Sam Ngai, the 40-year-old newly elected mayor of Ku-ring-gai in Northern Sydney, says he was spurred on to get involved in local politics after noticing there was little representation from people of his cultural background in council.
Sam Ngai spent much of his early childhood looking up.
He would watch large passenger planes take-off and land from his family’s Kowloon apartment balcony while both his parents worked long hours, believing their efforts would also lead in the same direction.
Over three decades later, the family would migrate to Australia and witness their older son graduate from two master’s degrees in business and law, raise his own family before being selected as a local Australian mayor.
Chinese Australians currently represent about five per cent of the nation’s population but their representation in politics falls well short of this.
“When you look at politics, whether it’s local, state or federal government, it’s very hard to say that one in 20 are of Chinese background,” he told SBS Chinese from his mayoral office in Gordon, Northern Sydney.
Cr Ngai, 40, was selected as mayor of Ku-ring-gai in September, a council where 23.5 per cent of its residents have Chinese ancestry, according to the 2021 Census data.
Prior to entering politics as a local councillor in 2017, he had a different life plan.
By day, he was a risk manager for an energy company, while by night, he was studying at a bible college to become a church minister.
“When I looked at the (council) website, I found out that there weren’t any Chinese people whatsoever … So I wanted to check out this different opportunity to help serve the community,” Cr Ngai said.
Barriers of entry for first-generation and Chinese Australian migrants
There are examples of first-generation Asian migrants represented in senior political leadership roles in Australia, but they are rare.
Per Capita think tank research fellow Osmond Chiu cites their many barriers to entry.
He’s calling on all political parties to develop and implement a 10-year diversity strategy, which includes specific actions to improve cultural diversity, as recommended by the Jenkins Review.
Osmond Chiu says Australia lags behind the UK, Canada and New Zealand in terms of the cultural diversity of parliamentarians.
“First-generation migrants face a range of barriers when entering politics,” Mr Chiu told SBS Chinese.
Navigating politics can be difficult as it is highly relational, benefitting those with pre-existing networks. They are also often subject to bias and must overcome a lack of assumed knowledge.
He argued candidates with Chinese backgrounds faced greater scrutiny due to voter concerns around possible links to the Chinese Communist Party.
“Unfortunately, candidates with Chinese backgrounds often face unfounded allegations about their allegiances, which can impact on their electability,” Mr Chiu said.
“Recent state and federal elections have, however, shown that voters will support candidates with Chinese backgrounds if they are a good quality candidate,” he added.
Despite the added scrutiny, Mr Chiu said he believed having a political candidate from a Chinese background could be an advantage when a significant percentage of the population was also Chinese.
“Candidates have a better understanding of the issues facing Chinese communities and how to engage with them,” Mr Chiu said.
How do Australians from non-Anglo groups get into politics?
Cr Ngai said despite the gruelling effort it took to get elected to council, he encouraged more first-generation migrants like himself to enter politics.
“Any Australian citizen is welcome to put up their hand and say I want to run for council,” he said.
He emphasised the importance of mentorship from somebody with political experience from the outset.
Ku ring gai mayor Sam Ngai
“(It) Could be a current politician. It could be a former politician. It could be a political party or a community group. It is very important, if you want to be involved in politics, to reach out to these other politicians because they have the experience,” he said.
Cr Ngai said although hard work and study were both very important to be a successful migrant in Australia, they weren’t all that mattered.
“When I look at the most successful people here in Australia, they tend to be people who not only have the academic side taken care of, they also have an incredible skill in talking to people, in influencing people,” he said.
You may need to pick up team sports like playing cricket or playing soccer or playing rugby. You may need to get involved in the workplace. So even when you’re in high school or university, you may need to work at McDonald’s or work at David Jones.
He said these were the experiences that immigrant families such as his overlooked when he was growing up.
“But I think they are very important in order to become very successful in the community,” he said.
There’s no one way of getting into politics, but Mr Chiu added that local government was often a stepping stone.
“But so is involvement in political parties, trade unions or community organisations,” he suggested as solutions for diversifying Australia’s political ecosystem.
Is mayorship just the beginning?
Gone are the times when Cr Ngai split his week working two other jobs “to feed his family” while juggling his $30,000 per annum part-time councillor role.
He now deals with building and maintaining council roads, footpaths, preschools, sporting fields, playgrounds and gardens. Representing the council at local Australian citizenship and Remembrance Day ceremonies are also part of the job.
I would strongly encourage Chinese Australian to consider getting involved in politics because it is a great way to help make decisions that influence the direction of our country.
Cr Sam Ngai
“As far as my political career, I think it will remain in local government,” he added.
He said the Ku-ring-gai council area was home to 125,000 residents who voiced their many different needs and competing interests.
“My job is to listen to our residents and make sure that they feel heard,” he said.
“We also take out your rubbish and make sure there is a recycling program. We do a lot of different things.”
Originally published by Koma Cheng and Tania Lee in SBS Chinese, 22 Nov 2023.