By Grace Lee – Nee Hao Political Editor
In this exclusive interview with Nee Hao Magazine, Sonny Leong CBE talks to us about the establishment of Chinese for Labour, the importance of the British-Chinese vote in the upcoming election and what the party can do to serve the community in the long run.
It is incredibly hard to summarise the long list of achievements that Sonny has achieved in his lifetime in a brief introduction such as this. You may call this British-Chinese a centre left progressive politician, social entrepreneur, defender of the Chinese community, educator and publisher but there is more to him than meets the eye. The British-Chinese community would know Sonny as the current Chair of Chinese for Labour. As an active figure in politics, he is also a member of the Development Board of Labour Party 1000 Club, and sits on the Executive Committee of BAME labour.
Born a Malaysian, Sonny first came to the UK for college in the ‘70s. He read economics and law at university and was active politically then. He participated in various marches, protest and demonstrations. In the ‘80s, Sonny had set-up a successful publishing business, Cavendish Publishing that later grew to be UK’s largest academic publisher for law. Now with over 35 years of training, education and publishing experience, Sonny has become a venerable figure in industry.
Currently, Sonny is the Chair of the Council for Education in the Commonwealth, working very closely with the Commonwealth Secretariat where Members of Parliament and others with an interest in the Commonwealth and education can exchange information and views. Sonny is also the Chief Executive of Civil Service College, a leading training provider of high quality, bespoke training for those working in the public sector and civil service, here in the UK and internationally. In recognition of his political service and contributions to the UK, Sonny was awarded the Commander of the British Empire (CBE) by HM The Queen in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2014.
Sonny strives to contribute to the country as Chair for Chinese for Labour. He continues his life’s work on building a strong relationship between UK and China, giving a voice to the British-Chinese communities (the third largest ethnic minority in the UK), and encouraging them to support the Labour Party. This well-respected figure is also a co-founder and trustee of the Mulan Network Foundation (now led by Mei Sim Lai ), which recognises the achievement of Chinese women in the community. He also takes pride in being associated with Future First, a national education charity that helps state schools and colleges to build alumni communities. At the core of their work is the drive to ensure that no young person’s future is limited by their background. His interest in youths also extends to the young British-Chinese in which he hopes to encourage them to vote for Labour and to get them interested in politics.
How did you get involved with the Labour party and how did Chinese for Labour come about?
Chinese for Labour (CfL) was set up in 1999 by Lady Katy Blair MBE, Dr Stephen Ng MBE and Dr Mee Ling Ng OBE. It was in 1992 that I started to look at the Labour Party seriously and attended and supported many of their events. It was Tony Blair that suggested that I should be more active and to get involved with CfL.
It was in 2006, after selling my publishing business that I got more active in the Labour Party and CfL, eventually becoming the Chair. One of the first things I did as Chair was to obtain official affiliation status for Chinese for Labour, which involved us getting support from the Leader’s office, Parliamentary Labour Party, Socialist Societies and Trade Unions. We now have representation on the National Executive Committee (NEC), National Policy Forum (NPF) and hosts regular meetings with the Leader, Deputy Leader and Shadow Cabinet.
We have built a support base of over five thousand activists, supporters and members, and we continue to grow.
All this is not possible without my fantastic team supported by my two Vice Chairs – Ash McGregor and Dr Jayne Lim. Ash is a policy wonk and is on the National Policy Forum, who contributes regularly in debates and articles. Jayne is a junior doctor specialising in geriatrics and is at the forefront of NHS politics.
How can Chinese for Labour serve the Chinese community?
The Chinese community in the UK might be a homogenous community but peel further and divisions begin to show. We have to serve all the divisions and different groups. We have to be a movement for the whole community acting as a bridge between the community and the party.
We have activists from all sections of the community from small business owners, students to social workers. We understand the issues impacting the community from immigration, housing, support for the elders, work visas, support for Chinese centres and associations, social integration, hate/racist crimes, and many more.
Having representations on the NEC and NBPF together with working with other socialist groups within the Labour family, we can articulate our concerns and work with the various policy teams on policy developments.
How important is the British Chinese vote?
Very important. Since getting active in politics, one of many things that baffle me is why do people not vote! People have been murdered and killed in many countries for that right to vote and yet the Chinese do not seem to appreciate the right they have.
My personal mantra is “no vote, no voice”, especially in Britain, where we are competing with so many different ethnic communities just to be heard. No one else will speak for us – we will have to shout louder than others to be heard, and the best way is through the ballot box.
Jeremy Corbyn said that he would work together with Chinese leaders to develop policies that would benefit the community; can you give us an example of any policy you want developed?
There are many policies that would benefit the Chinese community, but the one that stands out is to bring back the postgraduate visa for qualified students. This is a policy that the Labour Government introduced in 2004 and was abolished by the Conservative government. Since then, we have seen other countries introducing this policy and luring many international students away from the UK.
The national polls show Conservatives are in the lead, what are Labour’s chances in the upcoming election?
This is a challenging election and we are fighting to win. We have policies that appeal across the country and we have to take our message to them. We need to expose seven years of broken promises by this Conservative government.
This election gives us the opportunity to campaign for an alternative vision for Britain – one that is welcoming to the world; one that cares for the weak, unfortunate and poor; one that will challenge the establishment in cosying up to tax dodgers.
Labour will deliver a better, fairer Britain where prosperity is shared, everyone is rewarded fairly for hard work and a home to rent or buy is affordable. Labour will build a Britain for the many not the few.
Why do you think a snap election was called?
Not another one! ‘Brenda from Bristol’ speaks for Britons sick of elections. I am sure many of you feel the same – so do I.
This snap election is totally unnecessary. It has nothing to do with Brexit but all to do with Tory Party management. Theresa May is not governing in the national interest but for her own political survival within her Party.
She has proved herself to be untrustworthy, by trying to get away with breaking a manifesto pledge on National Insurance and by calling an election she promised repeatedly not to hold.
She is asking us to vote for her so that she can deliver a strong and stable government. This was exactly what David Cameron asked us in the General Elections in 2015. The result is there for all to see – the referendum has the country totally divided and isolated. Instead of strong and stable government, we had an administration that was weak and wobbly, creating an atmosphere of total chaos. The party blamed everyone, except themselves for the mess they have created.
Can Labour help with the cuts in Chinese community centres up and down the country?
This Conservative government have cut public services across the board, and many Chinese community centres have been affected by these cuts. These community centres should work with Labour Councils and authorities to develop innovative ways to fund their services.
You would like to engage with more British Chinese young voters, what message would you like to bring to them?
My message is very simple – this is your country and you can shape it. This is where you call home – where you will plant your roots, have a family and grow old and retire. Britain is at a cross road, not knowing which way to go. The British-Chinese young voters have a choice – to make this country an outward looking, inclusive and prosperous country – so do your part and get involved. The more you put into it, the more you get out of it. Some people may think that because you are British Chinese, politics is irrelevant, but I say get involved as you can affect positive change for the community. Chinese for Labour welcomes you at our headquarters in London.
Where do you see Chinese for Labour in 5 years’ time?
Politics is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time to develop a cohort of talented political leaders. Chinese for Labour have started on that journey and time will see us represented at all levels of public service. These are exciting times, come and be a part of our journey.