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Meet Jocelyn Yow – the California mayor who considers Alor Setar her hometown

MALAYSIANSKINI | In the past few days, one of the most talked-about politicians among Malaysians has been Jocelyn Yow, the 25-year-old of Malaysian Chinese-Vietnamese descent who is set to become mayor of Eastvale, a town of 55,000 located an hour east of Los Angeles, California.

Reportedly the youngest woman from a minority race to serve as a mayor of a California city, Yow is also an advocate for more women's representation in politics.

Yow's achievement drew the attention of former youth and sports minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman who said while foreign countries recognise the abilities of young people, Malaysia is busy recognising their parents.

"Many people say, Malaysia only appreciates its citizens (or those who have a relationship with Malaysia) when they have succeeded abroad. Maybe there is some truth to this. Also, foreign countries look at merit, while Malaysia looks at cronies," said the Muar MP.

Kepong MP Lim Lip Eng had also lauded Yow and urged young Malaysians abroad not to give up on the country but to come back and help it improve.

While busy with preparations to take over as mayor, Yow took the time to answer some of Malaysiakini's questions in an emailed interview.

She admits to being surprised that her achievement has become big news in Malaysia.

"Absolutely (surprised) I did not expect the news to travel all the way back to Malaysia.

Yow's father travelled to the US for his studies in the 1980s and met her mother, who was the child of Vietnamese refugees. However, soon after her birth, she came back to Malaysia as her paternal grandfather developed cancer.

"I spent 15 years in Alor Setar, Kedah and I consider Alor Setar my hometown.

"I picked up Mandarin, English, and Malay. While my family and friends spoke Hokkien and Cantonese, I had a hard time learning those two dialects," said Yow, who studied at SMJK Keat Hwa.

It has now been two years since she last returned here and the next visit may not be so soon due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

"I miss the food, the culture, and the country's natural beauty the most. I appreciate the diversity and unique culture in Malaysia. I have fond memories of travelling across the country with my family and going jungle trekking and camping with Girl Guides and Scouts while in Malaysia."

Yow has glittering credentials. She is an alumnus of Norco College, where she was student body president and the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently pursuing her Master's degree in government at Harvard Extension.

She was also a staffer for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and congressman Gil Cisneros and an immigration specialist at the US House of Representatives to name a few.

In recognition of her community service, she has also received the Rising Star Award from the California Democratic Party, Asian Pacific Islander Caucus.

Family support has played a strong role in her success, and Yow, who is mother to six-month-old Kayden, was thrilled to be able to share the moment with her loved ones.

"While they are not necessarily into politics, my parents have always been supportive of my younger brother and me as long as we have a plan, and we are willing to work hard towards our goals. While it is important to have goals, it is crucial that one actually puts in the work towards his/her goal.

"It was amazing to see my family at city hall when I became mayor. Many of the photos from that night are the moment my family came together. It was quite a surreal moment.

"A moment I won't forget is my dad handing me my son Kayden and feeling overjoyed, and then hearing my dad tell me 'this is your moment, I am very proud'," she said.

While her connection to Malaysia may be stronger due to having lived here, Yow has also not gone unnoticed in Vietnam.

"Because of wartime, they did not have the luxury to keep in touch with all the family members. But there is something poetic and heartwarming to know people are learning about my story there. I am proud of my heritage and that people are seeing more Asian American women in positions of power.

"A few of the Vietnamese media have reached out to me but certainly not as many as the outlets from Malaysia," she said.

It's been a remarkably rapid rise, but Yow has been determined to keep her feet on the ground.

"Everything happened organically. I did not expect to run for office (city council) at the age of 23. I had other plans in mind, but the incumbent had decided not to run for reelection. I took the chance and ran for the seat without thinking. I was very surprised when I had won with nearly 70 percent of the vote!

"The following year, my colleagues approached me and asked if I would be interested in becoming the mayor pro tem (vice mayor). Initially, I thought of turning down the opportunity as I wanted to focus on my baby and my family instead," Yow said.

"However, my predecessor (the former mayor) encouraged me to take the position and supported me throughout my pregnancy and when I was taking maternity leave.

"Being the mayor pro tem then led me to the mayoral position now. I feel very blessed to have people and colleagues who believed in me and gave me the chance," she said.

The most prominent California Democrat of Asian heritage is none other than vice-president-elect Kamala Harris who was part of a bruising presidential election that saw populist Republican Donald Trump defeated in a very polarised contest.

"Politics in the United States has seen a lot this past couple of years. It is hard not to want to deep dive into all the things I see wrong in politics. I am not surprised at all at how polarised things are.

"But, I am ready to see and be a part of the work that gets government and politics back to what should be a healthy discussion and debate of making the lives of Americans better and have it ripple to the immigrant community and our impact abroad.

"We have seen and heard enough of the 'ugly', and there isn't more for me to add except I am ready to be a part of the solution moving forward," she said.

In terms of her work on the city council, Yow is currently focused on building a library and expanding the city's sales tax revenues.

"Aside from that, generally speaking, I am an advocate for policies that help advance gender equality. I am a graduate student working towards my Master's degree, and I am currently working on research pertaining to maternity leave in the United States.

"It is a shame that the United States is the only advanced country that still does not offer paid maternity leave. I am glad to see that Malaysia is making progress by offering a more comprehensive maternity leave policy.

Yow, however, declined to comment when asked for her opinion of Malaysia's current political scene.

Given that there is no limit to her potential, is she the sort who might think of running for higher office further down the line?

"I am someone who likes to learn and be busy. Being organised and structured is a part of my success. I will say I used to be one with long-term plans, but like everyone, Covid-19 has given me time to take a step back. Right now, I am focusing on being a great mother and mayor.

"Being in public service and government, I have been able to work with and help a lot of people from all walks of life.

"I feel that during my campaign in 2018, I was able to really bond and get to know many local Girl Scout troops in the area. I was inspired by them and the work they are doing - they are getting involved at such a young age!

"This inspiration I feel is what placed a seed in why I love working with Ignite National, a nonprofit that trains young women to run for office. I hope to see these girls from local troops continue to become leaders," she said.

It's an overwhelming time given that she is juggling looking after her young son, studying for her Masters and her political career. However, in more peaceful times, Yow would love to get back to nature trips and travel in general.

"I love going hiking and camping. If I could, I would travel to all of the national parks here in the US. Visiting these landmarks is very important to me, and I want to pass that love to my son.

"I hope that after Covid-19 we can take a trip together. I also miss the beaches and rainforest in Malaysia as I feel most at peace when I am in nature."

When asked from where she drew her inspiration, Yow's answer was telling.

"My family continues to inspire me every day, and I hope that my son will be proud of me when he grows up."

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