Rich Heritage needs richer future – Sonny Leong CBE

Twice a year – once in celebration of New Year’s in December and once on the occasion of the Queen’s official birthday in June – the British Government announces its lists of people who have received Honours. This year, I was fortunate and grateful to have been one of the thousand or so people who received the letter that announced we had been recognised. I am now proud to be a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (a CBE), awarded for political service, which has mostly been focused on building strong ties between China, Chinese communities and the Labour Party.

As my new title suggests, the Honours system in the United Kingdom has a rich heritage that stretches back to the 12th Century when the Most Noble Order of the Garter was created by Edward III. Since then another five orders of chivalry and four orders of merit have been established, each with their own varied levels of award, to recognise people who have made significant contributions to the United Kingdom. For example, my CBE is the second highest class of the Order of the British Empire.

While the Honours system is a long-standing British tradition, it is not without criticism – whether in the military connotations of its titles or the legacy of the Empire that it refers to. Alluding to that history of the Empire understandably stirs up memories for many across the countries of the Empire who suffered at the hands of the British.

Because of that history and its connections to the British class system, some have refused the honours they have been awarded. That is not my path, because every country in the world knows that we all have chapters filled with shame in the story of our past. The question for me is to ask what parts of our heritage and traditions can be brought into the modern world with relevance and meaning.

A type of recognition especially important in the United Kingdom

Recognising people’s contributions to the fabric of a joint society is important; it validates the commitment people have made to a joint society and champions the type of contribution we hope for in our citizens – be they in charity, community work, cultural achievements or even politics! That is why I am proud to have received such an honour – it is an acknowledgement for my commitment to our society. It is a type of recognition especially important in the United Kingdom, which is becoming an increasingly diverse mosaic of a country, as it can help ensure that we move forward together as one society, rather than drifting apart into separated and isolated communities.

This is where one of the systems biggest challenges lies – that it is too slow in reflecting the demographic tapestry of this country. It took until this year’s New Year’s Honours List for women to be awarded more honours than men. And even though that is progress, this does not stretch to ethnic minorities. Only 5% of honourees in the New Year’s Honours were from ethnic minority backgrounds.

The Chinese community

The Chinese community – the third largest ethnic minority in the country – has only two honourees in this Queen’s Birthday list; myself and Lady Katy Tse Blair. Lady Blair is an incredible contributor to her communities – Islington and the Chinese communities – as she set up the Islington Chinese Association, which promotes social cohesion in the borough, city and country she now calls her home. There are many more members of the Chinese community who are like her and like me; striving to make a positive contribution to the country that has given us so much opportunity.

Yet they are not recognised. There are many reasons for why this is the case – from the lingering legacy of prejudices past to even something as simple as low awareness in ethnic minority communities that you have to nominate candidates. It is a problem that can be overcome.

And it must be overcome. For the honours system, with all its rich heritage, to stay relevant and be meaningful in the modern world, it must more accurately reflect the rich diversity that is now the social fabric of the United Kingdom. I hope that the recognition of my contribution and that of Lady Blair is only a stepping stone to a much greater and deeper appreciation of what the Chinese community has brought and continues to bring to this wonderful country.

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