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From Sabah to Aussie Senate

By Neville D'Cruz

MELBOURNE: When Penny Wong Ying Yen left her hometown Kota Kinabalu in 1977 as an eight-year-old to study in Adelaide, politics was never in her mind. 

But that changed in her teens and today, 26 years later, she breathes, talks and thinks politics. 

And by sheer dedication and perseverance, she achieved the remarkable honour of being Australia’s first Asian-born federal politician when she took her seat in the Australian Senate in Canberra for the first time in July. 

Wong was elected to the Senate under the banner of the Australian Labor Party for South Australia at the federal election in November. She will serve a six-year term. 

Wong has come a long way since her childhood in Sabah when her late paternal grandmother (Poh Poh) Lai Fung Shim played a key role in shaping the lives of all those around her. 

“Poh Poh was a diminutive woman, with an indomitable spirit. A Hakka, she was my grandfather’s second wife. They lived in Sandakan. Most of the family died during World War II and my grandmother was left alone to care for my father and his siblings in unspeakable circumstances,” said Wong. 

“She did this through extraordinary determination and a will to survive. She was barely literate, but she was humble and compassionate, and the strongest person I have ever known,” she said. 

Wong said it was her grandmother’s compassion that would always be the guiding light in her political career. 

In her first speech to the Senate last month, Senator Wong said compassion must be at the heart of any truly civilised society and “must be the underlying principle, the core value at the heart of our collective consciousness.”  

“Those with power should act with compassion for those who have less. And that the experience of those who are marginalised cannot be bypassed or ignored or minimised as it so often is.” 

Wong’s father, Francis Wong Yit Shing, an architect, who lives in Kota Kinabalu, initially came to Australia under a Colombo Plan scholarship in the 60s. 

It was in Adelaide that he met his future wife, Jane Chapman. 

Wong said in an interview that from an early age, politics held a prominent position in her household, and racism shaped her commitment to social justice.  

She studied law and arts at the University of Adelaide after winning a scholarship to the prestigious Scotch College. 

Wong laments the Howard government’s lack of leadership and compassion to create a cohesive and equitable Australia and said Australia was “in danger of being swamped by prejudice.” 

She said that it was time for Australia to “reclaim the phrase ‘One Nation’ ’’ from former political maverick Pauline Hanson and replaced its unsavoury undertones of racism with the traditional Australian principle of a fair go for all.

Source: The Star



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