Last week the New Zealand Parliament passed a landmark bill paving way for a law enabling marriage between homosexuals. Yay! For all the problematic issues within NZ society this bill is forward looking and seeking to create equality for all. Irrespective of colour, religion and ethnicity. The bill was passed 80-40. It could have been a larger majority if all the Asian MPs had voted for it. Yes, it was a conscience vote and without directive from the parties so ideally it should not matter how the Asia MPs voted. They did what they thought was right. Or was it?
The New Zealand Parliament has five Asian members. Raymond Huo and Rajen Prasad from Labour and Melissa Lee, Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi and Jian Yang from National. All list MPs that the Mixed Member Proportional system allows.
All list MPs. Without mandate from any constituency except as imagined by party bosses and projected by the above faithful.
And the imagined constituents are us ethnics.
Now I don’t know the exact process of how Asians get on that coveted list but anecdote is that they are thus placed depending upon their ability to bring together high numbers of ethnics to meet and greet with their party honchos. All very democratic.
So, how did they vote? Melissa, Kanwaljit and Jian all voted against the bill, Rajen Prasad voted for it and Raymond Huo abstained. I emailed all to ask why they did what they did. Melissa and Jian have not bothered to respond. Kanwaljit replied ” I made my position clear publically before the vote in Parliament through social media, noting that I did not support the bill and will be voting against it.” I asked him to share with me his supposedly very public views and whether they were on Twitter or his Facebook page, he did not respond. For all my own research I could not find any opinion by this honourable in the public domain. HEARSAY: Apparently this discussion was had on a private forum for the Sikh community where Kanwaljit insisted that the Guru Granth Sahib forbids same sex relations/marriage but could not produce the exact reference when asked by other members.
Raymond emailed back “Both sides (those who are for or against) had lobbied me, with each presenting what appeared to be a convincing case. However, I was told that the majority of Kiwi Asians would have been opposed to the Bill. The vote on the Bill’s first reading took place before the consultation could be completed. So abstention (not to vote) was the most appropriate option.” So if there is going to be consultation process may I suggest a very publicly reported discourse that is conducted in English to let ‘all Asians’ participate and not just the Chinese who air their views on Skykiwi and Mandarin talkback radio? Otherwise that goes against the idea of multiculturalism right? To expect mainstream discourse to be translated into ethnic languages but not take ethnic issues into the mainstream domain? It is a two way street after all. Everyone has a right to know why Raymond’s constituents are for or against gay marriage. If there are death threats and violence then that is a problem in itself and we need to know why. This cannot be kept only in the confines of the Chinese community.
Rajen Prasad replied ” (a). I see it as a question of human rights that, as a former Hunan Rights Commissioner for New Zealand, I am required to uphold. (b). This Bill takes no rights away from any individual and does not change the status of any marriage or relationship that already exists. (c). This Bill is not an opportunity to re-litigate the status of gay relationships. New Zealand made that law change in 1986,” Thanks for that.
I also asked them what they thought their role was in Parliament irrespective of ideology. Raymond said “Given the representative nature of MMP – although list MPs – I believe we are, to some extent, still held answerable to the constituency.” Kanwaljit’s reply, “… to ensure that the growing ethnic population in New Zealand enjoys the same rights and privileges offered to all New Zealanders. We support these communities to settle well, and we work with them to ensure that their best interests are represented in Parliament. I believe that as an elected Member of Parliament it is my duty to represent the view of my greater constituency in conscience votes.” COMMENT: First of all he is not an elected member of Parliament, secondly don’t gay Asians have the same right as all New Zealanders and thirdly how do you quantify the view of the greater constituency? Is this based on numbers or opinion? Rajen Prasad replied, “First, the role of an Asian MP is the same as any MP in Parliament, i.e. to make laws for all New Zealanders that are fair, just, and workable. Secondly, it is to advocate for individual citizens and groups of citizens on issues that they have not been able to resolve through the usual channels. You ask me to state my views on my role “irrespective of ideology”. I wonder if that is ever possible. We are members of our political Parties and have signed up to uphold the values and principles of our Parties. All the votes we cast in Parliament and the public positions we take are our Parties’ positions. We shape them off course but we do that over time and through the policy processes of the Party.”
Pretty blah eh? Is that why we haven’t seen a single Asian MP make any articulate, coherent statement in the house? The one time Melissa Lee spoke she made a complete boo-boo and I have mentioned Rajen Prasad’s wanna-be-Obama turn before the 2008 elections. Still waiting for that open dialogue about ‘Indian culture’ rather than celebrations or promoting Hindutva. Just voting for gay marriage is not enough.
I can give three reasons why there are Asian MPs. 1) Asian members add colour and exoticism to the New Zealand parliament. 2) Political parties use them to make ignorant ethnic masses feel good about representation. Asian migrants don’t actively engage with civil society or with the politics of the country but to see people like them in parliament makes them happy. 3) They showcase the successful diasporic peoples of India, China, South Korea and Fiji (?!), so the pathway to Free Trade Deals become smoother. Pardon the cynicism.
When there is a minority representative in the house, who does this person represent? The dominant, patriarchal elite within the minorities OR the ‘fringe dwellers’ as well? When you are a coloured migrant and you have to fight your way, every single day, then you know what discrimination is but you don’t try to wipe out that bigotry within your community because for the outside world (Pakeha and Maori) it does not matter. The Asian community by and large denies the existence of ‘queers’ (as one Indian-pillar-of-the-community called them) because they muddy the waters of our model minority. But they do exist. You don’t know them because they have have not told you, because they don’t trust you enough.
Do any of the Asian MPs think of this unfairness within? The religious, patriarchal Asian elements are happy to talk about the racism by mainstream New Zealand, they lobby the Asian MPs for the same and for individual issues yet will not acknowledge that they too have the fear and hatred of the ‘other’, those that are ‘different’.
Homosexuals within the Asian communities are the minority within the minorities. Have a conversation with any Asian gay man and he will tell you of the discrimination. By gay white men and by the Asian communities. Ask an Asian lesbian and she will repeat the stories of discrimination. By white lesbians and by the Asian communities; of agendas driven by white feminists that crush ideas of culture and religion and any ‘other’. Now the Asian gay and lesbian community can tell one more story. Of discrimination by their own representatives in Parliament. (This is their blog.)
How can the ‘mainstream’ in the Asian communities talk about injustice, intolerance and prejudice by Pakeha New Zealand on one hand, demand representation and visibility (for a certain kind of Asian) while at the same time deny legitimacy to the various strata within? Multiculturalism but of a homogeneous sort for the consumption of non-ethnic New Zealand. The zealots practice their hatred in safe spaces, in their language. Inside the communities, away from the eye of the world. So are any Asian MPs leading to explore and represent that complexity to mainstream New Zealand? Wouldn’t that be fair, equal and just? Human rights for all? How the Asian MPs voted for this bill speaks more about their ability to engage with the wider Asian community and their processes rather than just conscience voting. Why not bring the democratic process to the communities and encourage them to engage cross-culturally? Why hobnob only with community elite who lobby to maintain old hierarchies and power structures? Last year I interviewed Phil Goff and asked him whether he thought multiculturalism was ‘so twentieth century’ and his reply, where he says that ethnic people have a right to keep their language and their culture, shows to me, the archaic, superficial concept of multiculturalism that is practised in New Zealand today. There is a difference between cultural maintenance and multiculturalism. I have written about it here, continued here and also here.
Ethnic minorities are not about food, festivals and exotic dress to be showcased annually. Neither are they just about contributing to the economy. Legislation and laws affect them too. So does Te Tiriti O Waitangi, so do asset sales, mining, fracking, failed breast cancer screening programmes, subsidised medicines, university fees…gay marriage…they don’t live in silos and should not be encouraged to either. And practising their culture does not mean they can self-govern their communities without acknowledging, addressing and resolving conflicts within. Otherwise the Indian caste system could be perpetuated here couldn’t it? (BTW it is-because the current form of multiculturalism allows it to.)
So Asian MPs can no longer get away with talking to ethnic media or in the inner circles of their communities. It is time for an Asian MP Watch. It is time for intelligent, articulate leaders who care about the whole community and can make coherent discourse to the entire country. Not just look pretty or be arrogant.
*I have copy-pasted the replies without changing any typos or other spelling/grammatical errors.