In 1986, Penangite Ng Mee Ling was elected to Lewisham borough council, becoming the UK’s first ethnic Chinese councillor. Retired now, she talks about serving the community and how Malaysian politics should adapt in the 21st century.
Name: Dr Ng Mee Ling
Current city: London, United Kingdom
Hometown: Born in Ipoh, grew up in Penang.
Number of years abroad: 46 years. I moved to the UK to study when I was 16. After getting a degree in biochemistry and a masters in environmental science, I returned to Penang to work in a commercial laboratory. After just six months, I flew back to the UK, spurred by better job prospects.
What do you do for a living?
I worked in several national charities for the disabled, focusing on issues of anti-discrimination and equality. In 1986, I was elected to Lewisham council (in southeast London)—the first Chinese elected councillor in the UK—representing the Labour party. I chaired a number of major committees and was deputy leader for four years. I served as a Labour councillor for 16 years.
I’m now retired but involved in several voluntary organisations and non-executive directorships, such as with Habinteg Housing Association and London South Bank University. In 2007, I was honoured with an OBE (Officer for the Order of the British Empire) for services to the community, after spending nearly 30 years co-founding a number of charities and campaigns which promote social justice and equality.
What do you like about living in London?
The UK is a democracy with strong public institutions and a free and participative political system. London is a world city which is cosmopolitan, diverse and vibrant with much to offer culturally, to everyone.
What do you not like?
There’s nothing that really annoys me here. People are generally tolerant and open-minded. I even like the changing seasons.
What do you miss about Malaysia?
I miss seeing friends and family on a more regular basis. And the variety of spicy foods and tropical fruits.
What do you not miss about Malaysia?
The political system underpinned by the racial politics. We need an enlightened, progressive and inclusive leadership from all parties for a modern, democratic Malaysia in the 21st century. Surely, this is what we want for all countries for a more peaceful, prosperous and equal world?
Would you move back to Malaysia? Why?
No, the UK is my home now. Malaysia is a wonderful place to visit, relax and enjoy the food. And there are still peaceful, beautiful places to relax, away from the crowds, noise, heat and dust. I last visited in 2014, to take my parents ashes back, after they passed away in England. Before that, my parents lived in England with me and as they were elderly, my visits were not frequent.
Anything else you want to add?
I’m driven by a strong sense of public service and ethical values and continue to serve the community to promote access to higher education, improve the quality of public services and encourage women and ethnic minorities to achieve their full potential. Serving the local community means putting something back in society to make it better. Personally, it’s been an enriching and rewarding experience.
I’ve always been very politically active since my student days, inspired by my parents. My father was a life-long supporter of the opposition party DAP (in Malaysia) and had a very strong sense of social justice and support for democratic politics. He would attend political rallies and encouraged me to read, think and question. My mother was a very clever woman who believed strongly that women can achieve as much, if not more than, men. She encouraged my sister and me to be economically independent and enjoy good careers.
I think overseas Malaysians have achieved much on a personal level for themselves and their families. But I would like to see them put more of their talent and commitment now into wider public life in all kinds of ways. We want to leave this world a better place—with our modest contributions—than when we arrived.