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5 Lawyers Practicing Legal Compassion And Upholding Social Justice

The legal profession often attracts ire, lawyers are often stereotyped as having one foot in hell due to the contentious nature of their work, constantly navigating the grey area between ethics and legality. However, it is also a field that produces beacons of integrity and justice, individuals who lend a voice to the voiceless. Meet five Malaysian lawyers who inject their own unique brand of compassion into their work, slowly transforming the negative perception of the profession by championing the causes of those who need it most. 

#1: Daniella Zulkifli, Advocating For Gender Equality in Malaysia

Daniella Zulkifili is a prominent advocate for gender equality in Malaysia. Beyond her professional endeavours, Daniella is the vocal vice-president of the Association of Women Lawyers (AWL) and a member of the Reproductive Rights Advocacy Alliance Malaysia (RRAAM)

At AWL, part of the mission is to nurture the next generation of legal advocates. Daniella, in her capacity trains and judges moot court competitions, fostering the next generation of legal advocates. 

Source: Sinar Daily

For over a decade, Daniella has been a pivotal figure in civil society movements. She was integral in drafting the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act 2022, working with the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) since 2017. She was also one of the contributors to establishing the Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017, and part of her mission as a Co-Chairperson of the Malaysian Bar’s National Young Lawyers’ Committee is to repeal the Sedition Act and spearhead the Gender Equality Initiative.

I think we really need to interpret our laws based on that and more needs to be done to put that into place to ensure that we actually treat women the same way we treat men or any other gender. – Daniella Zulkifli[1]

In 2018, together with AWL and other leading women’s rights organisations, she petitioned for the end of child marriage in Malaysia through the #PelajarBukanPengantin #StudentsNotBrides initiative[2]. Recently, she was part of the creation of the iHeal training module for civil servants, replacing Biro Tata Negara. 

#2: Tham Hui Ying’s Fighting To Ensure A Dignified Future For The Marginalised

Tham Hui Ying is at the forefront of refugee and asylum-seekers’ rights in Malaysia as the director of Asylum Access Malaysia. Hui Ying is pivotal in providing legal aid to refugees and asylum seekers. Besides direct legal assistance, Asylum Access empowers refugee communities through advocacy and empowerment programmes, reaching over 3,100 clients annually[3].

Hui Ying champions the recognition of refugee rights, by emphasising the great importance of refugees’ right to work, enabling them to access safe, decent, and dignified livelihoods. 

Source: Asylum Access

To grant refugees the right to work is to ensure that they are able to have access to a livelihood that is safe, decent and dignified.– Tham Hui Ying, Director of Asylum Access[3]

Recognised as one of Prestige 40 Under 40 in 2021, Hui Ying’s influence extends beyond Malaysia. She serves as the Deputy Chair of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) South East Asia Working Group and sits on the boards of organisations such as The Asian-Pacific Resource & Research Centre For Women (ARROW) and Family Frontiers, advocating for women’s rights and equal nationality laws.

#3: Rajesh Nagarajan, The Legal Crusader For Animal Rights

Rajesh Nagarajan, known for his fervent advocacy for animal rights in Malaysia, stands up for the voiceless creatures that often face neglect and mistreatment. A dedicated animal rights activist and lawyer, Rajesh founded Lawyers for Animal Rights alongside fellow lawyer Sachpreetraj Singh, to relentlessly pursue justice on their behalf. Rajesh has voiced out his condemnation of recent events that cast aside the rights of animals in Malaysia such as Sabah’s decision to cull crocodiles and the Shah Alam City Council’s proposal to euthanise stray dogs. 

Source:  Miera Zulyana

In response to various controversial campaigns targeting animals and resorting to lethal measures instead of exploring humane alternatives, Rajesh through Lawyers for Animal Rights has been at the forefront of legal battles, challenging such campaigns in the court citing violations of the Animal Welfare Act 2015. In 2021, Rajesh took Cameron Highlands council to court for putting an RM 40 bounty on stray animals[4].  

We are concerned that this campaign by MDCH will result in rampant animal abuse, not only against strays but also domestic pet dogs that may be ‘pet-napped’ (abduction of pets belonging to others) to get the RM40 reward. This appalling state of affairs simply cannot be allowed to go on.Rajesh Nagarajan, co-founder of Lawyers for Animal Rights[4]

#4: Amani Hunt-Williams, Championing Justice for Malaysia’s Orang Asli

Amani Williams-Hunt bin Abdullah, fondly known as Bah Tony among the Orang Asli, is a prominent Indigenous Malaysian social activist and politician who has dedicated his life to advocating for social justice, land rights, and improved opportunities for Aboriginal Malaysians. Amani has marked multiple milestones, being one of the first Orang Asli to attend tertiary education, graduating with a degree in Economics from the University of Malaya in 1979[5]

Initially a banker, Amani pursued law part-time from 1999 to “enable him to seek justice and help for his community”[5] and became the first Orang Asli male to be admitted into the legal fraternity in 2010.

Amani, along with his colleague Augustine Anthony, played a crucial role in the acquittal of four Orang Asli men charged with killing a tiger in 2012.  The men who were charged with shooting dead a tiger with a borrowed shotgun belonging to a Malaysia Volunteers Corps Department (RELA) friend in self-defence in 2010, were acquitted after the prosecution failed to prove a prima facie case. Amani and Augustine Anthony fought their case pro bono, a reality in legal cases from Orang Asli[5]

The Orang Asli are poor people. Taking their cases to court requires money. Not many of them can afford that. Most of the lawyers that have done Orang Asli cases do it on a pro bono basis.  – Amani Hunt Williams Abdullah[6]

Dallying in politics to put forth the plights of Orang Asli in higher institutions, he joined the Democratic Action Party (DAP) in 2011, and six months later quit the party. In 2013, he made history by becoming the first Orang Asli in Malaysia to contest in a General Election under the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) ticket[5].

#5: Datuk Seri Karpal Singh, Tiger of Jelutong 

An unflinching defender of the defenceless, the late Karpal Singh was known as the “Tiger of Jelutong”, an iconic figure in Malaysia’s legal and political landscape. Born in Penang, Karpal began his legal career in Alor Setar, Kedah, before establishing his firm, Karpal Singh & Co, in 1970. He quickly rose in prominence for defending high-profile cases, including drug trafficking charges against foreign nationals and sodomy accusations against Anwar Ibrahim[6].

In 1974, he was elected to the Kedah State Legislative Assembly 1974, he soon became the Member of Parliament for Jelutong, holding the seat for 21 years. Following a brief defeat in 1999, he returned to the Parliament in 2004, as the representative for Bukit Gelugor[6]

In Parliament, Karpal was known for his opposition to Malaysia as an Islamic state, advocating for a secular nation, and his criticism of legal immunity for hereditary Malay rulers. 

It is important for every citizen in the country to know, that no one, no one is above the law … In the case of the king and the other rulers, the Special Court is the only court which I think is quite unfair because it is one-tiered … Even the rulers have the right to the rule of law. – the late Karpal Singh[7]

Despite controversies and clashes with government parliamentarians, he was respected for defending marginalised groups and opposing the death penalty. His efforts to repeal unjust laws and promote beneficial legislation earned him respect across the political spectrum. 

Even during his detention under the Internal Security Act (ISA) during Ops Lalang[6], his resolve remained unyielding. Karpal’s dedication to fight for justice continued after his release.

Following a car accident in 2005, Karpal was paralysed from the waist down due to a car accident. Karpal continued his legal and political work until his passing on April 17, 2014, in a road accident.

Karpal Singh’s legacy extends beyond his lifetime. His former political affiliation, DAP has unveiled plans to establish the Karpal Singh Scholarship, aimed at supporting law students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This initiative honours his contributions and encourages future generations to pursue careers in law and public service. For the 10th anniversary of his passing, a “Legacy Walk” and “Special Tribute Forum” were organised to celebrate his lasting legacy. 

Explore our sources:

  1. Zalani, A. (2022). Time to review sexist laws, says lawyer. Sinar Daily. Link 
  2. Nithi, D.K. (2023). Proud moments of empowered advocacy. The Star. Link 
  3. Vemulapalli, B.  (2024). In legal no-man’s land, refugees in Malaysia struggle to eat, pay rent. Al Jazeera. Link 
  4. FMT Reporters. (2021). RM40 for a stray: Animal lovers take Camerons council to court. Free Malaysia Today. Link 
  5. Wikipedia. (n.d.). Amani Williams Hunt Abdullah. Link 
  6. Nadia, A. (2022). No end to legal woes for Orang Asli. Malaysiakini. Link 
  7. Malhi Singh, R. (2022). HISTORY | Karpal Singh – staunch defender of the Constitution. Malaysiakini. Link 
  8. Ein, H. (2022). Rockstars of Malaysian politics. Sinar Daily. Link 
  9. Zurairi, AR. (2014). 10 things about: Karpal Singh, The Tiger of Jelutong. Link 

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