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Law alumna breaks glass ceiling to become a Malaysian federal minister

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Malaysian member of parliament Hannah Yeoh (LLB 2001, GradCertLegalPrac 2003) has created history in her country. In 2013, prior to becoming a federal minister, she was appointed Selangor Legislative Assembly Speaker – the youngest speaker and the first woman to hold the position in any Malaysian state.

Hannah then went on to be appointed Deputy Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, and has been vocal on issues involving child marriages, the enactment of the sexual harassment law and stateless children. She has suggested a new ministry be created to protect the needs of children in Malaysia.

Here, Hannah answers some questions for our Law Alumni News readers.

As deputy minister, you were vocal on issues involving child marriages, the enactment of the sexual harassment law and stateless children. You also suggested a new ministry be created to look after the needs of children in the country. Has progress been made in these areas?

As someone who has always been committed to advancing the rights and welfare of children, I have worked relentlessly in protecting them. I strongly support the raising of the minimum age of marriage to 18, as child marriage causes more harm, such as reduced access to education and healthcare, increased risk of domestic violence and limited economic/financial opportunities. While some state governments have yet to agree to raising the minimum age, I remain committed to ensuring that all children have a safe future that will allow them to reach their potential and not be bound by archaic traditions.

Drafting a bill aimed at creating a legal framework to address and prevent sexual harassment in the country was challenging but we succeeded and the bill was passed in 2022. This was a significant achievement in efforts to create a safe and equitable society for all.

Another critical issue that I have focused on is the plight of stateless children, who often face barriers when it comes to basic rights such as accessing education and healthcare. I worked closely with my team to assist these children and their families to apply for citizenship while advocating for a more streamlined and transparent process when it comes to citizenship applications. By taking concrete steps to address the needs of stateless children, we can ensure that all children have access to equal opportunities.

At the time, there was also a pressing need for a dedicated agency or ministry to look into the needs and interests of children in the country. In the recent budget, the Prime Minister announced that a Children’s Development Department would be established under the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development. This would ensure that all laws, policies and programs will focus on the needs of children.

You studied law at the University of Tasmania. Can you share some experiences of your time at university and in Tasmania in general?

My years studying at the University of Tasmania opened up a lot of new experiences for me. I remember my time there as being one of the significant periods of my life, and getting my degree is one of the milestones that I am proud of. The lectures were insightful and I made a diverse range of friends which all made my university years very meaningful. But my time there goes beyond the beauty of Tasmania and its cultural diversity. I was also given the opportunity to participate in moot court competitions, attend guest lectures by renowned legal experts, gain practical skills and acquire an in-depth understanding of the Australian legal system.

Later, despite obtaining a Certificate of Legal Practice in Tasmania and being admitted to the Supreme Court of Tasmania, my permanent residency application was rejected. I returned to Malaysia and eventually entered politics. My experience there, I believe, equipped me with the skills and knowledge to serve in my various capacities – as a State Assemblyman, Member of Parliament, Deputy Minister and now Minister.

In the press, you have stated that you strongly believe in the importance of voting, that people should realise that they have the power to affect change. Would you like to comment on this?

I truly believe that every citizen must exercise the responsibility to vote in a democratic system. Voting is a way to express our voice and do our part in shaping the future of our country. My own experience as a politician has shown me the kind of impact that the people exercising their right to vote can have on a nation.

I've had the privilege of winning seats in both state and federal elections, and this allowed me to work on important issues like child protection, domestic violence and women's empowerment. Being in a position to effect change is a powerful feeling, and it all starts with the people's vote.

This is why I always encourage individuals to realize the impact that their vote can have and to exercise their right to vote wisely. It's not something to be taken for granted, but rather an opportunity to make a difference in the world.

Your political career has grown from strength to strength over the last few years, rising from Selangor Legislative Assembly Speaker to Youth and Sports Minister for the Federal Government of Malaysia. What have been some of your career highlights along the way?

My political journey began when I joined Democratic Action Party (DAP) in 2008 and I was encouraged to contest for the Subang Jaya state seat. Surprisingly, I won the election and this opened up a new path for me. Later, in 2013, I became the first and youngest woman speaker in Malaysia when I was made Speaker of the Selangor State Legislative Assembly. During my tenure, I introduced reforms such as compulsory live streaming assembly proceedings, Opposition Time, compulsory response by the Executive to Select Committee reports and empowerment of the Opposition Leader.

Later, I moved out from a state seat to contest in the parliamentary seat of Segambut. After winning the seat, I was appointed as Deputy Minister of Women, Family and Community Development.  In this position, I was able to implement policy changes to address pressing issues such as baby dumping, teen pregnancies, child marriage and domestic violence. I also advocated for the establishment of an agency or ministry for children to protect their rights and welfare.

In GE15, I succeeded in retaining the Segambut seat and was appointed as the Minister of Youth and Sports in the unity government administration led by Anwar Ibrahim. My responsibilities include developing and implementing policies and programmes relating to youth empowerment, sports development and national unity. One of the key programs I have initiated is "Road to Gold," which aims to support Malaysian athletes to achieve the country's first-ever gold medal at the Paris Olympics in 2024 and to inspire a new generation of champions. In the four months since I have been minister, we have also succeeded in introducing a range of reforms that are aimed to reduce bureaucracy and simplify processes. We have also introduced the Safe Sport Code which provides the framework to ensure that sport is a safe space for all stakeholders.

Top of page: Hannah Yeoh. Image Credit: Rob Ahern.