News that Penny Wong was made Australia’s Finance Minister created a stir in Malaysia, where she was born, especially at a time when her country of birth is going through one of its most tumultuous spates of racial and religious bigotry.
To the ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, Penny’s rise to such a high position in the Australian Cabinet symbolizes the system of meritocracy and equality that they crave for but have been largely deprived of as a result of 53 years of Malay political dominance under the Umno-BN government.
Indeed, many talented Malaysian Chinese are still fleeing their country of birth, seeking better educational and economic opportunities, and perhaps equally important peace of mind, in places like Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Instead of improving, racial relations have only gotten worse in the Southeast Asian country, with ultra-Malay rights groups and Umno leaders now openly proclaiming and insisting on their supremacy over the other races.
|Senator Penny Wong with her partner Sophie Allouache|
Be that as it may, Penny or Penelope Ying-yen Wong could not have had an easy ride in what is basically still a largely White Australia, despite its better leveled playing field.
The 42-year old Wong is Australia’s first openly gay federal Cabinet minister and has made no bones about how gay and racial discrimination have set her back in the past. Still, her courage and her talent probably saved her from ignominy.
“By virtue of who I am, prejudice and discrimination are things I have first-hand knowledge of,” Penny said in a recent interview with an Australian daily.
“When I entered the parliament, I did actually think very carefully about how to handle being Asian and gay and in the parliament, because it hadn’t been done before. Part of the reason I did that was because I thought it was very important to show that you should never be ashamed of who you are.”
Being part Chinese, she is no stranger to the racism that flares up occasionally in the Land Down Under. Nevertheless, Wong has managed rise above her obstacles to become the first Asian-born Australian federal minister. Before entering Parliament, she was a barrister and solicitor in Adelaide and an adviser to the Carr Government in New South Wales.
Penny was born on November 5, 1968, in Kota Kinabalu, capital of Sabah, East Malaysia to a Malaysian Chinese Hakka father and an Australian mother She moved to Australia at the age of eight with her mom and younger brother Toby, after her parents separated. Toby went on to become a chef in Adelaide, South Australia. Although her father does not live in Australia, they keep in touch.
After spending a year on exchange in Brazil, Wong studied Arts/Law at the University of Adelaide. When she was 18, she seized control of the Labor Club from a faction controlled by George Karzis. While at university, she worked part-time for the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union.
She also became involved in political activism at university, winning a position on the National Executive of the National Union of Students. Wong has been a delegate to the South Australian Labor Party State Convention every year since 1989, with the exception of 1995. Her time at university was one where a substantial number of contemporaries became Australian politicians. Senator Natasha Stott Despoja was a contemporary and former boyfriend Jay Weatherill, a senior minister in Mike Rann’s South Australian Government among many others.
Wong graduated from university in 1992, and continued on with the CFMEU, working as an industrial officer, gaining admission to the bar in 1993. During 1995 and 1996, she acted as an advisor to the timber union and the newly-elected New South Wales state government, specialising in the area of forest policy in the middle of the fierce 1990s environmental battles over logging in NSW. On returning to Adelaide, she began practising law, won a position on the ALP’s state executive, and also took on work as a legal officer with the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union.
|With ex-prime minister Kevin Rudd|
She has held a number of firsts in Australian politics. Wong was the first Australian Minister for Climate Change and Water. Her appointment was amended on 26 February 2010, by the Prime Minister, to the Minister for Climate Change, Energy Efficiency and Water. This change in the Government’s cabinet was brought about by the controversy of the Home Insulation Program (HIP). On 13 September 2010 she was sworn in as Minister for Finance and Deregulation in the Gillard Labor cabinet. She has been a member of the Australian Senate since 2002, representing South Australia.
Wong ran for pre-selection for the Senate in 2001, and was selected for the top spot on the Labor party’s South Australian ticket. Wong is a member of EMILY’s List Australia, the support network for Labor women, and, until appointment as a minister following the 2007 election, sat on a number of Senate committees, primarily those related to economics.
|With Prime Minister Julia Gillard|
In June 2005 Wong was appointed Shadow Minister for Employment and Workforce Participation and Shadow Minister for Corporate Governance and Responsibility. Following the reshuffle in December 2006, she became responsible for the portfolios of Public Administration and Accountability, Corporate Governance and Responsibility, and Workforce Participation.
In November 2007, in the wake of the Labor Party victory in the 2007 election, Wong was appointed Minister for Climate Change and Water. As a result of this promotion, she is the highest ranked politician representing South Australia. She accompanied Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to Bali for the international climate change talks. Wong led final negotiations as Chair of the United Nations Working Group in the closing days of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December 2007, shortly after her appointment as Minister for Climate Change and Water.
On September 11, 2010, Prime Minister Julia Gillard – herself Australia’s first woman premier – announced Wong’s promotion to succeed Lindsay Tanner as Minister for Finance. – Malaysia Chronicle