Introducing our new Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon

From Voices, 7:00 am on 29 July 2019

Hate speech laws will be one of the first things our new Race Relations Commissioner will be on a mission to overhaul when he steps into the role next month.

Gisborne Mayor Meng Foon has already started taking calls and booking meetings on lots of other things, mainly related to environment and buildings and stuff.

“But really, at the end of the day, it's about the people. If we can have a law that prevents that hate speech, coming forward in to our communities, I think that'll go a long way towards harmonious communities.”

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Gisborne District mayor Meng Foon

Gisborne District mayor Meng Foon Photo: New Zealand Government

Meng Foon accepts that free speech is important, but said it’s equally important those freedoms don’t cause harm, incite hate or degrade anyone’s dignity.

“I'm very keen to actually form a group of people and let’s go and investigate the laws of other countries and let’s bring the best of those laws to New Zealand,” said Meng.

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Chinwe Akomah, President of ACOFI Photo: Supplied

That’s welcome news to The African Community Forum Incorporated (ACOFI) President Chinwe Akomah.

She said the new Commissioner must be involved in the current review of hate crimes being led by the Ministry of Justice.

ACOFI had been scathing about how long it took to appoint a new Race Relations Commissioner after Dame Susan Devoy stepped down in June 2018.

Chinwe said in the year without a Commissioner there were many incidences of outright racism going unpunished and under the radar because people don't think there's an issue.

“We've had to speak up to government and front up to what's going on, and deal with the backlash. And that is when a Race Relations Commissioner would have stepped in and taken on that fight for us and with us,” said Chinwe. She said ethnic communities suffered a lot at a time when they should have been looking after themselves and their community.

Dr Mustafa Farouk, President of the Federation of Islamic Associations, New Zealand, agreed. He said while there was an incredible display of unity from all races, ethnicities and religions in the immediate wake of March the 15th, there is still a lot of work to be done on race relations in this country.

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Bernadette Pereira (right) with Hon. Jenny Salesa, Minister of Ethnic Communities Photo: Supplied/PACIFICA Inc

“This [the mosque attack] happened to Muslims. But we know that this same individual or people who think that way can also go to a synagogue and do the same thing, they can go to marae and do the same thing and they can even go to certain churches and do the same thing,” he said. He wants the new Commissioner to ensure people with those views don’t have any oxygen at all in New Zealand.

Bernadette Pereira, President of P.A.C.I.F.I.C.A, thinks Meng Foon is a good choice to be the Race Relations Commissioner.

“I haven't met him, but his background and his proficiency in Te Reo, for somebody to have gone that far, to even do that in order to have an understanding and appreciation of the world view of Maori, in my view it says a lot about the guy,” she said.

Mustafa Farouk is pleased with the appointment too.

“Hopefully his experience, himself being a New Zealand coming from an immigrant background and having been able to navigate in relationships with the Tangata Whenua, that kind of experience can help us all.”

Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand president Mustafa Farouk.

Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand president Mustafa Farouk. Photo: RNZ / ANA TOVEY

Meng Foon was born in Gisborne but jokes that he was ‘made’ in Hong Kong.

His parents migrated to New Zealand in 1945, seeking better opportunities in a country that was known in Asia as a gum san or gold mountain thanks to the gold rushes of the 1860s.

He was influenced by many different cultures during his childhood in Gisborne.

“We already celebrated Chinese events, Chinese New Year, Qingming, Moon Festivals, Spring Festivals at home and participating at the Maori world was important as well,” he said. “So that at a reasonably really young age, I was very keen on the Maori culture… Then as I progressed through life there were a few more cultures that came through… The Dutch and the Italians too, were very strong in our community.”

The key thing he said is that his door is always open plus he’s learned not to judge a book by its cover.

“You do not know nothing until you’ve actually listened to what people have said.”

Meng Foon summed up his approach to the new role.

“Cultures may be different. But I think we still desire the same things,” he said.

“We still desire safe communities, loving and kind communities. And we do want good education. And we do want to own a house and be secure in our own environs.”