Friday 10 January 2014

Why the "Asian" MPs don't represent me

Sometimes I am heard saying that there aren't any MPs that represent my demographic. People are quick to say "What about Dr. Jian Yang or Raymond Huo?" Some who foresee a youth generation issue might say "What about Melissa Lee?" because she's slightly younger. I usually reply "They're East Asian like me, but they don't represent me."

Why? When people ask me how long I've been in New Zealand for, the reply is "I was born here." I grew up in New Zealand, with heavy influences from both Kiwi culture at school and Asian culture at home. My ethnicity is Taiwanese-New Zealand, but truth be told it's more New Zealand than Taiwan. There are thousands like me; if they weren't born here, they immigrated at a very young age. English is sometimes our first language, and many of us can't even speak our "mother tongue" fluently. We are more familiar with the cultural symbols, idioms, and celebrities of New Zealand than those of our "homelands". These young people have a mishmash of values and ideals, and there is no one in Parliament like us. Demography is much more than just ethnicity. Worringly, and I'm sure it's similar for other young ethnic minorities, when someone sees us as a political demographic they see race before age. They say things like "the proportion of Asian MPs in Parliament is roughly equal to the proportion of Asians in the New Zealand population" (even though this is not true; roughly 5% of Parliament is Asian while 10% of the population is Asian). This misrepresentation leads to continued disenfranchisement and apathy. I see two main reasons for why these MPs don't represent me.

Importantly, I consider Dr. Rajen Prasad and Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi to also be Asian MPs, even though generally people assume that only the East Asian MPs can represent me. Something in common that all five of the Asian MPs have in common? They're all list MPs; supposedly beholden to the electorate of New Zealand rather than a small geographic region of it. The parties place them high enough on the list to attract votes from the right groups of people, but with the (arguable) exception of Pansy Wong, never really give them much power. Cynically, they're there to make the party (and Parliament) look a bit more multicultural, or alternatively because people who want to befriend the government have tossed the party enough money to effectively "buy" influence. Part of this representation problem is that these MPs get to choose who they represent, and usually it's not Asian youth. Dr. Sapna Samant writes about the Asian representation problem as a whole very well when she questions the motivations behind the conscience votes of each of these MPs for the Marriage Equality Bill. People make an assumption about who these MPs represent based on their race, but it doesn't match the reality.

The other part of the representation problem is generational; none of the Asian MPs grew up in New Zealand, and none of them faced the issues and problems we face growing up here. I am more likely to have my views represented accurately by someone like Gareth Hughes, Jaime-Lee Ross, or Jacinda Ardern. The fact that they're younger gives them a better shot of understanding the issues that face youth today, and they can better relate to us (just like we can better relate to them). But there's still a difference between those who have grown up in Kiwi households and those of us with completely different home cultures. Sometimes we are lumped in the general "youth" demographic first, but at some point you have to acknowledge that young Asians don't always agree with the "youth" demographic (although the notion that there is a cohesive "youth" demographic is laughable in itself). The views of my parents are very different to mine, many of which are directly attributable to a difference in education, upbringing, and culture. Similarly, the Asian MPs espouse views very different to mine, and it can be frustrating to have someone think "these are the views of all Asians." I'm sure a similar plight afflicts other ethnic minorities; after all, that's a pretty big part of why the Mana Party grew out of the Maori Party.

To me, it's not so much about having the right person in Parliament who represents the exact combination of my views, because let's face it - that singular person probably doesn't exist. But I do have an issue with the perception that I should be represented by an Asian MP, simply because I'm Asian. Unfortunately, perception is at the root of this all, and perceptions can be tricky to change. @manmadepowers pointed out that similar situations apply to all minority groups, whether they be Maori, Pasifika, women, GSRM, or other. I fully agree with that, and wish I could write more eloquently and persuasively on the broader problem, but ultimately I can't speak about their situations with experience or authority, so I won't.

In my 21 years I've witnessed a good part of NZ becoming more multicultural; twenty-one years ago there weren't any Asian MPs at all. I'm grateful that New Zealand (for the most part) is accepting enough of other cultures for these individuals to become MPs, because there are certainly other electorates that treat ethnic minorities very differently. These Asian MPs definitely have a place in Parliament; they represent a large number of migrants who are just trying to live the dream in an unfamiliar country. But they don't represent me, so please stop assuming that they do.

1 comment:

  1. I think your problem comes down to representative government. You will never get proper representation of any demographic with a representative democracy, there are simply too few likely candidates to choose from. My preferred solution would be a delegate democracy, which is a nice middle ground between representative and direct democracy.