10 Sep 2022

Meng Foon: speaking out against racism

From Saturday Morning, 10:35 am on 10 September 2022
Meng Foon

Meng Foon Photo: supplied

Fluent in English, Cantonese and te reo Māori, Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon some people might say Meng is the perfect tangata Tiriti.

The new bilingual documentary Meng follows the former Gisborne mayor over a year of ups and down in his public and personal life.

Meng Foon grew up in Gisborne and started working in his family vegetable shop at the age of seven. 

He says this was where he first became got interested in accents and languages.

"I had this desire to mimic our customers that came into our shop ... you had your English people, Scottish people, Welsh people, Māori and Pacific people… and they all had different tones."

Meng and his brother worked before school, their father picked them up at lunchtime to work some more and would be waiting outside to collect them for more work after school, he says.

"We were brought up to work and I think that ethic has continued right throughout my life."

The first time Meng applied for the Race Relations Commissioner job, he got a "Dear John letter" of rejection, but nine months later he was invited to reapply.

"I went on to YouTube and typed in 'Best CVs in the World'. And it came up with STAR - situation, task, action, result. That was easy for me. I could actually answer my questions according to the STAR programme.

"I actually thought in my mind I would be a good Race Relations Commissioner."

Meng believes the most important part of his current job is building nationhood and encouraging inclusivity.

This includes doing his best to change the hearts and minds of people who are, on some level, racist.

An "army" of people like politician-turned-activist Andrew Judd who come to see the harm in their discriminatory beliefs would be a great thing for New Zealand, Meng says.

"[Judd] openly said he was racist before. He had prejudice and unconscious bias and now he's an ally against racism."

Since his appointment as Race Relations Commissioner three years ago, Meng has proven himself unafraid to speak out.

Although he says it was a mistake to call the New Zealand police racist, he maintains that police officers do tend to racially profile Māori and Pacific people.

Despite this, he's pleased with recent moves to help the police force better reflect the makeup of our communities, including the appointment of Iwi, Pacific Islander and Asian Liaison Officers.

Meng also commends the work on inclusivity being done by the government's Ministry for Ethnic Communities but says our business sector needs to better reflect Aotearoa's cultural diversity.

"Twenty years ago, a large real estate firm asked me 'Meng, how do we sell houses to Chinese Asian people?' I said 'You can just employ some'."

An entrepreneur himself, Meng has been involved in racing, liquor sales and gambling – three industries he now describes as "terrible", especially in their mistreatment of immigrant employees.

"There are too many liquor stores in low socioeconomic areas, and poker machines, and that needs to be regulated."

Meng says he's not able to make or change laws but is a keen advocate for the reduction of societal harm.

"I do have a deep philosophy of family, relationships, environment and peace."

Meng premieres on Whakaata Māori on 12 September.