor for Petaling Jaya in 2016.

Her nomination as DAP's candidate for the Bandar Utama state seat drew some criticism but the electorate gave her a thumping win and the chance to show what kind of leader she could be on her own terms.

Now 32, Jamaliah spoke with Malaysiakini about how she entered politics, her love of biographies, and how she is holding up as a Selangor assemblyperson in the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is her story in her own words, edited for clarity:

When I was first considering this journey, I felt that the most important issue to me is racial sentiments and how can we stop dividing each other and integrate as Malaysians.

My mum is Chinese and my dad is Malay and I was hoping to be able to contribute and, at least, close the gap between the races in Malaysia. That is one of my main objectives.

Another one would be youth empowerment and development. Before the whole pandemic, our office was one of the most active in terms of youth development programmes and workshops. We were hoping to recruit more youth leaders. Currently, that’s a bit difficult because of the pandemic.

Due to Covid-19, we see a lot more issues emerging. Now we've got ‘miskin baru’ (new poor) - those who are experiencing economic strife due to the pandemic.

We have a lot of people staying in the Bandar Utama constituency who previously had jobs and small businesses but had to close down because of this situation.

Bandar Utama is a very unique constituency. A lot of people say it's mostly middle or upper-middle class but we also have areas including Kampung Tradisi, Kampung Baru Cina, Kampung Sungai Kayu Ara, and Kampung Cempaka.

Within these areas, you will see there's quite a lot of B40 (bottom 40 percent of income earners), especially at Kampung Sungai Kayu Ara. There is a high percentage of migrant workers around that area as well.

At the beginning of the pandemic, we always received requests from these two areas, Kampung Sungai Kayu Ara and Kampung Cempaka, so we ended up setting up a soup kitchen at Kampung Sungai Kayu Ara.

Now we’ve also started receiving requests from other areas as well, like Damansara Utama and Damansara Jaya, and this indicates that nearly everyone is slowly getting affected by the situation.

Vaccination is of major importance

Our main objective is to ensure that residents under the Bandar Utama constituency will be vaccinated as soon as possible.

Other than sending names to the District Health Office, we have also arranged mass vaccinations, so we can ensure whoever has not gotten the opportunity to be vaccinated - at least, through our publicity and community leaders - can submit their names to us.

Last weekend, we actually did the first mobile vaccination in collaboration with the District Health Office.

Then we realised there are several other issues. A lot of foreign workers don’t dare to come out because they're scared they will be arrested or action will be taken on them - that's the first thing.

Secondly, some of them, even at Tropicana Gardens Mall, feel that it's difficult because they don't have transportation.

That’s the reason why we did the mobile vaccination where we set up a temporary vaccination centre at Sekolah Agama Kampung Sungai Kayu Ara for two days so that those who pre-registered will be prioritised, but we also accepted walk-ins.

The main objective is that, after this, as the vaccination rate increases under the Bandar Utama constituency and hotspot areas, we hope that people are more comfortable and more confident in socialising and getting on with their jobs and small businesses. Of course, we always encourage them to follow the standard operating procedures (SOPs).

I feel (the response to it) has been quite good because what happened was that the vaccination rate was around 63 to 64 percent of the total sign-up rates.

At first, we were targeting around 1,000 people - in the end, we got 637, if I'm not mistaken.

Some 600-plus people came and got vaccinated with us so this is slightly higher than normal because, nowadays - when they register with us - after one to two days, they will receive an appointment from MySejahtera so it will clash (with our vaccination drive) but we're going to continue this in the future.

After this, we’re going to focus on undocumented migrants.

My team is setting it up so that we can interview them from house to house, and we are collaborating with the Malaysian Red Crescent Society so that they will not feel pressured and worry that we are the authorities or that immigration will be coming.

I really hope that after this, we can get more people vaccinated - even if it is by a few more percentage points. It will mean a lot to us.

Never planned to be a politician

It never crossed my mind that I would one day be a politician. I studied business in university because I was honestly searching for what I wanted to be in the future.

I never had the ambition of becoming a lawyer or a doctor. I just wanted to do something meaningful in life.

When I was younger, I was thinking that by studying business, at least we can sort of understand everything on a small scale. We will have skills or knowledge in different areas from finance to history and psychology.

After I came back from my studies, I started to be active, involving myself in the community and some NGO things here and there.

One of my friends asked me if I wanted to try volunteering with a political party so I went with the intention to volunteer, but also to know more about current happenings within the country.

Slowly, I decided to try to be a councillor when Yeo Bee Yin recommended me the post when she was the Damansara Utama assemblyperson. When my former boss decided to close down their company, I became Yeo’s special aide. So that's how I ended up in politics.

Bakri MP Yeo Bee Yin
Bakri MP Yeo Bee Yin

Previously, I was thinking that if I didn’t get into politics, I would probably own a small bookstore or just do something that I like. I also realised I might be a good lecturer because I like teaching and encouraging my team.

I like to do something where I can help others grow and also grow together with the people who surround me.

Maintaining motivation is key

At times you will feel demotivated, honestly speaking, because sometimes you don't even know whether you can make a difference anymore with so many changes happening within this country.

It seems like, especially in politics, everything can just change - within weeks, within days, sometimes even within hours.

But then I always remind myself that at the end of the day, you cannot really lose hope.

If we lose hope, there are no other options for us anyway. It’s not like you can choose to have a second home or second family. I mean, this is my home. So, I believe that each and every one of us is here for a purpose.

I don't feel like we should give up just because of whatever that is happening. We should always remember that looking back 10 or even 20 years before, we have made big changes that some of us probably forgot.

I was interested in politics from young. My father was very active as a speaker and a columnist so he always brought me to forums. So I've got memories from when I was a teenager, that at least we have improved in our freedom of speech.

At least right now, you can see people criticising the government online like on social media.

Although it only lasted for 22 months (the Pakatan Harapan administration), we made it and we changed the government. It is a milestone for me. If we want to move forward, it does not mean we can move forward successfully, just within a day, a month, or a year. So I convinced myself that this is a process.

I really believe that among all the political parties in Malaysia, DAP is the one that is doing its best to change. We are really trying hard, sincerely. When we were selected as candidates and trained, we were given real opportunities to grow as youth leaders.

I believe there are also other parties that are trying to project themselves as progressive and trying to say that “we also put a lot of women candidates during the previous general election” and whatnot.

The thing is, I am not sure whether it is sincere or not, when the selected constituencies given to them are mostly those where there is a big chance of losing. I feel that DAP really wants to move forward to have more young leaders from different backgrounds, different races, different religions.

Jamaliah when she was announced as a candidate in 2018
Jamaliah when she was announced as a candidate in 2018

The issue is that it's a chicken-and-egg situation, where we have been stigmatised or demonised by BN for more than 60 years, saying DAP is a Chinese party, and saying whoever joins DAP is betraying Malays, bumiputeras, and all those excuses. It really does scare a lot of Malays from getting closer to DAP.

Their perception is that "I don't want to be used” or “I don't want to be a political tool for DAP” so DAP is also facing difficulty in recruiting Malay members. Before they want to get near us - even if they’re pro-Harapan - some of them would have preferred PKR more than DAP because we have been demonised.

It’s very unfair to say that DAP is not trying its best to promote youth leaders from other races or genders. It is just mainly because we don't have the supply for the demand. And we don't want to develop a tokenism culture.

Determined to shatter glass ceilings

People were trying to use it (my family’s past) as a weapon against me during the general election but whatever policies or statements I came out with, most of it was related to the current government. They were related to the current policies that we should be having.

The late Shamsiah Fakeh passed away in 2008
The late Shamsiah Fakeh passed away in 2008

I don't feel it's an issue unless people just want to purposely use it to drag me down.

Being a female politician and taking up this role... makes me realise what they meant by a glass ceiling. I feel I'm kind of lucky, because of my family support and my environment.

Actually, in my family, none of them really wanted me to be involved in politics. They actually hoped I would have a simple life but, when I decided to do something, they didn't stop me and they supported me.

Although I didn't feel the glass ceiling happening to me, I realised it was happening to people around me.

I've heard stories of female councillors who, no matter what, still have to wake up to take care of their family first and have to ask their family first before they can come out and work.

You also realise that for a lot of women, we give up our potential or what we can achieve - our dreams - because of our culture or the patriarchal system that has been giving us a glass ceiling.

But this is not the product of culture. This is the product of us not having adequate policies to solve this matter.

I think we need to think out of the box. We need to think of ways to make women aware this is an issue. I've seen this issue throughout these past several years after I became the state assemblyperson. Even before that, we had a lot of forums to discuss it.

But if we are only discussing it in some forum or in an article, it's not that it's not helpful, but the process will be very slow.

For me, if we really are serious about it, or want to make serious change, we need to be able to have representatives inside the ministries and departments that are able to make changes, especially in this political situation right now.

The line is blurred. Even for Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob's government. I really do hope they will listen to some of the advice and proposals from Harapan because this is about the rakyat. We want to move forward.

If they're willing to take up suggestions, the rakyat will praise both sides anyway so it shouldn't be an issue.

Love for biographies

When I was younger and I had more free time, I actually liked to read biographies. I liked to read about how certain public figures handled certain issues and their thoughts on certain policies.

I like to read because I'll feel inspired and you can actually understand and build up not only your knowledge but your way of thinking, based on other people's experiences.

If you ask me, Yeo's Reimagining Malaysia is one of the books that I will recommend to people.

She explained a lot about policies and how she thinks they should be in very simple language. She also shared her personal experience and stories that helped to mould her into who she is. I like these kinds of books.

If you want to talk about someone who inspired me the most, it's Yeo. She's very dynamic, energetic, and thinks out of the box.

I worked under her so, in that period, I got first-hand advice on the way of handling things, how should we think out of the box for a certain event, programme, or policy, and how to act as a young leader.

I feel that she taught me a lot not only about politics but also about life.

Inspiration and interest

Different leaders inspire me in different ways. I feel that in politics, you will need not only one individual to inspire you, but a lot so that you can keep on moving.

My dad influenced me - not that he asked me to go into politics. If you have to say there is a reason why I got into politics, it's probably because my dad was a political columnist.

Jamaliah's father - DJ Jamal
Jamaliah's father - DJ Jamal

He was invited to speak a lot as well, but he was more involved in the Chinese media at that time. So, I started to go to political forums and attend those kinds of forums at a very young age.

If I'm not mistaken, it was around when I was 15 or 16. From there, I found it very interesting, because it's different.

At those events, compared to mainstream media, you will see people debating about issues and politics. It sort of helps you with critical thinking. That was how I started to get interested.

Racism used as a political tool

The thing that I hope to contribute the most to is - it's very hard to say this - stopping racism, or at least, to lessen it as much as possible.

I experienced it firsthand being Malay and Chinese. The good thing is, the Malays and the Chinese will accept me because they feel I am sort of in each of their groups.

At the same time, I also feel the discrimination. They do not directly discriminate against me, but they would feel uncomfortable talking bad about other races in front of me.

Honestly, even since childhood, I never felt comfortable about it. I don't understand why we want to dislike or hate someone, or criticise someone, just because that person is different compared to us.

Because I was interested in current issues from such a young age, I also realised that a lot of things that are happening within our country are because of racial sentiments.

If you look at reports - if you really look carefully - you will realise most of the racist sentiments that exists come from political sentiments. Which MP said what, which minister said what... what kind of things they ban, and so on.

It creates chaos, and sometimes certain politicians will take the opportunity of the racist sentiments to cover up bigger issues. So I realise that whenever there is any big scandal happening, then you will suddenly see some racial issues being played up at the same time.

Then, people will become emotional and illogical, as if they were trained to react to racist sentiments. I really hope that in the future, we can reduce it because if not, we cannot improve as Malaysians.

In this pandemic, we can see that Malaysians really care for each other. I feel that 'kita jaga kita' (we look out for one another) because you will see a lot of NGOs coming out - even neighbourhood associations and Rumah Agam helping proactively.

The white flag movement was an initiative by the rakyat. It is time that - no matter if you’re a politician, journalist, or an influencer - you make the public realise that this is our true nature - to care for each other.

MALAYSIANSKINI is a series on Malaysians you should know.

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