In the penultimate article of this Mother’s Day series, Sarah-Ann and Priscilla speak to Honey Tan, on untold stories of her motherhood journey and fun tidbits about her life.
She is a whirlwind of feisty passion, gutsy intelligence, and fearless tenacity. With boundless energy and humour sparkling in her eyes, she captivates us with her big personality, sunny disposition and inspiring stories.
Honey Tan is the kind of woman you experience and never forget.
She didn’t engage in activism as much as now . In her early years of practice as an advocate and solicitor, Honey did general civil litigation. After several years of acting for companies and corporations, she felt that practice had become impersonal as there was little to no human element in the work she did. Back then, the only interaction she had with activism was through her activist friends who would drag her along to meetings and events driven by social causes. Slowly, her eyes began to see those who did not have the privilege of growing up in a happy family or make a comfortable living.
However, it was the birth of her only son Ren that truly shaped her. She shared how learning to care so deeply and to be responsible for someone other than herself led her to a heightened sense of awareness for issues that other people face in the world around her. “It sparked in me a realisation that there was more to life than sun, sea and sex,” chuckled Honey in reflection.
She then volunteered weekly at the Women’s Centre for Change, Penang. Initially, she only gave legal advice and basic solicitor work for the centre’s clients, but she soon realised that what she was doing wasn’t enough. She then dove further into being involved in policy and legal reforms for the protection and empowerment of women. This interest motivated her to pursue a Masters in Law in Warwick University. From then on, she decided to specialise in family law.
That was just the beginning of Honey’s long and illustrious journey of advocating causes related to women, gender, family and equality.
Being a remarkable woman , it is no surprise that Honey raised her son in a rather unconventional manner.
She took a rather hands-off approach in raising him. She did not believe in attaching herself to or fussing over him even when he was just a baby, and she continued to give him the space to be independent as he grew.
“Whenever I spent time with him, we would talk a lot, and not just about homework. Ever since young, I talked to him like I would an adult. I would ask him about his views on various life topics, and I always encouraged him to speak his mind.”
If Ren wanted something, Honey would make him reason it out and tell him to “pitch it” to her: why he agreed or disagreed, why he should be allowed to do something, or why they should buy this over that.
“Whenever I do ask him about his school work, it was because I wanted to know what he was being taught! Once, my son came home and shared what he learned in school. He said, “Mummy, all girls must have long hair”. I proceed to list out all the women he knew who had short hair, then I asked him, “Are we all not women?” I thought it was very important for me to help him develop a non-gender stereotypical mentality from a young age.”
Honey fondly recalled how she brought her son to demonstrations with the usual “demo aunties”, citing Maria Chin and Loh Cheng Kooi as some of the figures that he grew up around.
“From a very young age, my son was exposed to a lot of my activities. I brought him with me to court, resident association meetings, and even street demonstrations. By the age of 12, he was already considered a veteran protestor!” she professed with a laugh. “At an age where attending street demonstrations was considered dangerous or risky, my son was giving out pamphlets in Komtar, chanting by the road side, holding up placards… he really has done it all!”
One example was a protest regarding the Peaceful Assembly Act, whereby part of the Act had stated that children under 15 years old were prohibited from participating in an assembly. “I told my son that this law concerns him and his rights as a child. He’d better go out there to the streets and protect his own rights as an affected party!”
Whilst most parents were reluctant to let their children attend National Service (NS), Honey was happy for Ren when he was selected for NS in Melaka. According to Honey, being one of the few Chinese Malaysians there and coming from a rather different socio-economic background compared to his peers at the camp, Ren stood out like a sore thumb, but at the same time blended in with everyone effortlessly.
“That NS camp was like a microcosm of Malaysia – segregated by race. However, Ren had the ability to converse and mix around with anyone of any race, religion, class, age and background. He could move easily among the races and the sub-classes within each social circle. For the first time in the history of that Melaka NS camp, a non-Bumiputera, my son, won the Male Cadet of the Year Award!” Honey beamed with pride.
Of course, credit for Ren’s ability to speak fluent English, Malay and Mandarin goes to a good education made possible by the breadwinner of the family – his mother. It is easy to see that Ren’s gift of astute observation and interpersonal skills can be attributed to his unique upbringing, and no doubt he had inherited the same down-to-earth and friendly charm of his mother.
Honey is also always up for an adventure. She has been to Palau and Mongolia, and even has a bucket list of exotic countries that she wants to visit including Antartica! As we write this article, Honey is currently in Galapagos (let’s be honest, how many of us have ever heard of this place!).
One of the most popular assumptions surrounding feminists is that women must be man-haters. Honey is not exempted from this misconception that many have about her. “People assume that I hate men just because I’m a proud feminist. It’s quite the contrary; I love men, I really do!” She declared with gusto.
“I just find it ludicrous when I hear stereotypical comments by both males and females alike, such as ‘you’re not “feminine” if you are intelligent, articulate, ambitious, or if you speak loudly’.”
She mused, “I guess men sometimes feel threatened whenever they feel you – a woman – can tear them down with a logical argument.”
Honey is also one who whole-heartedly embraces herself and has an admirable sense of self-confidence. One thing is for sure, there’s no stopping her from bulldozing through her 50’s with vigour and enthusiasm. She proudly declared, “I’m 52 and I’m loving it. However, the best decade of my life was during my 40’s, where I felt like everything just fell into place nicely.”