National Service of a different sort

Posted on May 5, 2012 by

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Louise Tan
louisetmy@gmail.com

In the early part of my gap year, I was absolutely certain that I wanted to study politics in college. I also wanted to be at the frontline of the issues of our country instead of reading them off a newspaper page or website. I thought of it as a kind of service to the country. So from January – March 2012 (3 months) I was an intern under YB Tony Pua, Member of Parliament for Petaling Jaya Utara (Democratic Action Party).

Over the course of the internship, I shadowed Tony to meetings with high-profile businessmen and other politicians. I went to ceramahs in rural areas, and read through his press conference materials before he released them. During a lull in the flow of work, I was sometimes given minor investigation assignments that involved going through reports and research papers – everything from the AG audit reports to the PISA 2009+.

I was also fortunate to be around when parliament opened for its first sitting of the year in March. I got to enter the parliament grounds, mix and mingle with lawmakers from both sides of the political spectrum. One of the highlights of the internship was getting to sit in on the Pakatan Rakyat manifesto meeting. I watched some of PR’s brightest minds debate each issue among each other in a manner that was simultaneously critical and yet incredibly respectful. Another highlight: we got to go into the Ministry of Defence! Towards the end of my internship, I had the chance to do some slightly heavier research for a press release. It was an amazing feeling to see my work reported in the papers the next day!

I got what I wanted out of my internship and more. I took away a lot more than I expected to. I got my wish to be at the frontline of the news, which is always a thrill. I was able to meet and greet the people in the news and put faces to names, titles and twitter handles. Because of that, I feel more personally involved in the socio-economic issues of the country. Furthermore, going through reports and compiling data gave me a small taste of what research work in university is like – and I’m hooked! I enjoyed reading through piles of data, siphoning off the important pieces of information, analysing them and drawing my own conclusions. And because Tony is extremely critical, I learnt to give a great deal of attention to detail in all my work.

One major unexpected takeaway is that I don’t want to be a political science major anymore. It’s a little too theoretical to be of much practical use. I don’t think I would have realized this if not for the people I met, who are all doing amazing things for the country – and none of them with a degree in political science. In all areas of life, something like mathematics or economics might serve me better. So yes, life-changing step number one! Who would have thought that I would learn this from working with a political party?!

Another thing I didn’t expect – and this point is related to all the other points above – is that I learned to be critical of both sides of the political spectrum. Before this, like most urban armchair critics, I would have stuck by the side of the opposition no matter what they said. But the internship exposed me to lots of amazing people – politicians and non-partisans alike – who have taught me to see policies in different light. I’ve come to understand that both sides have their pros and cons, and it’s really important to know the issues and policies before making your own conclusions. Ranting, raging and government-bashing doesn’t do anyone any good. Tony himself contributed to this fresh view of Malaysia’s messy political scene.

I don’t think I’m a worse person for understanding where the current government is coming from, or condemning the opposition for their shortcomings. In fact, I think it’s made me a better citizen of democracy for it. That, more than anything, is what’s going to push this country to its fullest potential. It’s also the mindset I would encourage anyone considering a political internship to have. This was by far the most important personal takeaway from this internship – and I am unspeakably grateful for it.

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Some important notes on doing a political internship:

1. Do your research before you apply. Tony Pua is not the only politician out there who does political internships. Even the ones that don’t advertise might be open to the idea. Take the initiative to ask.

2. Also, expect there to be more interns during the summer (May-August) so if you’re planning to intern then, apply early. Most politicians can’t give them enough personal attention if there are more than two interns at a time.

3. Be aware that all lawmakers have different portfolios and are more involved in certain fields. This is very important! As a parliamentarian, Tony does a fair bit of national-level research. I also did an internship with YB Hannah Yeoh (State Assemblyman in Subang Jaya) in July 2011, and that was very different. If you don’t know the difference between an MP and a State Assemblyman, at least find that out before you start interning! You can learn a lot from state assemblymen, local councillors and MPs. On another note, MPs differ in the things they do – an internship with Liew Chin Thong for example (MP Bukit Bendera, head of think-tank REFSA) will be much more research-based all year round.

4. What they do also depends on the time of the year. Parliament runs three times a year: March, June, and September. I’m not sure about state assembly sittings. What you do then will be quite different from a non-parliamentary period of time.

5. Degree students might get more out of it than pre-university students, simply because they’re allowed to do more research. And trust me, research teaches you quite a bit!

6. In a similar vein, THERE WILL BE BORING STUFF TO DO! A large part of both my political internships revolved around office organizational work. With YB Hannah, it was about running all the welfare programs by the state government. With YB Tony, it was about organizing dinners and press conferences. Personally I was fine with that, because I now know about the state welfare programs, and my organizational skills were pushed to the limit. But if you’re an undergraduate and you don’t want to bother with those things, and want to do more research-based stuff, consider interning with a think-tank like IDEAS or REFSA instead.

7. I’ll be straightforward – Political internships don’t pay much, especially if they’re opposition politicians. (Sorry YB Hannah and YB Tony! It’s the truth! But I love you both anyway!)Not because they don’t want to, but they can’t afford to. I’d say the experience and exposure I got was more than worth it though and I’m already thinking of doing another round sometime in the future.

8. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. From my experience, most lawmakers are very glad to see young people getting interested and involved in the finer workings of the country. But they are also very busy, and may not pay you as much attention as you would like. Don’t be put off – be persistent. Nothing that was ever good came easy.

9. Go in with an open mind. Be prepared to come out of it thinking differently! Politics is not about giving exclusive support to one party or coalition. As an intern, you should be prepared to understand the policies that the party sets, and the mindset of the people who came up with them. I’d even encourage you to do political internships with politicos on both sides of the spectrum – something I’m definitely going to do in the future.

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Posted in: Internship