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6 Malaysians Who Have Dedicated Their Lives to Uphold Social Justice For Marginalised Communities

Social justice is broadly defined as everyone should have equal access to – wealth, health, well-being, privileges and opportunity regardless of race, religion and age. When there are permeating inequalities, it leads to social injustice aggravated by the existing social issues in the society.

Examples of social injustice include discrimination, ageism and denial of basic human rights. Over the years, we have seen that fights to uphold social justice in society are flourishing thanks to the availability of social media spreading awareness like wildfire. 

We have gathered 6 Malaysians who have dedicated their lives and given a voice to the silent struggles of the community that have long faced discrimination. 

#1: Glorene Das – Protector Of The Rights Of The Marginalised

It was by chance that she stumbled into a life-long career of upholding social justice for the marginalised. On her first day at Tenaganita, she knew next to nothing about human rights and spent her first week at the library reading up on the migrant and refugee population[1]. But it set her on a journey that humbled her and required her to be brave and compassionate. 

Source: Malaysiakini

I truly believe that it was the affected communities who drew me to this line of work, the local women in the plantation (their simplicity), migrant workers (humbleness), sex workers (fearlessness), people living with HIV/Aids (need to live), refugees and asylum seekers (resistance), stateless children (seeking to belong) and victims/ survivors of human trafficking (hope).  – Glorene Das, Executive Director of Tenaganita[1]

In 2014,  she became the Executive Director of Tenaganita, a human rights non-profit organisation dedicated to protecting the rights of the marginalised – migrant workers, women and children.

Glorene had continuously been vocal in the media regarding the mistreatment of migrant workers. Her presence in local newspapers and retaliation is part of the organisation to increase public awareness of the conditions of migrant workers living in Malaysia. 

The more Malaysians are informed about the conditions the migrant workers live in our country, the more they are ready to support the cause and push the government to give them more rights. – Glorene Das, Executive Director of Tenaganita[2]

#2: Dr Zaiton Yahaya – Sabahan HIV/AIDS Activist

Dr Zaiton’s involvement in HIV/AIDS activism started after her encounter with a mother of three living with HIV in Sandakan in 2008[3]. The words the mother she had met remains close to her and was what spurred her to action:

You are the only hope, please do something for us. It drew mixed feelings. From the tone of her voice, I felt the agony and misery that the woman was going through. As if she had lost all hope. That was the turning point in my life. – Dr Zaiton Yahya was working as a Family Medicine specialist in Sandakan in 2008[3]

Sabah Aids Awareness Group Association (SAGA) was founded to help many like the mother who had consulted with her. Sandakan has the second-highest number of AIDS patients in Sabah. She fought for funding from the Health Ministry and Global Fund to establish SAGA further. 

Compounding the situation is the prejudice against those suffering from HIV and AIDS, which creates fear among the people (which discourages them from) getting health screening and treatment. – Dr Zaiton Yahya, founder of SAGA [3]

For the first ten years, SAGA  spearheaded HIV prevention campaigns amongst key populations and provided treatments to those in need, with 2,500 beneficiaries thus far[4].

In addition to providing advisory services and appropriate medicines, SAGA also provides financial assistance to cover the cost of fares for HIV/AIDS patients to seek treatment before it is too late.

This action [AIDS awareness] is necessary because the main problem of most HIV/AIDS patients in Sabah is poverty and lack of awareness to get continuous treatment after being diagnosed with this dangerous disease. – Dr Zaiton Yahaya, founder of SAGA[5] (Quote translated from BM)

Her work in assisting HIV/AIDS patients in Sandakan was rewarded as she was selected as the recipient of the prestigious Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Award by the Malaysian AIDS Foundation in 2019.

The achievement fuelled her to reach new heights with Saga Health Access Programme (SHAPE), expanding the programme that provides financial assistance to HIV/AIDS patients.

This award is for everyone who has worked hard for fighting HIV and there’s a lot of work to be done in Sabah, so this award is just the beginning, and there is more work to be done. – Dr Zaiton Yahaya[4]

#3: Peter Kallang – Defender Of The Rivers

The Baram river to a 9-year-old Peter Kallang was a place filled with memories. The river was where he swam and learnt to fish for food. When studying at the Good Shepherd Catholic Mission in Marudi, the river provided them with clean water for washing and cleaning. There is a strong tie between the river and Peter, who belongs to the Kenyah tribe. Not just that,  the Orang Ulu, also known as the Upriver People depend on the river[6].

The indigenous community have left to bear the brunt of development. For example, the Bakun tribe’s lives changed for the worse after a hydroelectric dam project was completed. 20,000 people from the community were displaced, 71,000 hectares of rainforest were gone in a split second. 

We saw how in Bakun, people’s lives were affected because they were displaced. Drug addiction and alcoholism. Completely disoriented. – Peter Kallang, SAVE Rivers chairman[6]

Despite this, the local government aimed to build 20 dams by 2020. When the development inches closer to their community,  SAVE Rivers was established and was in action. 

The movement campaigned against the proposed development with blockades, police arrests, lawsuits against the Sarawak government, public forums, lobbying and appealing. The former Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Satem relented to their request in 2016, the development was halted. 

His effort was also rewarded with international acclaim. He received the Bruno Manser Prize for Moral Courage in 2016, an award he shared with Penan rights defender Komeok Joe. SAVE Rivers was also awarded the 19th Bishop Tiji Haksoon Justice and Peace Award 2016 from the Catholic Bishop Conference of Korea. Kallang, personally received the 2019 Seacology Prize, recognising his achievements in protecting island environments[6]

I am truly honoured to receive the Seacology Prize. It comes at a time when the spotlight of attention needs to return to the destruction and social injustice that lie at the heart of mega-dams in Sarawak and the Island of Borneo, while we continue to demonstrate the value of sustainable community-based renewable energy projects. – Peter Kallang, SAVE Rivers chairman [7]

But, it is an ongoing battle to ensure the rights of the indigenous community are respected in times of rampant development. In 2021, the SAVE Rivers movement with other rights groups is amid a legal altercation with logging subsidiaries. The issue of logging and land rights have plagued the community, and with stronger on the ground movement, the indigenous communities’ rights are being protected [8]

#4: Dr Aizan Sofia Amin – An Icon For The PwD Community

She lost her left leg to bone cancer when she was 16-year-old. Yet, that didn’t stop her from pursuing her studies at the Centre for Foundation Studies of the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM) in psychology. Dr Azian was the Best Student of Psychology in 2007. That was just the start. She aimed high, obtaining a Master degree from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and a Doctorate of Philosophy focusing on disabilities at Glasgow University, Scotland [9]

She is now a Senior Lecturer of Psychology and Human Well-Being in UKM. But being disabled is never an excuse to not play an active role in serving the community. She is part of the Islamic Relief Malaysia (IRM)[9]. She is also involved in developing the PWD Empowerment Project at the Industrial Training and Rehabilitation Centre for the PWD in Bangi, Selangor[10]

This program, among others, helps PWDs build skills and identity to live independently as participants are developed in leadership skills and given career and entrepreneurial opportunities. – Dr Aizan Sofia Amin, an icon for the PWD community[10] (Quote translated from BM)

As part of the government’s commitment to ensure a more inclusive community, Dr Aizan was invited by the Welfare Department to add value to the National PWD Action Plan 2016- 2022 [10].  

If I don’t give something to society, I feel that I am useless. I want people to look at disabled people like me as a volunteer. – Dr Aizan Sofia Amin, an icon for the PWD community[9]

She has received numerous accolades and is an icon for the PWD community in Malaysia, notably the Finalist Study UK Alumni Awards 2017 (Social Impact Category), British Council Malaysia 2017 and Tokoh Pekerja (OKU) Negara 2019[9]. But she’s far from stopping, Dr Aizan is continuously working to change the general public’s perception when it comes to the PWD community. 

I hope no one else (OKU) is crying because of the harsh words of the people. I want OKU not to be seen as oppressed, marginalised, or even as less dependable in society. I want their talents to be uncovered, not left behind. –  Dr Aizan Sofia Amin, an icon for the PWD community[9]

#5: Nisha Ayub – Advocating For Transgender Rights

In a country that is relatively behind when it comes to freedom of sexuality, where the stigma is pervasive against the LGBTQ+ and prosecution awaits them, Nisha Ayub stands tall despite the harassment and assault she has faced in the past. 

Being a transgender woman, she was prosecuted under the Sharia law that governs Malaysia punishes a male person who dresses or behaves like a woman and appears in public that way. She was imprisoned for 3 months at the age of 21 and was assaulted by other prisoners[11].

You can cut my hair. You can strip me naked. And you can take my dignity away from me. You can even kill me. But you cannot take away my identity as a transgender person.Nisha Ayub on her three months imprisonment[12]

But that traumatic experience did not dull her from speaking out against Malaysia’s discriminatory law and hostility towards the transgender community. Nisha was set on the path of advocacy and representing the transgender community. Nisha established two NGOs; Seed Foundation and Justice for Sisters (JFS)[13]

Both NGOs are working towards challenging the current discriminatory legislation against the transgender as well as providing support services to transgenders, sex workers and people living with HIV. 

In 2014, she led a charge alongside JFS challenging a religious law that banned Malaysian Muslim trans-women from cross-dressing. The Court of Appeal had upheld it as human rights infringement.  However, the monumental ruling was overturned the following year[13].

My hope for the LGBT community in Malaysia is basically for the government to recognise, accept and acknowledge that we are a part of society. And at the same time, I hope that we will be protected, just as equal as other citizens. As transgender women, the only thing we ask for is our right to education, our right to employment, our right to every single thing that is for all citizens. Nisha Ayub, transgender activist[12]

Nisha’s activism garnered global attention, she was awarded Human Rights Watch‘s Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism in 2015. Followed by an International Women of Courage Award in 2016, she is the first openly transgender woman to receive the award. In 2019, she was the only Malaysian listed on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) 100 Women of 2019.

6: Dato’ Dr Hartini Zainudin – Caretaker Of Marginalised Children

For nearly three decades, Dr Tini, as she is fondly called, has been at the forefront of protecting marginalised children. With extensive experience in child education, Dr Hartini has a PhD from Columbia University, New York revamped the Yayasan Salam, now known as Yayasan Chow Kit (YCK). 

YCK is the first 24-hour/7-day one-stop child crisis centre in the country providing displaced and marginalised children with shelter, protection and counselling. A single mother of several adopted children, the plights of the children, especially stateless children is a close one to her. In interviews, she had shared frustration in her attempt to earn citizenship for her adopted daughter, four years and counting in waiting[14].

Source: Harian Metro

Dr Tini is also the Vice President of Voice of the Children, a local NGO that does advocacy work, law and policy reforms and training on children’s issues. She was also a member of the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development’s National Advisory Council on the Welfare and Protection of Children, and is part of various national task forces including Child Protection Policy Training, Stateless Children also the Malaysian Adoption System. 

Source: New Straits Times

In an interview in 2021, Dr Hartini is on a quest to challenge the belief and policy circulating child marriages in Malaysia among other issues associated with marginalised and displaced children.

We can and we must. We just need to try a little harder and we need to engage those who are against banning it.  Let’s work together by educating and bringing them to the other side so that they will know the importance of saying “no” to child marriages in this country. – Dato’ Dr Hartini, co-founder of Yayasan Chow Kit[15].

Explore our sources:

  1. M. Vengadesan. (2021). Glorene Das remembers the battered child who survived a coma.Malaysiakini. Link 
  2. Equitas. (2017).Raising the Voices of Migrant Workers in Malaysia. Link 
  3. P.Y.Teoh. (2019).Sabah AIDS activist honored with Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Award. New Straits Times. Link 
  4. C.Loo. (2019).How a HIV patient altered Zaiton’s life. The Sun Daily. Link 
  5. H.Khazi. (2019). ​​Dr Zaiton Yahaya penerima Anugerah Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali. Berita Harian. Link 
  6. Journey with us. (2020). Peter Kallang, the Sarawakian activist who almost became a Catholic priest. Link 
  7. The Borneo Project. (2019).SAVE Rivers’ Peter Kallang wins Seacology Prize 2019! Link
  8. H.R.Abdul Rashid. (2021).Two timber firms suing NGO Save Rivers for defamation. Malaysiakini. Link
  9. A.Amir. (2019).Dr Aizan Sofia proves deficiency is an advantage. The Petri Dish. Link 
  10. N.A.Mohamad Yusof. (2017). Kerja keras dan air mata iringi semangat Dr Aizan. Berita Harian. Link 
  11. Wikipedia.Nisha Ayub. Link
  12. Transgender activist Nisha Ayub. Link
  13. Tatler Asia: Nisha Ayub. Link
  14. S.A.Yong & P.Chin. (2017).I Didn’t Choose Motherhood, Motherhood Chose
  15. V.Selvanayagam. (2021). IWD 2021: Dr. Hartini Zainudin Steps Up Her Game To Help Starving Children And The Marginalised Communities. Sense. Link 

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