Hannah Kam





Hannah Kam’s full speech on Women Leadership at Women’s Day celebration organised by Perak Women for Women (PWW) Society

Good afternoon everyone!

Before I begin I just want to say that I’m so humbled to have the opportunity to be here so thank you very much for your kind invitation.

This afternoon I’ve been asked to speak on young leadership – more specifically, the actions and inspirations of young leaders.  To do this, I’d like to share with you my own experiences and since it’s International Women’s Day, also tell you a little bit about the women who’ve inspired me to take this journey.

I am a founding member of the Organisation for National Empowerment (or ONE), which is an NGO run BY youths FOR youths.  ONE’s mission is to empower young Malaysians to fight for the future they want – in the areas of economy, unity, education and much more.

This brings me quite nicely to my first point for today, which is that it’s really important to have a clear vision.  How many people have said to you, “I want to be a better mother” without explaining whether they equate “better” spending more time with your children, or earning more money so they can get a private education?  If you don’t define your goal carefully, you’re not going to know what it is you are working towards – in which case, your whole mission is fatally flawed from the beginning.

I want to emphasise that having a clear vision does not mean having a limited vision.  Imagine if someone said “I want to learn how to play tennis but will only hit forehands, because backhands are too difficult”.  That’s defeatist, fearful and you’re making excuses for yourself.  You’re never going to be a leader if you’ve lost before you’ve even begun.

If your vision is a grand vision, that’s great!  Just make sure that it’s clear and defined.  I’m sure you would all have heard of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban.  Her goal of ensuring that girls around the world have the right to education is ambitious, but it’s unmistakable, and as a result she’s the youngest person to have ever been awarded the Nobel Peace Price at the age of 17.

Once you’ve defined your vision, you will need to see it through.  Of course, this will often involve a long and challenging journey.  But you cannot even begin to consider what’s going to happen on that journey if you don’t start the ball rolling.

A few weeks ago, ONE hosted our inaugural event during which youths took stands on various issues like affirmative action and national unity.  It was entitled “Our Future: 2057” which is a symbol of the year by which we can make at least some of the stands taken a reality by the 100th anniversary of Merdeka.

A lot of people have mocked us for starting this when 2057 is over 40 years away.  They’ve asked, “what’s the rush?”  But if you have that kind of attitude, you’re either never going to start implementing your vision, or you are going to delay it until it’s too late.

My parents told me that in the 1980s, when the idea of Vision 2020 was first being considered, people found 2020 to be so far in the future so they couldn’t really be bothered with it.  But now, with only four years to go, it’s unlikely that we are going to settle all nine challenges set out by that Vision.  The lesson to be learned, therefore, is to avoid resting on our laurels!

That’s not to say that there aren’t going to be challenges along the way.  And unfortunately one of the biggest challenges that women specifically face is that of sexism.

When I was 19 I did a placement at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Kuala Lumpur.  I was the intern in charge of Sexual and Gender Based Violence cases and it quickly became apparent in the eyes of many of the male refuguees, women were considered inferior members of the human race.  They understood domestic violence to be a normal part of everyday life and rape to be a right.

Some people might blame this on cultural norms or the suffering that these people have been through.  While there may be some merit to these arguments, I’m sure you will agree with me when I say that sexism remains an ingrained part of our own society today.

Before I go on I just want to say that I realise many men out there are not sexist and are in fact very progressive.  In fact, all the people from my committee who are here to support me today are male!

A couple of weeks ago, ONE was featured for the first time in The Malaysian Insider.  At the top of the article there was a photo of me and my colleague Danni.  There were also a lot of comments, many of them very critical, but two really stood out for me.  The first went: “she’s quite hot.  That’s the only thing interesting about this article”; the second said: “UMNO likes to use a pretty face as bait”.

These comments confirm that even in 2016 we are still living in a society that considers women to be inferior citizens.  It upsets me that people bring attention to a woman’s looks in order to dismiss her cause, or consider a woman only good enough to be used as a means to someone else’s ends.  Have you ever heard anyone say “that man is only there because he’s handsome”?  I doubt it.

Upsetting as those comments are, I nonetheless strongly believe that we can and should harness them to our advantage.  They reinforce my belief that a significant change in mindset is required when it comes to attitudes towards women, and they validate the emphasis we place on female empowerment in our ONE Charter.  And I hope you’ll agree with me when I say they should strengthen the resolve of all women to be confident and to believe in themselves.  As Yuna, one of Malaysia’s most famous singer-songwriters, once sang: “that girl is you and that girl is me, that girl is stronger than the raging sea… No SOS needed, no rescuing, she’s fine out there”.

And finally, the best way to rise above the challenges and to see your vision through is to stay true to yourself.  Some people have the misguided impression that they have to morph themselves into Margaret Thatcher if they want to succeed in politics.  They’ve missed the point, because Margaret Thatcher was only successful because she was Margaret Thatcher.  To try and be someone else is to do yourself a disservice, because you wouldn’t be fully committed to the vision or the method of implementation – they’re not yours.

Being yourself also helps you remain steadfast and stay the course.  I’m sure all of you know Aung San Suu Kyi, the woman who sacrificed so much to bring democracy to Myanmar.  She spent most of 1989 to 2010 in prison or under house arrest, and did not even see her husband before he died, fearing that she would not be let back in to the country afterwards.  When asked why did not give up despite the relentless onslaught against her, she replied: “you should never let your fears prevent you from doing what you know is right”.  She’s got the courage of her convictions, a strong moral compass and the will to go the distance.  That is a true leader.

As I end my talk today, I hope you’ve noticed that the emphasis has been on empowerment and self-development, rather than directly on how to become a leader.  This is because I don’t think becoming a leader should be a goal in itself.  If you seek leadership simply for the position and power it brings, you are not a leader.  As someone once said, “great leaders don’t set out to be a leader… They set out to make a difference.  It’s never about the role – always about the goal”.

And so on International Women’s Day, while I realise that our society still has some way to go in terms of truly embracing gender equality, women have every right to have a vision and every right to realise that vision.  Women must learn to harness the challenges that come our way in a constructive manner and to propel us towards our goals.  And if we can do that without fear or inhibition or embarrassment, leadership will naturally follow.

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