Born in Korea, grew up in Malaysia, moved to Australia, and finally settled down in New Zealand with her family. This is Melissa Lee, a New Zealand MP, and an Alumni of Garden School! What a joy it was to have her with us in March despite her busy schedule.
Melissa followed her parents to Malaysia when she was young and enrolled in a school in Kuching where she picked up Malay and the Hokkien dialect. She joined Garden School Kuala Lumpur in 1979 and graduated in 1983 with an O-Level.
According to Melissa, Garden School was the place where she started learning English at the age of 14, in the bright luminous lime green uniform. She has some very fond memories of the School. “I’ve always felt very special as a Garden School student because I get to have friends from all around the world. I had friends from Thailand, India, Korea, Japan, Poland, Australia and New Zealand! At Garden School, you get to meet people from various countries and you’ll get close to some of them but also feel sad very quickly as people come and go with the diplomatic cycle every 2–3 years. It makes you value the people you meet and the relationships that you make. Today, I still keep in touch with the great friends I met in Garden School.”
When she was told that her family would be moving to New Zealand in 1988 whilst studying in Australia, she started going through one of her autograph books. “We used to do autograph books, where all your friends sign on it with their details and photographs. When I was told we were moving, I went through the autograph trying to search for someone who is based there, guess what? I found a friend who’s been in New Zealand from the 1979 book, and I managed to reach her through her parents via the phone number in the autograph, and that was almost 10 years ago!”
Although she’s an international school student, Melissa said her family was very traditional. Unlike other kids, she never got to participate in any sleepovers. She did not have as much freedom as some other students had. After graduating from Garden School, Melissa went on to further her education in Australia. “It was hard because I had to learn how to cook, how to do my own laundry, and wake up for school on my own. But all these new found freedom, being away from home was incredibly exciting, but it was also absolutely frightening at the same time because that meant I had to make my own decisions!” Given her experiences, her advice for parents today is, “try not to protect the children too much before they leave, because you will not be there to fend for them when they are on their own. It’s their lives and their decisions. You’ve spent so much effort in building the children’s confidence, intellect, and personalities; you should also show the kids that you trust them. If you don’t, the children will feel that they can’t trust themselves in making their own decisions when they are on their own.”
With a novelist grandmother, a journalist uncle and a family who ran a newspaper in Korea, it seems like it runs in the family when Melissa decided to study for a PR and Journalism degree at Deakin University. It was also a natural choice for Melissa because she has a very bubbly character and was great at networking. Her advice to the students is, “don’t just look at a course or a degree, look at a career. The decision that you make today is going to be the life that you’ll be leading for quite some time. So don’t decide on one just because it seems fanciful at the time. This is a life choice, and many people stay in one career path for a lifetime. Find out about your passion, research all you can about the job that you think you might be interested in and see if you’ll actually love that life. It’s not too late to decide when you get to university, but it’s better to know and have a vision of where you want to be in 10 years’ time.”
Today, Melissa is an elected member of the House of Representatives in New Zealand and she has a string of achievements under her belt. She has more than 20 years’ experience in journalism and broadcasting, she’s an award winning documentary maker, TV presenter as well as a Producer! She is also the first Korean born member of the New Zealand Parliament, and not to mention, the first female in Federal Parliament outside of Korea. “I’ve always dreamt of being the first female president in Korea since young, and today, I am living a dream. Politics is so much fun yet hard work at the same time. The legislation process is very challenging but I love it! I am learning new skills and new things every day at my age. I could have achieved a PhD over and over with the amount of papers that I’ve read over the past 5 years. I celebrate the fact that I get to help people, bringing a solution to an issue or a subject and delivering the solution even if it’s in a very small way, where the people may not have otherwise resolved.”
Although her careers in journalism and TV broadcasting may seem to have paved her way into becoming a politician, Melissa is giving fair warning to students, “don’t get into journalism if you think it’s glamorous. You won’t last very long because competition is tough. You need good English in journalism and that means good grammar, spelling and a keen nose for a story too. Without that, you won’t do well. Having said that, take it from a person who’s only started learning English at the age of 14. You can do anything if you put your mind to it.”
When asked what her advice would be for students who are looking into a similar career choice, she said, “It doesn’t matter what others think about you, it’s what you think about yourself. Take a moment and look at yourself in the mirror, give yourself a compliment, and like yourself. Because if you don’t, how do you expect others to? Be brutally honest to yourself that you’ve done your best, you are doing your best, you know where you are going, you have a vision and you have a dream; that you are achieving your goals. Every morning when you look at yourself, if you are doing all of those things, then you won’t have any problems achieving and realizing those dreams and visions. But if you can’t say that every time you get up, then it’s time to make some plans and some changes.”
“When I was a child, I used to think I didn’t have enough time to do anything. That was until I became a mother, working full-time, running a business and heading a team of staff while studying for my Masters all at same time. I realized then that I did have plenty of time back then….It was just an excuse; we all have plenty of time. Now, I sleep around 5 hours a day as I try and fit everything into a day. I multitask and I long for those days when I used to get a decent night’s sleep!”
Melissa’s ultimate goal is to become a cabinet minister one day and make a substantial contribution to policies that aim to improve the lives of the people in New Zealand.
We would like to take the opportunity to thank Melissa for her inspiring thoughts and we look forward to having her speak to our students when she next visits Malaysia.