18 of years of activism! What inspires you to be an activist, to advocate for human rights?

I think it’s always been inside me, that belief in and being able to see right and wrong. When I first came back to Malaysia in 2004, I had no idea about the existence of our indigenous people. This subject is not taught in our schools. No one talks about them. I joined the HUMAN RIGHTS COMMITTEE UNDER THE BAR COUNCIL IN 2007 and that’s when I realized there are many human rights issues in Malaysia. I started visiting the villages of the Orang Asli, which is the word for the peninsula indigenous people, and I learnt about the issues, and I saw who they are. Like everywhere in the world, the indigenous people are very kind, shy and non-confrontational. They are all these things, and they are being bullied and controlled by this body who is supposed to be looking after them. So, I decided I had to try and empower them, tell them about their rights. I’m glad that over the last ten years, they have become less afraid to speak about their own rights.

Currently I am the chair for the COMMITTEE FOR THE ORANG ASLI UNDER THE BAR COUNCIL. The committee’s role is to keep in touch with them and if they want to take a case to court, e.g. claiming their ancestral land rights, then we will find lawyers who will do pro bono for them. There’s a group of very good lawyers in Malaysia, including myself, who have these public service instincts, so we do a lot of pro bono cases for the Orang Asli. Even with pro bono support, we must pay some costs, so I also do a lot of fundraising, through dinners and other things.

As an activist, if you are not working from the heart, you won’t last long. I’ve always wanted to do the right thing for oppressed people. Like trans women, who are arrested for just being who they are. This is because of religion and the state becoming too intertwined in Malaysia. Our federal government has no business in running a religion. I believe they should be kept separate so that’s why I will keep on fighting for as long as I can. Because I talk about sensitive issues like religion and race, I get a lot of death threats and cyber bullying.

I see the way the country is going and there is no political will by the politicians to change the landscape, the policies, the intrusion of religion in our schools and our civil service, none of the politicians dare to take this bull by the horns, they don’t dare to even talk about it because it’s deemed as ‘sensitive’ in Malaysia. Personally, I am a Malay, which means I am a Muslim. But I am worried about the direction Malaysia is going, so I started this NGO called ‘Malaysian Action for Justice and Unity’, in short MAJU, which in Malaysian means ‘forward’ or ‘progress’. I started this with one other like-minded person, he’s a businessman, so he helped to fund this. So, the idea with MAJU is we want to uphold universal human rights and civil liberties. We cannot rely on our politicians, even the opposition dare not touch the elephant in the room which is using religion in politics. So, we had this idea to promote independence with our political parties. The problem in Malaysia is the political parties control their MPs. So, if you have a good leader, who really thinks for the people, that’s ok you can follow their guidelines, but we have leaders in this country who think about themselves, and they make decisions for themselves not the people. So, we need to find another way, we need a strong and courageous leader to make the change. So now we’re trying to promote this idea of independence to the public and explain why it will really work in Malaysia.

BEING A VOCAL WOMAN, A MALAY, A MUSLIM, and because I’m not a ‘typical-looking’ Muslim, for example I don’t cover my head, I get a lot of death threats and they create a lot of fake stories about me, even telling the public that I gave birth by the roadside in London! All because I defend the rights of the non-Muslims as well.

In Malaysia, we have our federal constitution, and that’s what I uphold. On top of that, I’m very supportive of the rights of the LGBT community as well. Recently, I was arrested and charged in court for defending the rights of trans women during a dinner.

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  • Going into the jungle, being around the trees, the mountains, the rivers, and that’s part of the reason I’m happy doing my work with the indigenous peoples. Going there is not like working, I love being in that environment. And I get a nice reception from the people, they know I like to eat the big frogs, so they will be sure if I come during the season to catch the big frogs at night. So, this kind of thing makes my heart happy.

    I also really enjoy my own company and don’t get lonely, so this pandemic hasn’t been as much of a problem for me as other people. If I have internet or books, then I’m good. I’m also very active on social media, highlighting the issues and doing a lot of webinars, last night we had a webinar talking about the GERAK INDEPENDENT movement. We’re trying to explain the idea to the public because not many people know that everything derives from the parliament which controls how the country runs. If they don’t try to change the laws or have separation of judiciary, executive, and parliament, nothing will change. So, I need to tell the people, parliament is the key. We need to put good people in parliament. If we have good people in parliament, they will ensure the policies and laws are good.

  • Life is beautiful, I embrace life. It’s another day to do something for my country. It’s another day to fight for my country to become better. That’s what keeps me going, I feel like I have a purpose in life. There are a lot of things for me to do in Malaysia, which is exciting!

    There’s a lot going on in Malaysia, every day something else. For example, there’s a recent decision by our federal court regarding Malaysiakini, one of our independent news portals which is alarming in terms of affecting our freedom of speech, press and expression. We can see the vindictiveness of the judiciary in this decision.

  • Malaysia needs help to change for a better future and I intend to do my best to do my part in that change. If it doesn’t change, if it continues to go down the route it’s going, many Malaysians will find themselves displaced and Malaysia will be a failure state. I hope the leaders in Malaysia can see the destruction of their policies for the future of Malaysia. I want to feel that at least I am trying to do something for a better Malaysia for all Malaysians.

    Adapted and edited from https://www.qmul.ac.uk/law/alumni/alumni-profiles/items/alumni-profile---siti-kasim.html

As an activist, if you are not working from the heart, you won’t last long.