Q&A | Kam Sut Leng, New Macau Association: ‘Many people unaware of link between democracy and livelihood issues’

Kam Sut Leng had been a teacher for eight years before she fully submerged herself into the political and social movement that is the New Macau Association (ANM, from the Portuguese acronym).

Kam has headed the association, the most vocal entity in the city calling for universal suffrage, since she was elected in late-2017 to replace Scott Chiang, who resigned before completing his term. The New Macau President was re-elected in July 2018 to serve a two-year term.

In an exclusive interview with the Times, Kam talked about her past and how her “red” (a colloquial term for pro-Communist Party) education led her down a pro-establishment path. “The political education there was subtle, by means such as flag raising, adopting a patriotic curriculum and calling the names of certain business associations at ‘congregations’,” she told the Times.

Her involvement with the ANM came at a price. According to the association leader, it probably cost Kam her job as a school teacher. “I left my teaching post when my contract wasn’t renewed,” she said. “The then-principal vaguely attributed that to my appearance and presence in the social movement.”

Kam also discussed the fallout from the recent controversial “civil referendum,” which had been met with staunch opposition and physical intimidation by some members of the public. She said it was for the sake of the entire team’s safety that the association decided to end its experiment on universal suffrage early.

The decision had prompted contradictory statements from both the New Macau Association, as well as activist and former association president, Jason Chao.

Macau Daily Times (MDT) – How did your education influence the formation of your views and what made you first join the New Macau Association?

Kam Sut Leng (KSL) – My personality and my family education were rather liberal. […] I grew up in a working-class family, and my parents were occupied by making a living. I had to be independent and be responsible for myself. […] Then, both during and after university life, I participated in pro-establishment youth associations, which organized youth political camps. That was before I joined the ANM.

At that time, I thought to myself: ‘There must be something good about these associations with such huge audiences.’

That was when the last [round of] political reform was discussed. However, I gradually came to find their pro-government stand very strong. They told us in the first camp session that they supported the government’s proposal, before we actually started discussion. So I didn’t think any fair discussion was possible.

I first came to be interested in New Macau because of the issue of political reform. I think I first learned about New Macau on social media. Some of my friends had invited me to events held by the association, and I joined several marches and participated in meetings. The atmosphere here was so much different. Discussions were vigorous and had no premise. This was how I broadened my horizons and started to see the topic on two sides.

[…] I started my work at the ANM when [ex-member and current lawmaker] Au Kam San asked if I was interested in hosting the “New Macau Forum” in 2013, which mocked [public broadcaster] TDM’s decision to suspend its “Macau Forum” social discussion program.

MDT – As you have been close to the workings of the ANM since 2013, what has changed in the past six years?

KSL – I can only comment on the condition from 2013.

The current ANM is younger. There used to be more middle aged or older members. Today, new members tend to be young people and so we have a lower average age. The team is also more energetic now, even though they may be less experienced in many facets – but at least we know they are willing to be part of the team. Well, we can’t provide them with a fabulous income or social status after all. From their work at our various programs, I can tell that they are committed. They only want to make a change in Macau.

[…] We set up more outreach stations. They can be used to promote anything, such as distributing our newsletter or [lawmaker] Sulu Sou’s work report, as well as conducting civil education. Social media has also helped our connections with supporters.

On the other hand, we didn’t have the tradition of keeping a database of our supporters [before], which meant we had no way to contact our supporters during election periods. But now we’re building up that database.

MDT – What are the New Macau Association’s major objectives in the coming years?

KSL – First, to educate people about democracy and livelihood [issues]. Many people are not aware of the link between the two. They told us they would keep supporting us if we do more to improve the [peoples’] livelihood, but they weren’t aware that the government doesn’t really have to fear popular pressure. [For example] some bureaus are only concerned with themselves and their own work. They don’t reply to our inquiries when they don’t want to.

Second, hold civil education and training courses. Some previous participants recommended us to split the course into two levels, one for beginners and the other for intermediates. Even though we don’t have a huge turnout, we managed to find dedicated young people.

Third, clarify our structure and division of labor. With Sulu Sou alone we can’t make our outreach stations work – we need more people. We now have people helping us bring the materials to the location. I focus more on internal affairs and operations, while Sulu works more in front of the people. Backstage workers are as important because they do almost all the preparation.

MDT – The online “civil referendum” used to gauge public support for universal suffrage in future Chief Executive elections seemed to cause a lot of trouble for the association – on many fronts. What happened?

KSL – There were quite a lot of difficulties. We kept being harassed for one.

Many people were not very clear about what we were doing. Either they thought we were supporting the protests in Hong Kong, or we were promoting the August 19 silent protest. It was merely confusion. Even with pull-up banners indicating “civil referendum”, they were still confused.

Some visitors told us that they voted for us, but they thought it was more important to work on the improvement of peoples’ livelihood. They told us that Macau has a prosperous economy, that we should treasure it and not make life difficult like in Hong Kong. ‘Don’t mess up Macau,’ they said. ‘What happens in Hong Kong should stay in Hong Kong.’

Then we became aware of possible threats to our team’s safety. We discussed the measures we should take, and we decided to end [the voting activity] early, just to guarantee our team’s safety.

We also faced series of global cyberattacks, causing inconvenience to our voters. The website became quite unstable. Even though Jason Chao didn’t see any particular technical problem, he understood our decision.

MDT – As one of the few female political leaders in the Macau SAR, how do you see the issue of gender equality?

KSL – There hasn’t been much progress on gender equality [in Macau].

Although there are female lawmakers backed by the pro-establishment camp, we can see that the “real brain” of the camp is male. It is just very masculine. You just haven’t seen progress in gender equality with these female lawmakers.

Women in Macau are expected to follow a traditional path, on which they find boyfriends, get married, have babies and grow old. These expectations take up a lot of time from a girl’s life, making them less interested or able to stay in the political circle. Anthony Lam

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