With the minimised digital divide in recent years, activism is more accessible to many. Action is also easier to take in swaying the nation’s social, political, economic or environmental landscape. Activism today takes shape in many forms and mediums.
From filmmaking to ensuring stateless children are given the right to learn, these activists have taken their causes under their wings and ensured changes will spread to the upcoming generations.
Let’s have a look at 9 Malaysian activists that walk the talk.
#1: Mogesh Sababathy
A marine biologist by profession, Mogesh Sababathy grew up on the island of Labuan, surrounded by pristine water and sandy beaches. However, through his lens, he saw irresponsible residents would discard their garbage without being fully aware of its consequences.
What inspired me in the environmental route was seeing a lot of trash like diapers, beer bottles and food packaging piling up on the beach. Throughout the years, we saw real incidents of turtles eating plastic and how birds get choked by plastic bottle caps. – Mogesh Sababathy, co-founder of Project Ocean Hope
In 2017, Mogesh founded Project Ocean Hope, a collaborative effort of marine biology students from Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT) to educate the general public on topics such as marine pollution and unsustainable fisheries.
At 24, Mogesh’s work garnered international attention, announced as a finalist for the 2021 Commonwealth Youth Awards and a recipient of the renowned Diana Award in the same year.
A lot of people think that the environment doesn’t affect them until it happens. It’s important for us to tell them how they can play a part in ocean and environmental conservation. I tell people that it’s about them identifying what they really want to do, especially when we are talking about the ocean. – Mogesh Sababathy, co-founder of Project Ocean Hope
#2: Adam Adli
The newly-minted Deputy Minister of Youth and Sports, Adam Adli Abdul Halim, was a former student activist fighting for the protection of student rights and academic freedom. However, Adam’s resolute nature of advocating for the rights of many stemmed from his humble background; born to a train driver father and a factory worker mother shaped his fighting spirit.
Not the upper side of Bangsar, where the middle class and upper class live. I grew up in the actual working-class area, where there were only a few flats that were occupied by railway workers. – Adam Adli, Deputy Minister of Youth and Sports
Adam, who has been at the frontlines of protests and movements, had few encounters with lawmakers. He had been arrested several times and charged with sedition, which he was later acquitted of in 2018. His latest brush with the law was in 2022 due to his involvement in the #TangkapAzamBaki rally.
His illustrious campaigning has led him to be suspended by his alma mater in 2013, but there is no stopping Adam Adli’s fuelling spirit for political reformation. Adam channelled his energy to frontline politics in 2021.
The struggle is not mine alone. We’re all in this together. – Adam Adli, Deputy Minister of Youth and Sports
His first attempt in the political arena during GE15 was victorious as he won Hang Tuah Jaya parliamentary seat and was appointed as the Deputy Minister of Youth and Sports. With his recent appointment, Adam aims to carve a better future for the youth of tomorrow by tackling issues of alleged corruption in sports and the unemployment rate in Malaysia.
#3: Alena Murang
Alena Murang knows a thing or two about preserving tradition. At a young age, she was drawn to the traditional music and dances native to the Kelabit tribe, an ancestry she inherited from her father.
I went to all the Rainforest World Music Festivals (held annually in Kuching, Sarawak) since 1998, and as a teenager, I would tell my mum how I thought it would be cool to be like them, travelling musicians performing on stage. – Alena Murang, cultural activist
In a society where arts often take a backseat, Alena’s involvement as a sape player was off to a slow start. However, after a short stint in corporate, Alena returned to the arts and gained recognition through her open mics performances.
When Alena took up sape at 11 years old, it was a dying art with only several sape players left. However, the sape that now became her trade is keeping the tradition and the stories of Orang Ulu that are fast fading very much alive.
In a nutshell, people call me a cultural activist, and I suppose that’s the closest to what I do. I’m a singer, musician, dancer and painter, telling stories from the Orang Ulu people of the upper Baram river in the rainforests of Borneo, where my village lies. – Alena Murang, cultural activist
Apart from performing solo, Alena also joined forces with five other Borneo female artists in Ilu Leto (We The Ladies), a band she formed. Alena also founded Art4Studio, a social enterprise that fosters social and environmental impact through arts.
#4: Mukmin Nantang
Even during his university days, Mukmin Nantang has been vocal about access to education and the rights of the underserved. During his days as a theatre student at Universiti Malaysia Sabah, the Tawau lad founded street schools in Tawau, namely the Sekolah Jalanan Ikatan Anak Muda Tawau, with a dream of opening alternative schools for rural areas.
Everyone wants to change for the better, but there are no parents who want their children to be victims, no teachers who want their students to be victims, and no lovers who want their loved ones to be victims. – Mukmin Nantang, founder of Borneo Komrad
Today, Mukmin is the man behind Borneo Komrad, an NGO that provides education to stateless children in Sabah, Borneo. The NGO also kickstarted the social impact project Sekolah Alternatif (alternative schools) equipping children with skills such as writing, sewing, and cooking. At the same time, the school educates the community on child marriages and labour exploitation.
In 2022, Mukmin, Borneo Komrad and several students of Sekolah Alternatif co-founded Sekolah Pemulihan Gam (or Glue Rehabilitation School), one of the social ills prominent amongst stateless children in Sabah to curb hunger. At present, the school has about 20-30 students being taught basic hygiene, literacy and even performance arts.
#5: Beatrice Leong
Autism in Malaysia is often dominated by conversations on early childhood diagnosis and early intervention. However, it isn’t rare for adults, and females to be diagnosed with the disorder, contrary to the typical prevalence rate of the disorder. Beatrice Leong was one such case, her autism diagnosis in her 30s explained her difficulty in social situations and her struggle to form human relationships from a young age.
This diagnosis is not a magic wand that makes everything better but women like me should also not need to continue with our battle cry for us to be taken seriously and be understood better. We must begin to question our gender bias in diagnosing females. – Beatrice Leong, founder of Autism Inclusiveness Direct Action Group
The diagnosis, however, opened Pandora’s box for Beatrice, who had met multiple therapists in her life who had dismissed her concerns previously. Another crux in Malaysia is the lack of availability and accessibility for autistic adults to seek out help, and Beatrice was unhelpfully directed to a centre catered to autistic children.
We must learn and begin to see beyond what’s unsaid and rethink the diagnostic tools available and the acknowledgement that the current diagnostic criteria are in favour of the stereotypical white-Caucasian male stereotype. – Beatrice Leong, founder of Autism Inclusiveness Direct Action Group
Her findings spurred her to direct a documentary on “Lost Girls”, a term coined to describe women who found their diagnosis later in life. Beatrice had also taken great strides in bringing forth the struggles of “lost girls” by establishing the Autism Inclusiveness Direct Action Group to represent the voices of autistics and run a few initiatives that tackle sexual education and empowerment for autistic girls.
#6: Rifqi Faisal
The eureka moment for Rifqi Faisal to transform words into action was after attending the first meeting with the non-partisan platform UNDI18. Driven and empowered by fellow activists setting precedents, Qyira Yusri and Tharma Pillai of UNDI18, he and his friend Izzana Izzuddin told themselves “that everyone in this world must do anything that is within their capacity to help”.
At 19, the university student founded MYER Movement in April 2021 with his friend, Izanna Izzuddin. MYER movement is founded to provide a platform for student voices in spurring Malaysian education reform. Rifqi has continued to be outspoken in commenting on education disparities in Malaysia and was also one of the 18 individuals that sued the government for delaying UNDI18 enactment in 2021.
The only barrier that exists between you and creating change is fear. Do not be fearful to use your voice and amplify the voices of others. You may not have all the answers on how to fix the issues in this world but that does not mean you cannot seek for it by starting a platform, organisation, or anything else of the sort. – Rifqi Faisal, co-founder of MYER Movement
#7: Fara Rom
In 2016, Fara Rom started her journey as a volunteer in Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) through her outreach work with the Negeri Sembilan Family Planning Association (NSFPA). Who knew her involvement in the organisation led her to find her passion in advocating for sexual reproductive health?
Fara has been actively volunteering with other associations in the same field and found there is a lack of creative content discussing a topic that is still considered taboo in Malaysia.
As a young activist, advocating for the issue of sexual reproductive health and rights is never an easy task. With the growing resistance against the cause, more support in every form is needed to ensure that the effort in fulfilling the right to decide can be achieved for all, especially in Malaysia. – Fara Rom, founder of For Youth Initiative Kuala Lumpur
In 2017, For Youth Initiative Kuala Lumpur (FYIKL), a platform that creates relatable and bitesize online content advocating for SRHR. Along with affiliated organisations such as the Reproductive Rights Advocacy Alliance Malaysia (RRAAM) and Asia Safe Abortion Partnership (ASAP), Fara and FYIKL ran the first public contemporary art exhibition on Abortion in Malaysia entitled ‘ Abort The Stigma’.
#8: Sahana Kaur
At 17, Sahana Kaur has compiled accolades from works driven by her passion for human rights, climate action and youth empowerment. In 2021, Sahana won the prestigious Diana Award through her work with Project All For All, a youth-led nonprofit aimed to empower youth to participate in civic engagement. The same year Sahana received the EARCOS Global Citizenship Award.
Currently, Sahana is Amnesty International Malaysia’s youth committee chair and has led several initiatives in areas of climate action and supporting those in need.
I’m driven by the realisation that there are so many things in these fields which need to be, and can be done, but are not being done. – Sahana Kaur, a recipient of the Diana Award 2021
The world is an oyster for Sahana who is currently pursuing her studies in political science in the US while continuing her work in human rights.
#9: Ain Husniza
The student-turned-activist, Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam’s journey of advocating for safer schools has not been smooth sailing. From the get-go, Ain who exposed a male teacher on a Tik Tok video for allegedly making rape jokes in school was hurled multiple verbal cases of abuse from naysayers. Ain was also expelled from her former school during one of the pivotal times of her student life; before her Sijil Pendidikan Malaysia.
Despite it, Ain has been fighting against a toxic culture that makes light of sexual harassment in school through the #MakeSchoolASaferPlace campaign. Ain’s videos have struck a nerve amongst the larger society, indicating that the toxic culture has been normalised in schools.
This proves it is not just about one teacher, it is about the whole education system.– Ain Husniza, Activist & Founder, #MakeSchoolASaferPlace Campaign
Even if her experience has been nothing short of traumatic, she hopes her story would only encourage more conversations on making school a safe space for students.
I want to spread awareness because it helps pressure society to change. Not one person can do this alone. When I fight, I show others that we all deserve the same rights. – Ain Husniza, Activist & Founder, #MakeSchoolASaferPlace Campaign
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- B.Leong. (2022). The Lost Girls: On being diagnosed with autism as an adult – Beatrice Leong. The Vibes. Link
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