PETALING JAYA: You have to hand it to Tan Lee Bee of RTM, the woman who’s so often seen but never heard and yet gives voice to the news and to the high and mighty.
She’s that expressive personality in the lower right-hand corner of your television screen, with a flurry of movements interpreting some of the most important speeches for the benefit of the hearing-impaired.
In her 35 years with the national broadcaster, Tan has become synonymous with sign language and is one of RTM’s go-to interpreters, having covered nearly every prime minister and minister.
“People always ask me how I learned sign language, and they’re always so surprised to know I never took formal training before I began my career.
“I started learning when I was a teenager so I could communicate with my youngest sister and help her not feel alone” the 59-year-old told FMT in conjunction with International Day of Sign Languages today.
She said her career with RTM had been filled with countless memorable moments, but recalls the former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s first movement control order speech as a particular recent highlight.
“Nobody knew what was going to happen, even I hadn’t been told. So when I’m interpreting his speech I’m getting the same surprise as the rest of the country.
“Generally, I don’t get speeches beforehand, so when I’m on camera, it’s always live.”
Some ministers were harder to interpret than others.
“Those who switch between Malay and English a lot can be difficult, because it gives me more to think about as I’m interpreting. Bahasa Malaysia is my first language, so that’s always easy, but when they switch to English, I have to make a switch in my brain too.
“Some also do not speak clearly or mispronounce words, which is an even bigger problem if they are wearing facemasks. If I can’t catch what they’re saying, how can I interpret it?”
Surprisingly, she also said interpreting those who spoke too slowly could be a challenge.
“I try to stay one or two seconds behind. They say something, I absorb the meaning, and then I sign. But if they take a long pause I end up just standing there waiting for them to finish their next sentence, and it looks like I’ve stopped interpreting.”
While the speed of her hand movements seem to suggest she is frantically interpreting, she said she never tried to “sign” every word, as ensuring deaf viewers got the meaning of the speech was more important.
“They tell me they don’t like when people sign every word. Sign language is quite fluid, creative and beautiful. You can improvise a little bit to make sure it is as understandable as possible.
“Like recently, Ismail Sabri had a speech about wanting to provide better internet to Sabahans so people don’t have to climb ‘pokok panjang’ to get reception. I don’t need to sign the exact words ‘pokok’ and ‘panjang’ separately, I can just sign ‘pokok’ but make other gestures or expressions to indicate they are tall.”
With her vast experience and ubiquity, she said she had become something of a minor celebrity among certain government officials.
“The other day, I worked with Ahmad Faizal Azumu. Usually I do my job and then just sit back, I don’t like to intrude. But then, just as he was leaving, he stopped and came back to me and said ‘I’m sorry Lee Bee, I almost forgot to ask you for a photo.’”
Others like Azmin Ali and Mohamad Hasan have also taken the time to commend her for her work and ask for pictures, she said, but insists she never thinks of herself as “famous”.
“To me it’s always been about helping people. I still do interpreter work outside of television when I can. I go to temples, I participate in court cases, I help doctors talk to deaf patients, whenever there is an opportunity to help the deaf I try to do my part.”