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  • Kai Hui Wong

Meet Nicole Fong - an activist researcher hoping to bring people together

This article was originally published at Malaysiakini :

MALAYSIANSKINI | Growing up attending local convent schools and later an international school in Hong Kong made Nicole Fong keenly aware that it’s very easy for us to live in bubbles, near to each other but rarely interacting.

Her interest in the points of intersection between different groups of people, coupled with a keen sense of justice, has made her life choices rewarding – as reflected in the three-year spell she enjoyed with Teach For Malaysia – an NGO that places aspiring changemakers in high-need schools, giving them grassroots contacts and experiences.

Last August, however, Fong saw a very different side of the system when the Islamic Development Department (Jakim) lodged a police report against her after she tweeted an infographic of the state-funded Mukhayyam programme, criticising it as an attempt to change gender identity and sexual orientation.

The build-up to the incident stemmed from an announcement in July by Religious Affairs Minister Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri who gave the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department (Jawi) a “full licence” to arrest or provide religious education against the transgender community.

After reading that announcement, Fong began compiling facts from news portals and research articles. She turned them into infographics, posted them on her social media and initiated discussions on the issue.

“We must stand in solidarity with our trans community as these laws, policies and narratives affect our access to basic rights such as employment, healthcare, education, legal gender recognition and access to fair justice, regardless of whether you are Muslim or non-Muslim, trans or cis,” she tweeted.

Unexpectedly, the tweets drew the ire of Jakim who filed a report against her.

"No one expected that Jakim would report me because other LGBT activists had talked about the same thing. I'm not saying anything new,” Fong told Malaysiakini in a recent interview.

Living in a country where racial and religious differences are deemed as "sensitive", Fong was left wondering if her straightforward criticism was because of her own gender and religion.

“I feel that it's because I'm a woman and a non-Muslim speaking about these issues,” she said.

Connecting the dots

Sporting thick black eyeliner, short curly hair and a flower tattoo on her right arm - Fong is a lively young woman who speaks earnestly and sharply.

Her incisive views are not limited to the rights of sexual minorities by any means.

From gender, climate change and racial discrimination to social class and education issues, she is passionate about a number of causes.

"I would categorise myself as a researcher, activist, content creator... I won't say I'm an expert in anything.

"No matter what I'm advocating for, whether it's for LGBT rights or the climate, the environment or even education, I believe all these issues are interconnected.

"I also believe that everyone needs to have an intersectional lens," she added.

Malaysia has long been synonymous with mixed groups that have points of intersection.

Like most other countries, it comprises people from different racial, linguistic, cultural, class and educational backgrounds.

While segregation does exist for there are gaps between the political elites and the grassroots, differences between urban and rural development, gulfs between generations and also a fissure between progressive and conservative thoughts, yet its people live together.

Those gaps and cracks are what Fong cares about the most.

"I think what I am doing is using the right mix of my skill sets to connect the dots. I'm very good at researching. I'm very good at trying to find the right information too."

Stepping out from a bubble

Youth-led democratic movements have emerged around the world in recent years, exemplified by Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, while closer examples include youth-based movements in Thailand and Myanmar.

However, obstacles to youth participation in public affairs seem to continue to exist in Malaysia despite constitutional amendments to lower voting and election contesting age to 18 years old in 2019.

The barrier is not only about the laws.

Fong observed that even in internal circles among activists and politicians, they have created a barrier hindering young citizens to participate in, or understand social issues, or simply to relate social-political issues to their daily lives.

Insufficient civil education is among other reasons, she added.

“Actually, a lot of the older people in the NGO spaces don't really engage with youth."

Trying to fill the gap, the economics graduate started making infographics to explain social issues by extracting, analysing and compiling facts and data from reports.

"I know that I need to go outside the NGO spaces to mobilise other people to be as passionate as I am.”

Relating to local context

When the Black Lives Matter protests in the US peaked in 2020 after the public killing of George Floyd, Fong compiled local cases of racism and colourism to comb through the local context of discrimination.

"Black and brown bodies in Malaysia have a history of violence, exploitation, and discrimination that are deeply rooted in anti-blackness, colourism, racism and xenophobia.

"The Indian community makes up just under 7 percent of Malaysia but makes up 23 percent of official reported deaths in police custody," read one of the infographics she posted.

"The death of A Kugan (2009), N Dharmendran (2013), S Balamurugan (2017), P Chandran (2017), and other similar cases highlight ongoing police brutality through the physical violence and torture of detainees.

"More than half of the 118 foreigners who died in Malaysian immigration detention centres in two years, were Rohingya refugees."

This infographic series was later translated into Malay, Chinese, Tamil and Arab and accumulated over 20 thousand "loves/likes" on her Instagram.

"On Instagram and Twitter, the audience is very young, 18 and above. There are some women and girls who read my stuff. And they are usually not in the NGO spaces,” she said.

Previously, Fong also channelled her passion for environmental issues into publishing a Zero Waste Guidebook in collaboration with her friends, which was also translated into several languages.

The team also came out with a guidebook for schools, which they have asked the Education Ministry to include in its syllabus.

'I am a rojak of everything'

When asked about her own cultural identity, she laughed and said: "I am a bit like a rojak of everything.”

Although most of the time she would have to tick the "Chinese" box when filling forms, her real identity is much more complex.

The flower tattoo she has is a peony, which is related to her identity. This is as the peony is popular among Peranakan art and culture.

Her father is from Taishan, Guangdong in China, and her mother was born into a Penang Peranakan family which also has Burmese ancestry.

She was raised in a middle-class family and jokes that her father is a "capitalist banker".

Because of her father's job, she moved around from Johor, the Klang Valley, Penang, Malacca, and later to Hong Kong in her childhood and teenage years.

She went to five convent schools during her days in Malaysia, including three primary schools and two secondary schools.

Fong recalled that there was greater ethnic integration during her younger days and as she was in an all-girls school, she did not have negative experiences like seeing girls being sidelined from leadership roles.

"However, it was only after I went to Hong Kong and entered the international school there, that I realised convent schools gave me a 'bubble' sense of Malaysia.”

In a foreign land, she found herself to be both "privileged and underprivileged" at the same time.

On one hand, her father's status gave her the so-called "expat" identity to live in Hong Kong and study in a school separate from normal Hongkongers. On the other hand, she found that she was in the "lowest class" within the privileged teenage circle in the international schools.

"The highest (class of students) is white, then mixed race white, and then mixed Asian with white. There's a different hierarchy among Asians too. If you are a (China) Chinese, Japanese or Korean, then you are in a higher class.

"I was in the 'dan lain-lain (category)' which included the Southeast Asians and the South Asians, and even the Hong Kong people. You have to hide your Cantonese-ness if you're local in the school," she said.

Fong added that she was made fun of, laughed at for her accent and behaviour as many students did not know of Malaysia and hence she was treated differently.

These experiences made Fong reflect on her identity and privileges at a young age. She asked herself how did her family background affect her position? Does her own experience reflect the real world as a whole?

It prompted her to break out from her own bubble to explore different ones, slowly making the connection to fill in the gaps.

Intersection and vulnerability

After graduating with her Bachelors and then a Masters degree in economics, she returned to Malaysia.

The 27-year-old spent three years with Teach For Malaysia, going to places such as Pasir Gudang in Johor, Pulau Ketam in Selangor, as well as Semporna in Sabah.

"I had the chance to visit schools in Pasir Gudang, which is a lower-income area, the area is full of factories. At that time, the Sungai Kim Kim pollution incident happened, it was stressful, and it had a great impact on the students, teachers and everyone in that area.

"I spoke to students and they said in their family or community there are a lot of people getting cancer, and we don't know if it's linked to the factories or pollution. But it's normal there.

"I went to other schools like in Pulau Ketam, where they live surrounded by rubbish. It is not because they are creating it but because there's no waste management system there," she shared.

"It's the same thing in Semporna. The villagers in kampungs on the mainland are living on stilts, there's a lot of rubbish coming in and out depending on the current every day," she added.

Accumulated rubbish in Semporna.

While observing what was happening in Semporna, she further understood that when it comes to the stateless community who could not access education and healthcare, their vulnerability became much more complex.

She has since become a researcher with the Asia School of Business and applies her intersectional lens to her research.

For instance, she explores and studies the gender perspective of climate change impacts.

"When floods happen, if aid is given through the village head and the village head is a man, he doesn't ask the women what they need, such as sanitary pads.

"If he does not ask them, their needs may be left out in the aid distribution. And that may affect their hygiene and health even more," she said.

When the intersectionality of issues is not addressed, it would be an endless vicious cycle, added Fong.

"The vicious cycle is when women or gender diverse minority people get affected more (during a crisis or natural disaster), and they are not in decision-making spaces, they cannot implement policies to make either preventative or reactive policies to improve their situations."

Seeing research as a platform to find actionable solutions to social issues, Fong hopes that academics will play their role in creating a better society.

Sewing the gaps

In an ideal situation, three groups - research centres, NGOs and policymakers - would be able to build on their roles and work together to improve society, she said.

However, when volunteering for some local NGOs, she witnessed how the NGOs were swamped with the task of helping individuals in all kinds of cases.

She also came to the conclusion that some think tanks and research institutes are dominated by the middle class or elites and researchers often lack class or gender perspectives outside of their own bubbles.

Although NGOs understand the on-the-ground lived experiences, there is a lack of well-documented records and research to support the NGOs' recommendations on policy changes, she noted.

“And then our government sometimes just does its own thing without engagement,” Fong added.

Being a good observer, the young woman hopes that she can be the one who connects the segregated parts of the system.

Fong believes that politics is not just about fighting for power but involves how social structures move and improve lives.

Having a deep understanding of the complicated social situation in Malaysia, she is sewing up the gaps that she sees, slowly but surely.


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