Tan Lee Bee: Meet The Interpreter Known For Her Animated Sign Language On National TV

Her animated signing and facial expressions went viral after PM Muhyiddin's speech recently.

Cover image via New Straits Times/Berita Harian & Berita RTM/YouTube

Amidst the daily COVID-19 press briefings of ministers and politicians, an unlikely person has caught the attention of Malaysians recently

Tan Lee Bee, a sign language interpreter always appearing at the corner of the screen of important addresses, was given newfound appreciation after the latest announcement by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on Sunday, 10 May.

Her animated signing and facial expressions went viral on social media soon after the speech.

"Who is this Tan Lee Bee that is always laughed at for playing TikTok beside the Prime Minister?" asked the viral messages.

Tan, who has actually been working with national news broadcaster Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM) for almost 25 years, used to be a teacher

Aside from the COVID-19 updates, she is a frequent face on national TV, usually translating reports for the deaf community on the RTM daily evening news segment, Nasional 8.

According to Harian Metro, the 58-year-old started her career as a sign language interpreter at RTM in 1986, signing for the programme Selamat Pagi Malaysia (SPM).

"SPM was the first TV programme in the country that aired early in the morning and [they] wanted quick news interpreters so that the deaf and mute community could understand the content they were watching," Tan told Harian Metro in an interview.

Initially only planning to work part-time as an interpreter, she took up the job.

Before that, Tan was a teacher at the Selangor School For The Deaf where she taught for 17 years before beginning her career in broadcasting.

Growing up in Segamat, Johor, Tan had actually learnt sign language to communicate with her younger sibling, who is deaf

Berita Harian reported she never had formal training when she started work at RTM.

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 US.

She took the scholarship and came back to Malaysia to teach for a few years.

But in 1995, she returned to RTM as a full-time sign language interpreter until today.

Besides TV, Tan also lends her expertise to courtrooms and corporate companies to explain meetings and briefings to people who are hard of hearing

"Even though our roles (as interpreters) seem small, I am happy with this responsibility because we can cause great impact with the delivery of accurate information to the deaf community," she told Berita Harian in an interview last year.

She also explained that one of the challenges she faces on the job is to understand the news text and translate them into messages that are easy for viewers to understand.

"Hand gestures, facial expressions, and body language need to be in line with what is being read and I need to think fast to meet the standards of Malaysian Sign Language," she said.

Tan also told Harian Metro that she hopes every TV station would prepare subtitles and sign language interpreters for their news programmes so that more of the handicapped are able to follow the news.

While many were amused with her facial expressions, netizens were undeniably grateful for her services to the country

"I hope she gets a Datukship, she has really done a lot of good," said a Twitter user.

"As someone who is still learning sign language, this is one of the people I look up to," said another.

While this user said, "Thank you for this tweet. I actually watch RTM because of her and I get somehow disappointed when the interpreter is someone else. I don't know why."

Meanwhile, Mohd Armi Rusli of the Malaysian Sign Language Facebook page has called for more understanding and respect for the work of sign language interpreters

"Sad with a few Malaysians who consider this as entertainment. It seems they have never experienced having a family member with hearing disabilities and who can't speak," he wrote.

He said likening signing to TikTok is "very inappropriate" and should not be made a joke.

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