RTM Sign language interpreter Tan Lee Bee shares lifesaving information and became a vital part of a visible pantheon of essential workers in Malaysia.
The hour in which we watch the live telecasts of the COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister of Malaysia’s Muhyiddin Yassin’s press briefings is critical. Yet, it was someone else who caught everyone’s eye. Meet Tan Lee Bee, RTM’s mesmerizing sign language interpreter. Her expressive sign language turned pandemic press briefings into a vibrant sign language recital. Her animated signing and facial expressions went viral on social media soon after the first broadcast. Check out this post…
58-year old Tan Lee Bee has been working at RTM for almost 25 years. Aside from the COVID-19 updates, Tan Lee Bee is also a frequent face on national TV usually translating reports for the deaf community on the RTM daily evening news segment, Nasional 8.
Currently, there are approximately 40,000 legally deaf people living in Malaysia. However, a minority of the Malaysian population excluding the Deaf community can converse in MSL, or any other form of sign language for that matter. Selamat Pagi Malaysia (SPM) – the first TV programme in the country that aired early in the morning, thanks to Tan Lee Bee’s assistance, was able to share vital information so that the deaf and mute community could understand the content they were watching.
Who is Tan Lee Bee?
Growing up in Labis (small town in Johor), in a family of 11 people, her father was a school headmaster and her mother, a rubber tapper. Tan Lee Bee was inspired to learn sign language after watching her parents struggle to communicate with her deaf sister.
As a child, Tan Lee Bee prayed daily for her sister which she considered a personal quest to make her parents happy. Her prayer (hoping that her sister is able to hear again) was answered when she got the opportunity to study sign language. A strong bond was forged with the two sisters as they were finally able to forge a connection through sign language. Until today, they are still best of friends. Once she completed her SPM, Tan Lee Bee, together with her sister, moved to KL to further their studies. It was here that she expanded her sign language classes to another level.
Tan Lee Bee started her career as a sign language interpreter at RTM in 1986, signing for the programme “Selamat Pagi Malaysia (SPM)”. However, when the SPM morning programme ended in 1988, Tan was offered a one-year scholarship by the Welfare Association of Ministers’ Wives (BAKTI) to advance her skills in the Education of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing at the University of Tennessee in the US.
She took the scholarship and came back to Malaysia to teach for a few years – a inspiring achievement thanks to the guidance and support from Tun Dr. Siti Hasmah binti Haji Mohamad Ali – the wife of the 4th and 7th Prime Minister of Malaysia. The scholarship came with a catch, that she comes back and serves the deaf community here in Malaysia. Tan Lee Bee accepted the task wholeheartedly with a goal to bridge the gap between the deaf community to the world at large.
COVID-19 poses additional challenges for the hearing impaired
For the last three months we’ve gotten the latest COVID-19 information from our local leaders but for many, that critical information comes from Tan Lee Bee who appears on RTM. Tan Lee Bee explains how the community relies on interpreters and the additional challenges the pandemic has posed for those who are deaf and hard of hearing. Her technique of expressive sign language helped her convey many vital messages to the deaf community. She says making sure everyone in our community is informed is critical during times like these. Even a solution to keep us safe from COVID-19 creates a barrier for communication for them.
For Tan Lee Bee, she uses simple sign language to convey the news about Covid-19 so that all hearing-impaired people can understand what is being conveyed. For instance, she said the word “front-liners” was translated into “police, doctors and hospital staff” in sign language while the word “combat” (as in to “combat the pandemic”) was translated into “stop”.