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5 Changemakers Fighting For A More Equitable Malaysia

The word inequality is synonymously related to the analogy of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. In Malaysia, it is not without a discourse on ethnic disparities. 

However, inequalities are multi-faceted. Unequal wealth distribution trickles down to social inequalities that include the unjust treatment you receive based on your gender, profession, geographical location, medical condition and the community you belong to.

We could argue about the particular policy or decision which had caused inequalities in the current society. However, there are five changemakers in Malaysia, who rather than participate in the blame game and finger-pointing are creating a better and equitable Malaysia for you and me. 

#1: Yu Ren Chung – Man In A Woman’s World 

It is becoming a common sight and an applaudable scene when a woman ventures into a male-dominated career or field. However, it is high time to celebrate males entering a female-dominated field. Yu Ren Chung is one such figure. He has been advocating for women’s rights for at least a decade. 

As a student – I was studying engineering and interested in climate change, things like that, and I was exploring what I can do in Malaysia. I had the opportunity to think a lot, just attend talks and watch videos on YouTube and all that. Yu Ren Chung, deputy executive director at Women’s Aid Organisation[1]

A talk by Zainah Anwar, a women’s rights activist on the issues faced by women in Malaysia and the works of different women’s groups have been doing was one of the eye-opening talks Ren Chung had listened to. 

The talk really spurred my interest in the area and I started doing research on women’s issues and the women’s movement. I read about Irene Fernandez and the many other women who were doing tremendous work in the field and I knew I wanted a career where I could contribute to a more equal society. Yu Ren Chung, deputy executive director at Women’s Aid Organisation [2]

Source:Malay Mail

Once he graduated, it wasn’t the linear path of becoming a full-fledged engineer that he entered. But, he dived into activism.

I was looking for a job and applied to several NGOs, including WAO. Based on my research and what I already know, it was a good organisation that has been around for a long time with many prominent activists – Ambiga, Zainah Anwar. I thought, as someone who’s new, I can hopefully contribute and learn. – Yu Ren Chung, deputy executive director at Women’s Aid Organisation  [1]

Source: Voiz Asia

His involvement in women’s rights activism has seen him pushing systemic changes and new policies when it comes to gender equality and domestic violence such as the Sexual Harassment Bill and the anti-stalking law. To him, the need of equal opportunity will enable women to be more involved in the economy, family and public life, thus raising productivity that will benefit everyone.[3]

Men have benefitted from centuries of patriarchy. Even if they aren’t perpetrating violence or oppressing women, by being silent they are sustaining the status quo. The fact is that men have had opportunities that women have been denied and we should use our privilege to help fight for an equal society. Yu Ren Chung, deputy executive director at Women’s Aid Organisation [2]

#2: Senator Ras Adiba Radzi – Championing An Inclusive Malaysia

She used to grace the television channels during the 90s as a newscaster on TV3 and NTV7. A spinal injury in the thoracic region due to a car accident in 1995 on her way back from covering a football match in Shah Alam marked the beginning of her paralysis.

Six years later, she was assaulted by a group of men who attempted to steal her car outside her house.  Subsequently, the encounter worsened her injuries. And the final straw was a fall a year after the assault leading her to be permanently wheelchair-bound.

Her physical limitations did not dampen her spirit during her dark times after being diagnosed as paralysed waist down. The clouds dissipated, she continued to become a newscaster and participated in the 2015 Para Asean Games 2015. 

She wheeled a whopping 420 kilometres in 13 days from Johor Bahru to Putrajaya in 2003 earning her a spot in Malaysia Book Of Records. She also co-founded the NGO, OKU Sentral after recognising the shortfalls in the infrastructure that could accommodate the PwD community in Malaysia. 

Actually, the disabled are not the PwD individuals but our environment. It is the perception of society and the imperfect infrastructure that reduces our efforts. Ras Adiba, members of the Malaysian Senate  (quote translated from BM) [4]

Her appointment as a senator and a mouthpiece to the PwD community in Malaysia is a sound one. Since being sworn in on the 20th of May 2020, she had overseen the implementation of sign language interpreters for the Dewan Rakyat and Dewan Negara proceedings.

Source: Berita Harian

There’s a lot to be done for Malaysia to be inclusive of the PwD community; especially when it comes to the destigmatisation of disabilities. One of her strategies is to implement awareness in the education sectors as well as including sign language as a third language to be taught in educational institutions. 

I have suggested that lessons on disabilities be taught in school, perhaps as early as pre-schools. This is so that fellow students can learn more about their friends with autism, or who are deaf or blind, among others. This way, the students will be able to accept and understand the children with disabilities better.  – Ras Adiba, member of the Malaysian Senate[5]

Ras Adiba has been vocal when it comes to the societal treatment received by the PwD community, in her plight to empower the PwD community through her social media and OKU Sentral. 

I always say we need to prepare our country to be more OKU friendly. We need to be prepared for the next OKU population.  Ras Adiba, member of the Malaysian Senate (quote translated from BM) [4]

#3: Rita Santaran – A Relentless Fighter In Ensuring Better Pay For Hospital Cleaners

Our hospital cleaners have faced decades of low pay and mistreatment. During the pandemic, they have declared that they have had enough and things must change.

One such figure who stood apart and led this movement is Rita Santaran. She is a former chairperson of a hospital cleaners’ union in Perak and a single mother of four children. Hospital cleaners despite working for years would be given the same amount of wage at the end of the day: RM 1,200 and remain working on a contract basis. 

Source: Malaysiakini

If I want to buy a house, my payslip is less acceptable than those of permanent workers because the bank will worry that you might lose your job and be unable to pay the loan after two or three years.  – Rita Santaran, part of the hospital cleaner union in Hospital Batu Gajah [6]

She single-handedly raised her family with a monthly wage of around RM 1,000 (after deductions). Working with different contractors over the years, only one had increased her wage by RM 50 in 2015. 

But, it wasn’t just income that is their concern, they are also at risk of contracting infectious diseases.  Rita and her former colleagues contracted shingles and her medical benefits of RM 200 did not sufficiently cover her medical expenses. 

My colleagues thought I’m fierce, but actually, I’m not. We have to improve. If you always stay quiet, you’ll never get your rights. Rita Santaran, part of the hospital cleaner union in Hospital Batu Gajah[6]

She joined hands in a union, the National Union of Workers in Hospital Support and Allied Services (NUWHSAS), founded in 2016 by a then deputy president of Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM), M Sarasvathy. 

After years of meetings and preparations, the union prepared their demands, including benefits to taking holidays. Out of 43 demands, 38 were accepted. However, the sub-contractor changed the following year, refusing to acknowledge the previously signed documents and the agreed demands and disbanding their union. 

Rita and over a hundred cleaners in northern Malaysia mobilised and protested in front of the Health Ministry in Malaysia. After negotiations, the contract workers were made permanent workers with benefits cut. Further negotiations took place, however, Rita was terminated from her job but she didn’t regret being part of it. 

Source: Malaysiakini

But for me, the fight should go on. I want to prove that we, the union, can win. – Rita Santaran, part of the hospital cleaner union in Hospital Batu Gajah[6]

Recently, in February 2022, Rita and her comrades took part in a motorcycle convoy arranged to protest their contract system. This also includes the demand of providing payment of Covid-19 allowances to government hospital cleaners[7]

#4: Cheryl Ann Fernando – An Educator Who Transformed A Rural School

Cheryl Ann Fernando found that she has an affinity for teaching rather than her corporate job in 2013 through an epiphany. Even during her PR stint, she was an active volunteer at her local church teaching refugee children. 

One day, it dawned on me that I was more excited about teaching in church than I was working at my day job. That was around the time Teach for Malaysia started making a name for itself and I decided to apply in 2013.  – Cheryl Ann Fernando, country director of Pemimpin Global School Leaders Malaysia[8]

 She took a momentous decision to quit her PR job and jumped into teaching by securing a job at a local international school as an assistant teacher. She observed the passion the teachers at the international school carry and wished to emulate their enthusiasm in Malaysian public schools.

Seeing their enthusiasm in class made me yearn to bring that into our public schools too. I truly wanted to emulate them. When I heard of Teach for Malaysia, everything just clicked into place. Cheryl Ann Fernando, country director of Pemimpin Global School Leaders Malaysia [9]

She took her chances and applied as a teaching fellow at Teach for Malaysia, and was stationed at SMK Pinang Tunggal in Sungai Petani, Kedah. 

Source: Varnam

Cheryl documented parts of her teaching journey in a newspaper column and it caught the eye of a movie director, Eric Ong. He was so inspired by her efforts that he requested consent to feature it in his RM600,000 production – Adiwiraku. 

She (Cheryl) agreed to let us make her story about the students and some other incidents which happened during her time teaching which were very touching, and I think all that should be brought up, especially issues such as social problems and poverty.  – Eric Ong, Malaysian movie director[10]

The scene in Adiwiraku captured Cheryl’s determination and trust in establishing a 35 students choral speaking team consisting of Form 1 to Form 5 students. The rural school managed to secure the fifth position in the competition, an achievement that was unknown to the school before this [10]


Cheryl is no longer a full-time teacher but she is actively advocating for equality in education. Now, a director at Pemimpin Global School Leaders Malaysia, she runs training and coaching for government school principals, equipping them with the right tools and strategy to improve their schools. 

I am driven because I constantly see inequality in Malaysia, especially in the education system. So, as long as there are children out there who are struggling with access to quality education, I will continue to be driven to make a difference.  Cheryl Ann Fernando, country director of Pemimpin Global School Leaders Malaysia[11]

#5: Dr Colin Nicholas – Outspoken Advocate For The Orang Asli Community

Not much is written or known about his background, however, one thing is clear – Dr Colin Nicholas has the best interest of the Orang Asli in his heart and mind. His works speak for himself, he founded the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC) in 1989 to push forward causes related to the Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia. 

His work through COAC involves assisting the community with court cases over land rights as well as advocating and educating the public with accurate news and information in relation to the misapprehended community. 

Source: Malaysiakini

It has become evident that only with recognition, will we begin to reduce Orang Asli marginalisation. – Dr Colin Nicholas, coordinator of Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC)[12]

Dr Colin Nicholas has published books related to the plights of the community and issues related to the community as a method of disseminating information.

We have encouraged the indigenous people to document their own history and surprisingly in some cases, even when most of the documentation was done in their languages such as Semai, the indigenous people requested for it to be translated into Bahasa Malaysia, simply because this would reach a wider audience. Dr Colin Nicholas, coordinator of Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC) [13]

Dr Colin Nicholas remains an active figure in imparting his comments on media platforms when it comes to Orang Asli’s mistreatment and proposed development plans that involve the community. 

Featured image sourced from Thomas Reuters Foundation/ Beh Lih Yi.

Explore our sources:

  1. Suganya. (2019). Thorn Among The Roses: A Story Of Two Men Fighting For Women’s Rights In Malaysia. Gempak! Link 
  2. S.Indramalar. (2017). Feminist men join movement for women’s equality. The Star. Link 
  3. S.Supramani. (2021). Men can champion feminism too. The Sun Daily. Link 
  4. K.M.S.Ku Mohd Fozi. (2020). ‘Saya hampir gila’. Utusan Malaysia. Link
  5. K.Kaur. (2020). Wheelchair-Bound Dewan Negara Senator Reveals How She Manages To Stand Up & Speak For Disability Rights In Parliament. The Rakyat Post. Link
  6. F.Yap. (2020). Fighting for respect in the shadows of the frontlines. Malaysiakini. Link 
  7. Q.N.Dzulqarnain. (2022). Hospital cleaners to head to Putrajaya with demands for better treatment. The Vibes. Link 
  8. O.C.Gomez. (2019). Make a living, make a change. The Edge Markets. Link
  9. S.Chong. (2017). ‘C’ for courage.  New Straits Times. Link 
  10. Y. Palansamy. (2017). How one woman became a teacher and ended up in a movie. Malay Mail. Link
  11. Prestige 40 Under 40: Cheryl Ann Fernando. Link 
  12. New Straits Times. (2019). Colin Nicholas. Link 
  13. S.Danker. (2014). WELL LIT.: Voices of the indigenous. New Straits Times. Link 

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