Remembering Teoh Beng Hock

by Gan Pei Ling / 7 Sept 2012 © Selangor Times

Mysterious fall. Open verdict. Suicide. It’s been three years since political aide Teoh Beng Hock was found dead at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC)’s office in Shah Alam but the cause of his death remains contentious till today.

On Sept 22, a documentary based on the tragedy, titled “Rights of the Dead”, will be shown for the first time during the Freedom Arts Fest at the Petaling Jaya Live Arts Theater at Jaya One.

The 25-minute film is directed by Tricia Yeoh, who obtained a RM6,000 grant from Pusat Komas in May to make it.

She raised another RM6,000 from public donations to complete the film.

Yeoh, a well-known newspaper columnist and policy researcher, was working as a research officer for the Selangor Menteri Besar when the tragic incident occurred.

She subsequently became the state government’s liaison officer for the long-drawn case.

The 30-year-old has since left the Selangor government in April 2011 to join a private marketing research firm as its director of business development.

She shared with Selangor Times in an interview on Aug 27 why she decided to take time off from her job to make the documentary, the challenges she faced as a first-time filmmaker and what viewers can expect from the film.

Why did you decide to make a film about Teoh Beng Hock?

Yeoh interviewing Beng Hock’s father Teoh Leong Hwee, 59, and mother Teng Shuw Hoi, 59, at their home.

I think it was important to record what happened. He died when I was still an officer in the Menteri Besar’s office. I was kind of like the liaison officer for the case, representing the Selangor government. I dealt with the lawyers, [state-appointed forensic pathologist] Dr Porntip [Rojanasunan] from Thailand, the family…and I always felt there was no real conclusion to the case.

It’s been three years since he passed away, his death still affects the family and friends. But you know the general public has short memories, they eventually forget. I wanted to capture some of the moments in time, to have something for people to watch, maybe for his own son to watch when he is older.

When I left the Selangor government, this was one of the things that was still unresolved. This is also my own way of coming to a resolution, dealing with the emotions that I was going through when I was working on the case.

I applied for the grant from Komas last year but I didn’t get it so I applied again this year. It’s been something that has been on my mind for a long time.

Did you know Teoh Beng Hock personally?

I only knew him in passing. I’ve seen him at press conferences, at the lift (at the state secretariat). We would say “hi” to each other but we never really spoke. So even his boss [Selangor executive councillor] Ean Yong [Hian Wah] was quite surprised that I had taken such a big interest in the case.

I think I was very affected by it because I thought it could have happened to me, as one of the officers [working for the Selangor government]. I felt very bad for the family members who were forced to be thrust into the public sphere as a result of what happened.

Is this your first film?

Yes, I’ve never done anything related like this before. It was quite stressful. I didn’t know anything about filmmaking. Compared to writing about policies, there’s a lot of creative processes involved in making a documentary.

Pusat Komas gave me guidance on what roughly needs to be done but I still needed to seek my own help and advice. On the technical part, I had to completely rely on my cameraman and sound person. I didn’t know the names of the equipment, for example the difference between a mixer and a recorder but now I do. (Laughs) I had a video editor as well, and someone to do the graphics, audio tracks. (Local artist) Jerome Kugan wrote a song for the film.

I had a really good team of people and I’m really thankful.

What’s the angle of the film?

Teoh Er Jia, now three, never knew his father.

Originally I wanted to make the film from the son’s point of view, but we realised that would be very difficult. Who becomes the voice? If he was older maybe I could get him to talk but he’s too young now. (Teoh Er Jia, now three years old, was born after Beng Hock’s death. His fiancé Soh Cher Wei, 31, was already pregnant when the tragedy occurred.)

So eventually I decided to tell the story from the point of view of someone who was there, who was working behind the scene to find out what happened. It’s a personal journey of investigation and exploring, so the viewers will have a glimpse into my thought processes.

We explored the institutions that were involved, the MACC, the police, the forensics behind it and the judiciary. I looked at these four institutions and how they may have been compromised in order to come to a certain conclusion. I talk about the political context but I’m looking more at the flaws of the institutions, that we’re subjected to weaknesses in the system because these institutions are not independent.

I also look at the personal perspectives of the family as well. But I do want to drive home the point that it’s because of this flawed system we have that somebody died. We’re all part of the system. We as Malaysians, it could have been anyone of us. If you don’t have a fair and independent judicial system, who can you rely on at times of trouble?

Did you manage to interview representatives from these institutions for your film?

I got to speak to the MACC. I actually requested an interview with everyone, the police, the Attorney-General’s Chambers, the MACC lawyers, the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) into Beng Hock’s death…I contacted everybody but only MACC agreed to an interview. I was pleasantly surprised and I’m quite glad that I got them.

I had also tried to speak to the head of the RCI, Tan Sri James Foong, but he declined to give an interview and said everything [to be said] is already in the report. That’s a fair statement. It’s his prerogative. The rest didn’t respond to my [interview requests].

Apart from the difficulty of getting hold of the authorities, can you share other challenges you faced in making the documentary?

One of the challenges was that there was just so much information but I couldn’t put everything in. That’s the process in filmmaking but as a researcher I found it quite frustrating and sad that I had to leave out several things that I felt were important because of the time limit.

If I have more funds in the future I might do a longer version, a different cut, maybe an hour long. I already have the footage, I have so much material.

The other challenge was to find a fresh perspective because this is a case that everybody has read or knows about. I want to bring something new, different to the table, so I tried to do this by putting in things people may not have known or have forgotten. For example, there was an SMS (Short Message Service) sent by a MACC officer to her senior, telling the senior to tell other officers don’t lie anymore, this is a big case. This came out in the RCI. If you’re asking people not to lie, the implication is that people have been lying.

What were some of the important details that you had to leave out?

Dr Porntip, a well-known forensic pathologist from Thailand, claimed she was pressured against testifying at the inquest. She had maintained that Beng Hock did not commit suicide.

There were a lot of questions raised on the evidence found on his body, I couldn’t focus on every single thing, for example the drag marks on the shoes. And the fact that he didn’t have a defensive wound on his wrists. Usually if you fall from height, the person will suffer a colles’ fracture because it’s a natural reaction from the body to break the fall, even if it’s a case of suicide. But in this case, there wasn’t any fracture so it raises the question of whether he was conscious when he fell. There was an anal injury as well, which Dr Porntip said was unusual for any fall from height. These are some of the details that don’t gel with the fact that he committed suicide that I couldn’t look at in the film.

And then there was the window that he was said to have fallen out. It was not tested for DNA and the reason the police gave during the inquest was that they had done fingerprint dusting first, but because the window surface too dusty, they couldn’t get any fingerprints out of it either. When we asked Dr Porntip what’s the first thing you would do when you look at this crime scene, she said the first thing is actually to look for DNA.

You really have to decide what are the best things to put in the film. I had to leave them out because there was no time. It’s a huge case.

And you interviewed the family as well for the film?

Yes. The wife, the sister and the parents.

How are they?

I don’t talk about how their life is now in the film but I think the sister is still very much affected. She’s the one who’s the most emotional about it still. I think it’s very hard for her to move on because she was the closest to him…The parents are still hurt, the mom thinks they’re still waiting for something to happen, some answers.

They’re still hoping for some answers?

I’m not sure “hope” is the right word to use. They’re quite burned out. I think all of them are very cynical (by now) about whether there can be any answer (to the cause of his death). What else can they do to get answers? They want explanations. Obviously they can’t accept that it was a suicide. They want answers but they can’t expect it realistically, so they’re left in this conundrum.

I’m not just talking about their family. Other people have died in custody as well. My documentary didn’t talk about the other victims but I want people to think about them also. This is just one case, one story, there are countless families whose children have also died in custody, and because of what? It’s because the system is too highly politicised and there’s no independence.

It’s ridiculous when you think about it. Innocent families are suffering because of the way our institutions are being run. (Lapse of silence)

You speak to the colleagues as well?

I spoke to his colleagues at the state (secretariat) and former colleagues at Sin Chew Daily, the lawyers, I also went to Bangkok to interview Dr Porntip.

Are they still affected? 

I think when you talk to them, you can still sense that they are angry. It’s not just anger but dejection, a sort of dejected anger. Even for me, if you were to ask me am I angry? Yes I am, but it’s a sort of tired anger. It’s very emotionally-draining for anyone who has followed the case through.

When it happened, when you were following the case, you would feel emotionally or psychologically affected by it. It’s quite haunting. Even during the research for the documentary, you get drawn in and you remember what happened in the past.

I mean, of course everybody has to move on, the lawyers have to take on new cases, people have lives to lead, but when you think back, maybe we can move on but the family will never do.

Do you think your documentary serves as some sort of closure for the case?

I don’t know whether it serves as a closure. I’m not seeking to give you answers in the documentary. I don’t want to say who was at fault, who was in the wrong politically but I do want people to realise for themselves what’s the real issue here.

I want the film to serve as a reminder that this case is part of a bigger problem. People who are not politically-conscious yet should realise that it’s because of politics, our system of governance, that this sort of tragedy has happened.

The film trailer is available on Facebook at Freedom Arts Fest, formerly known as Freedom Film Fest, is an annual event organised by Pusat Komas. This year’s theme is “Democracy: Who’s the Boss?” and Yeoh is one of three local filmmakers who won a grant to make a documentary based on the theme.

Find out more about other human rights films and the screening schedule at

Restoring the House’s independence

by Gan Pei Ling / 16 March 2012 © Selangor Times

The Special Select Committee on Competence, Accountability and Transparency (Selcat) has become a household name since it conducted the high-profile public inquiries into the Wives of Selangor Welfare and Assemblypersons and Members of Parliament Charity Organisation (Balkis) in 2009. In an exclusive interview with Selangor Times, Selcat chairperson and Speaker Datuk Teng Chang Khim spoke about the steps PR has taken to strengthen the law-making branch of the state.

Datuk Teng Chang Khim

Can you share some of the legislative reforms PR has implemented since 2008?

For a start, we’re the first state assembly to telecast our sittings live via the Internet. We publish a journal now after every sitting to inform the public about what laws and motions were passed. We’ve also increased the days of sitting from an average of six to 20 days a year so that members of the House have more time to debate bills before they’re passed.

In 2008, we set up Selcat and three new select committees that specialised in scrutinising;

1)    state statutory bodies and government-linked companies (ABAS),
2)    local governments (PBT), and
3)    district and land offices (Padat).

Previously the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which only has seven members, has to scrutinise everything the executive is doing. Now they can focus on state departments only.

So instead of seven people, now we’ve 28 state lawmakers from four select committees – ABAS, PBT, Padat and PAC – to watch over the executive.

We appointed two opposition members into each of the seven-member select committees to reflect the proportion in the House.
We also appointed an opposition member to chair the PAC for the first time in Selangor.

Finally, we’re also in the process of enacting a new law to establish a service commission for the House, so that our management and administration are independent of the executive.

Why did the Selangor State Assembly set up Selcat? And what’s the difference between Selcat and the three new select committees (ABAS, PBT and Padat)?

It’s actually a common practice for house committees to conduct public hearings in advanced democracies like Canada, United Kingdom and Australia but this has never been done in Malaysia.

We want to follow the Commonwealth benchmark. But our worry then was, holding public inquiries involves legal procedures and we didn’t have experienced lawyers among the select committees’ members, nor supporting staff with legal expertise to back them up.

That’s why Selcat was formed. It’s meant to specialise in conducting public hearings. We got help from the US Senate, they gave us a two-day training, taught us how the hearings should be carried out.

So now the select committees will refer to Selcat if there are issues of public interest and we’ll call for a public inquiry.

For example, we called for a public inquiry on PKPS Agro Industries Sdn Bhd (mismanagement of RM90.3 million of federal loans given out in 2005 and 2006) last week because ABAS felt the issues should be highlighted to the public.

Selcat has become an icon now. We’ve increased the public’s expectations. Now people are asking why Parliament and other states haven’t set up a similar committee to hold public hearings.

We’ve incorporated ABAS, PBT and Padat into the Standing Orders like the PAC. This is a very important institutional reform. If the next government wants to abolish these select committees, they would have to go through two assembly sittings and amend the laws.

But Selangor Umno deputy chief Datuk Seri Noh Omar has called Selcat a “kangaroo court” that only exposed things but never punished anybody. What’s your response to that?

Selcat, like any other house committee worldwide, only has the power to summon and query. It does not and cannot have more power than the state assembly itself.

The most Selcat can do (and has done) is to call for public inquiry and try to find out what’s happening by asking the state entities like Kumpulan Semesta (Sdn Bhd) to appear before us.

We don’t have the power to seize their documents or search premises. That’s the job of the police, and where it involves corruption, the MACC (Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission).

If the opposition has proof that there are criminal elements in sand-mining operations in Selangor, they should lodge a report with the police or MACC. In fact, the MACC has conducted investigations (in 2010) and didn’t find (any wrongdoings).

I also read in Sinar Harian today (March 12) that Umno Youth Selangor wants Selcat to follow the Parliament’s PAC practice to appoint non-politicians into the committee. But the Parliament’s PAC is made up entirely of members of Parliament, all of whom are politicians. (Chuckles)

I’m astonished by their ignorance in the running of a democracy. Either that or they’re trying to confuse the people.

You’ve been a state lawmaker in Selangor since 1995, you were also the opposition leader in the state assembly from 1995 to 1999 and 2004 to 2008. Comparing then and now, do you see an improvement in the quality of debates in the House?

Definitely. When I was in the opposition, there were very few opposition members. The BN executive was only interested to get laws passed. They weren’t serious in debates.

Whereas now, you can see that PR backbenchers are very active during debates. They give good suggestions and aren’t afraid to criticise their own government, it’s encouraging.

To my surprise, the opposition, which has been making lots of noise outside, has been relatively dormant in the House.

They’ve not tabled any good motions so far, 95 per cent of the motions have come from the Backbenchers’ Club.

But in Parliament, the opposition members are more active in tabling motions and submitting private member’s bill. They aren’t doing that here. The Backbenchers’ Club is more active in the Selangor State Assembly. They’re helping the opposition (to raise issues).

You mentioned earlier that the House has limited resources to support its select committees. What other challenges do you face in implementing reforms?

In a democracy, the three branches of government, legislature, executive and the judiciary, should check and balance each other. But the practice in Malaysia is that the legislature acts more like the rubber stamp of the executive. The Speaker is only a figurehead. The House’s administration comes under the executive. The members of the House have no say.

In Selangor (and other states), the House secretary takes orders from the state secretary. The hiring and firing of the staff in the legislature is controlled by the executive.

Imagine now, the House secretary can be transferred if the executive doesn’t like him or her. Our legislature isn’t independent from the executive.

So we must go back to the Commonwealth practice, where the legislature has its own service commission to take care of the hiring and firing of staff. The House secretary will take orders from the service commission, not the executive.

We’ve drafted the bill called SELESA (Selangor Legislative Assembly Service Commission Enactment) to set up this service commission, but the executive has yet to agree.

Why? Isn’t it a good thing to strengthen the House’s independence?

The executive is hesitating because the bill will take their powers (to control the legislature’s administration) away from them.

But they’ve forgotten that these powers belonged to the House. The House, as an independent branch of the government, should have full control of its own budget and staff.

If PR is elected into government for another term and you’re appointed as Speaker again, what other reforms do you hope to implement?

Firstly, we must get SELESA passed. Once the House has control of its own budget, we can set up departments specialising in law, accounting, corporate practices, public administration, town planning and more to support our select committees and members of the House.

Once we’ve established the specialised departments, the departments will research the issues and advise the select committee on questions that should be raised in the meetings and public inquiries.

Then the check and balance provided by the House on the executive will be more professional and effective.

Besides that, I want to bring the House nearer to the people through public education. This has always been on my mind. We need to bring students here and educate them about the House and its history: Why is it important? How does it pass laws?Who were the important figures – Speakers and opposition leaders – that have stood in this House?

Once we have control of our budget, then we can implement a structural education programme.

Related post: Challenging and exciting times

Liew Seng Tat: “We’re still outsiders”

by Gan Pei Ling / 12 December 2011 © The Nut Graph

LIEW Seng Tat is one of the most promising indie filmmakers in Malaysia. His debut feature film Flower in the Pocket (2007) has won numerous international awards. Previously, his short films Bread Skin with Strawberry Jam and Not Cool had also won top prizes at the Malaysian Video Awards.

The full-time filmmaker is now working on his second feature film In What City Does It Live?. On 2 Dec 2011, he released his latest short film Welcome to Kampong Radioaktif to raise public awareness on the proposed Lynas rare earth plant in Gerbang, near Kuantan, Pahang. It is one of four parodies in the Survival Guide untuk Kampong Radioaktif series.

(All pics courtesy of Liew Seng Tat)

“I’m not an activist, I’m just a filmmaker. I’m not against the rare earth plant; I know we need rare earth, but I don’t think the location is suitable. By doing a film with some parody and slapstick comedy, I hope it will make people laugh and think about the issue,” he told The Nut Graph on 22 Oct 2011.

In the interview, Liew shares his fond memories of growing up in Jinjang, the largest Chinese New Village in Malaysia; the incredible foreign support he has received to make Malaysian films; and his hopes for a country that still makes him feels like an “outsider”.

TNG: Where and when were you born?

I was born in 1979 and grew up in Jinjang, Kuala Lumpur. It has a bad reputation [for having] lots of gangsters. But it was safe for me. My family and relatives lived together in a wooden house. We never locked the main door and we didn’t need a fence. We had two mango trees in front of our house, so we had a neverending supply of mangoes. Anyone who passed by could just pluck them.

There were many dropouts and restless youths – I wouldn’t call them gangsters – hanging around kopitiams. Sometimes they broke into fights, breaking chairs and tables. I used to help out at my mom’s noodle stall at a kopitiam, so I’ve seen some of the fights, but never really bloody ones [like we see in Hong Kong gangster movies].

Can you trace your ancestry?

I’m Hakka. My grandparents were born here, so I’m third-generation Malaysian.

Can you share some of your fondest childhood memories?

I remember we had a huge kitchen with a fireplace. We still used charcoal to cook then. And there was an open well, too. Behind the kitchen there were about 10 mini pools made of cement, which my uncle used to rear small fishes to supply to the aquarium. I used to play with the frogs and tadpoles in the pools (smiles).

Three-year-old Liew riding a bicycle around his old home in Jinjang, Kuala Lumpur

I also kept tortoises, about 10 of them. They just kept breeding and a few times their eggs went missing. Now that I think about it, probably the rats or some other animals ate them.

It was a fun childhood. I used to catch fighting spiders, too. I kept them in a box like a pet and fed them with mosquitoes or flies. We used to let them fight and watch them kill each other. [In hindsight], it was very brutal…

How was school like?

I looked forward to going to school – SK La Salle Jinjang – as a kid. We flew kites, played gasing… Nowadays, you don’t see kids playing these games anymore. Instead they play video games, [with] iPads and iPhones.

We were very adventurous back then. When I was around Standard Three (nine years old), I went camping with my sister and her friends. They were only two years older than me. The four or five of us took a bus to Templer’s Park and set up camp in the middle of a jungle. We only realised it [might not be] safe when night fell. It was pitch-black and there were lots of strange animal sounds. That’s when I realised we shouldn’t have been there all on our own.

I also looked forward to going to school on Saturdays for the co-curriculum activities. I was in the Boy Scouts and we went on a few trips with our teachers. Once we went to a Malay [Malaysian] teacher’s kampung, I can’t remember exactly where it was but I’ve very fond memories of the trip. There we were, all these Chinese [Malaysian] kids in a Malay house. It was great to get to know the family. I remember we had durian for breakfast with rice, and went to the orchard for treasure-hunt activities.

Did you always know you would become a filmmaker?

I wanted to study advertising originally in university, but my father wouldn’t allow it. So I chose 3D animation. My father agreed because he thought it was a course with a great future. At that time, multimedia and IT (information technology) courses were very popular. I liked what I studied. After graduation, I worked as an animator for a few years.

Then Tan Chui Mui, my university classmate, asked if I was interested in making a short film. She knew I liked to tell stories. I got a script with her help, made the video, submitted it to the Malaysian Video Awards, and I won. I used the prize money to make my second short film, won again, and I thought: “There must be something going on here.”

Then I made the third and fourth short film, and finally my first feature film. Everything happened organically. Flower in the Pocket won awards in [the] Busan [International Film Festival in South Korea], Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Italy… I didn’t expect such an encouraging response. I was travelling for an entire year touring with the film.

Directing on the set of ‘Welcome to Kampong Radioaktif’

The success of Flower in the Pocket opened many doors for me. I was invited to the Cannes Film Festival residency programme for about five months and wrote my second feature film script there. They paid for my accommodation and private French lessons, and hooked me up with other directors to encourage me to write.

I also represented Asia at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, where I met Hollywood scriptwriters. It felt weird to present a Malaysian script to Hollywood people, but they liked the script and gave me a lot of advice. They also understood that I come from a different culture, so it was up to me whether to adopt their advice. They really cared about my story and they could remember what was written in the script, page by page. I felt like an orphan being adopted for the first time, to have people show you so much care and support. It was unbelievable.

I’ve been refining my second script, it’s called In What City Does It Live? and now it’s ready to roll. I’m just waiting for the complete funding to be in place. I’ve received foreign grants, but I hope to get some local support to complete the funding process so I can start shooting soon. Flower in the Pocket was shot with a low budget, small cast and crew in a short time. This time I’m more ambitious, I want to do it with a proper budget, cast and time.

Family portrait. Liew is being carried by his uncle, far left.

How do you connect to these stories as a Malaysian? Are there any instances where you struggle with your identity?

As a Chinese [Malaysian] in this country, you’re used to not getting certain things and support. I wouldn’t have made any films if I sat there and waited for support.

I’m very proud to be a Malaysian when I’m overseas. I introduce myself as Liew Seng Tat, a filmmaker from Malaysia. I don’t have to explain I’m a Chinese Malaysian. And I become a Malaysian ambassador, explaining our culture and peoples to international audiences, many of whom are watching a Malaysian film for the first time. Tourism Malaysia should pay me for helping to promote the country!

But back here, I’m just a Chinese. An outsider. No matter how much I love this country, I don’t feel I belong here. Although I’m a Malaysian who was born and bred here, there are still people who think I’m a pendatang. We still hear nasty remarks asking Chinese Malaysians to go back to China.

Don’t tell me it’s just coming from one person. If one person thinks like that, he or she is representing a group of people. We’re still considered outsiders whether we like it or not. But I’m hopeful with the new generation. People are more politically aware now. Some of my friends who have never voted are now very passionate about politics and the country.

I think the people are getting smarter. [Politicians] can’t lie to us as easily as before.

Liew with other filmmakers at the Rotterdam Film Festival in Netherlands in 2008. His film ‘Flower in the Pocket’ won in the Rotterdam Tiger Awards.

What kind of Malaysia do you hope to see in future?

A Malaysia that cherishes the arts, creativity and culture. I’m not talking about Istana Budaya or traditional dances. Many people don’t realise the importance of arts and creative thinking. Our culture and education system is obsessed with marks and spoonfeeding the young.

I remember at the Berlin Film Festival, the organisers brought thousands of school children to the film festival. I thought they wouldn’t pay attention to the details in the film, but they did. During the question-and-answer session, the German children asked me critical questions. I was really impressed.

When I look back at our own country, do we give our children such international exposure? How often do we bring them out of the classroom to expose them to different cultures and languages, and open up their minds?

The book Found in Malaysia Volume 2, which was launched on Malaysia Day 2011, is now available in bookstores for RM50. It features previously unpublished interviews with Asha Gill, Lillian Too, Khairy Jamaluddin and Baru Bian. Volume 1 of Found in Malaysia, featuring 54 earlier interviews, is currently in its second print run and retailing at RM45.

Amber Chia: 1Malaysia won’t happen in a day

by Gan Pei Ling / 26 September 2011 © The Nut Graph

(All pics courtesy of Amber Chia)

WHEN she was 18, Amber Chia flew to Kuala Lumpur from Tawau, Sabah with only RM300 in her pocket to fulfil her dream of becoming a model despite her parents’ vehement opposition.

Chia stumbled around for some time before she found the right modelling agency. In 2004, she got her big break when she was chosen as international spokesperson for Guess Watches. She has since represented various international brands like Sony, L’Oreal and Mitsubishi.

Apart from modelling, Chia has acted in Chinese movies such as Possessed, and made guest appearances in sitcoms and TV shows in Taiwan and China.

The 30-year-old started her own company Amber Creations in mid-2009 and a modelling school Amber Chia Academy in August 2010. She married her manager Adrian Wong in March last year, and gave birth to their son Ashton Wong in September.

Her year-old son and business are her main focus now. The model-turned-businessperson shares her humble beginnings and future aspirations in an interview on 29 July 2011 at her academy in Petaling Jaya.

TNG: When and where were you born?

I grew up in a fishing village in Sekinchan, but I was born in Ipoh on 14 Dec 1981. There was no hospital around Sekinchan or Kuala Selangor, so my mother went to Ipoh to give birth to her six children. I’m the third child. I’ve an elder brother, elder sister and three younger sisters.

My family moved to Tawau, Sabah when I was nine.

Eight-year-old Chia

What was it like growing up in a fishing village? What are some of your fondest childhood memories?

My dad was a fisherman. He would go out for days to fish. I had to help my mum take care of my three younger sisters and I learnt to cook when I was very young.

We stayed in a wooden house and had lots of animals: ducks, geese, turtles, cats, dogs and birds. Although my family was poor, my siblings and I had fun growing up together. We played together, climbed trees, or went to the beach to catch sea snails. The place we stayed at was always flooded, but we were happy when it happened because then we didn’t have to go to school (laughs). I used to cycle to school.

Can you trace your ancestry?

My dad is Teochew and my mother is Hokkien. I can speak both dialects.

My paternal grandfather came from Chaoyang in China, but my dad was born here in Sekinchan in 1950. I don’t really remember my paternal grandfather because he passed away when I was very young.

What about your mother’s side? Where did your maternal grandparents come from?

Chia and her parents

My maternal grandparents were farmers from Anshun, China. My mum was born in Perak. She married my dad when she was 26 and moved to Sekinchan.

My mum told me they got married after their first date. They watched a movie together. Their parents wanted them to get married. Although it was an arranged marriage, and they sometimes fought when I was young, my parents love each other dearly.

How was life in Tawau when your family moved there?

My elder sister, elder brother and I each went to stay with a different foster family or relative as my family had financial difficulties. My three younger sisters stayed with my parents. It was difficult to be separated from my parents. I was sad and missed them very much, but I understood the situation.

My foster parents treated me well. I consider them my parents’ friends as they were also from Sekinchan, originally. My foster father has already passed away, but I still keep in touch with my foster mother. They have four sons and they are like my brothers, too.

I moved back with my parents after primary school and started working part-time. Compared to Sekinchan, Tawau was a larger town [with more job opportunities]. I’ve done all sorts of jobs: kindergarten teacher, shopping mall promoter, and helped my dad sell fish in the market.

When did you decide to leave for Kuala Lumpur?

After I finished SPM, I told my parents I wanted to go to Kuala Lumpur to work. I’ve always wanted to be a model. I wanted to go to Kuala Lumpur to look for modelling agencies that could help me fulfill my dream. But when I told the people around me, they always dismissed it.

I even fought with my parents because they had negative impressions of the modelling industry and were against the idea. They were worried I would take the wrong path, all on my own at a young age in the city.

But I was very stubborn, so I bought an air ticket and only told my mum after I had arrived in Kuala Lumpur. I can’t be so daring anymore as I’ve started a family and have responsibilities.

I only had RM300 in my pocket when I first arrived in Kuala Lumpur. Looking back, it was quite amazing I managed to survive to be who I am today.

It was very tough in the beginning, I didn’t know where to go, what to do or who to go to. I tried looking up several modelling agencies, but many were more like makeup academies, and the people were more interested in selling me their makeup courses, which I couldn’t afford.

Chia took her first studio photos at age 14

It took me a pretty long time to find the right agency. That’s the reason I told myself when I made it big, I would open my own academy to help those who want to join the modelling industry but don’t know where or how to start.

I love challenges. I believe if you work hard and have a [fierce] determination to achieve your dream, you can do it.

Is there any part of your identity that you struggle with, as a mother, woman, model, or Chinese Malaysian?

The older generation like my grandmother always favoured boys, so my elder brother was pampered in the family. He would always be the one who got the chicken drumsticks. Whenever anything happened, my brother was right and I was wrong.

That’s also the reason my mother continued to have children, because my grandmother wanted to have one more son in the family. That’s the gender part I’ve had to struggle with.

As for my identity as a Chinese [Malaysian], when I was growing up in Sabah, I had friends from different races in school, so I didn’t feel I was any different.

What about when you come to Kuala Lumpur?

I didn’t feel much difference as well.

With her family

Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like to see for your children in future.

Although I don’t feel the differences, I know what the government is trying to achieve with [its] 1Malaysia [project]. I believe it cannot be done in one day as language is a major barrier. Not everyone can speak fluent Bahasa Malaysia or English. Malaysians need a common language, and it could be either Bahasa Malaysia or English.

But I hope we can achieve 1Malaysia. We’ve lots of interesting cultures, and in the local entertainment industry, you can see more movies being made using different languages. There are also different ethnicities in the modelling industry.

I believe one day we can become a united country.

The book Found in Malaysia, featuring 50 of our best interviews plus four previously unpublished ones with Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir and Ramli Ibrahim, is available at all good bookstores for RM45. Found in Malaysia Volume 2which was launched recently, will also be sold in bookstores soon.

“Saya bukan Melayu, saya Orang Asli”

by Gan Pei Ling / 2 May 2011 © The Nut Graph

(All pics below courtesy of Tijah Yok Chopil)

ONCE, when she attended a job interview in the Klang Valley, Tijah Yok Chopil’s Malaysian employer did not get it when she told him she was an Orang Asli.

“Dia ingat saya orang Indonesia atau Melayu … Saya beritahunya [selalu kita cakap] Melayu, Cina, India dan lain-lain, saya [sebahagian daripada] dan lain-lain … Apabila saya beritahunya ada 18 suku kaum Orang Asli di Semenanjung, dia lagi pening,” Tijah recalled.

The activist said it goes to show how ignorant some Malaysians could be about the indigenous people in Malaysia.

Tijah started her activism by founding her own women’s group in her kampung in Bidor, Perak called Kumpulan Ibu-Ibu Kampung Chang. From there, the group evolved into Sinui Pai, Nanek Sengik (New Life, One Heart) in 1995. They ran programmes to empower the community with economic skills and knowledge about their rights.

Over the years, the model spread to other villages in Perak and other states, eventually resulting in the formation of Jaringan Kampung Orang Asli Semenanjung Malaysia (JKOAS). The grassroots network has been highlighting Orang Asli issues and campaigning for the government’s recognition of their land and indigenous rights.

Tijah, who is now JKOAS secretary, shares her humble beginnings and some Orang Asli folk tales with The Nut Graph in an interview on 23 Oct 2010 in Petaling Jaya.

TNG: Bila dan di mana Tijah dilahirkan?

Saya berasal dari Kampung Chang Lama Sungai Gepai di Bidor, Perak dan dilahirkan pada 17 March 1968 – sama tarikh dengan demonstrasi Orang Asli tahun lepas di Putrajaya.

Boleh kongsi asal-usul keturunan Tijah?

Saya tulen berketurunan Semai.

Mengikut kepercayaan nenek moyang saya, komuniti Semai sudah wujud di sini semenjak batu-batu masih lembut. Buktinya tapak-tapak kaki yang masih kekal di atas batu dekat kawasan air terjun kami.

Footsteps made by her ancestors when the rocks were still young, according to Tijah’s village folk tales

Ceritanya, [pada masa dahulu], ada dua orang adik perempuan yang dikejar hantu rusa. Kami memanggil dua orang gadis itu ubai baleh dalam bahasa Semai. Rusa itu sepatutnya dimakan tetapi tertangguh-tangguh selama tujuh hari sehingga terjemar menjadi hantu dan mengejar dua budak perempuan itu semasa ibu bapa mereka pergi ke hutan. Tapak kaki dua orang adik-beradik dan hantu rusa masih ada di kawasan air terjun sampai sekarang.

Ramai orang pernah tanya saya sejak bila Orang Asli wujud di tanah Semenanjung, kami tidak pasti jangka masa [yang tepat], tetapi kami tahu kami memang orang asal tanah ini, tidak ada keturunan dari negara-negara lain macam orang lain.

Selain daripada cerita tadi, apa cerita Orang Asli lain yang sering diberitahu orang tua yang Tijah gemar?

Ada banyak cerita. Menurut kepercayaan kampung saya, pada sesuatu ketika, tanah Semenanjung ini berada dalam keadaan yang gelap sebab bulan telah terjatuh ke bumi. Saya pernah mendengar cerita yang sama di kampung-kampung lain, mungkin keadaan ini berlaku sedunia.

Maka salah seorang nenek moyang kami yang halak (mempunyai ilmu spiritual yang tinggi) telah mengadakan sewang bubun gelap selama 14 malam, 14 siang untuk memujuk semangat bulan kembali ke langit. Ini kerana mereka mempercayai semakin lama [bulan] tinggal di bumi, dia akan makan manusia.

Nenek moyang yang halak itu kami memanggilnya Tok Churoq. Dia telah berjaya menghantar bulan balik ke langit. Maka bulan pun ingin membalas budinya dan memanggilnya untuk menyediakan tujuh lapis tikar krawoq, sejenis tikar mengkuang dengan anyaman khas yang sangat cantik.

Namun Tok Churoq tidak sempat menyiapkan tikar itu dan tuhaad (hadiah mengenang budi) itu terus menembusi bumi. Bulan memberitahunya batu itu sebenarnya batu umur, sesiapa yang uzur bersandar dekat batu itu akan menjadi muda lagi. Tetapi sekarang batu itu sudah jatuh ke dasar bumi, maka ditakdirkan umat manusia di dunia ini akan mati di atas bumi dan dihidupkan kembali apabila dikebumikan. Kepercayaan ini masih dikekal di kalangan kami.

Saya tahu cerita ini macam cerita dongeng, tetapi kami mempercayai dan menurunkan cerita-cerita ini dengan jelas kepada anak-anak kami.

Ada lagi cerita tentang asal-usul kejadian pokok, ikan, binatang dan sebagainya, saya suka mengambil cerita-cerita ini tetapi tidak ada masa untuk mencatat dalam buku betul-betul.

Apakah kenangan Tijah yang paling kuat semasa membesar?

Ibu bapa saya sangat baik hati, kami bukan orang senang, memang orang susah, tetapi mereka akan berkongsi apa yang ada dengan orang kampung. Kami tidak pernah makan bersendirian, mesti ada tetamu. Kadang-kadang kami berasa sedih kerana kami sendiri pun tak cukup makan.

With 100 other Orang Asli representatives attending a convention in Kuala Lumpur in December 2010

Bapa saya meninggal dunia ketika saya 12 tahun, keadaan menjadi lebih susah, emak saya terpaksa pergi menoreh getah, memancing ikan dan mencari ubi keledek, ubi keladi atau ubi kayu walaupun sakit tulang. Emak masih akan berkongsi makanan kami dengan orang lain pada ketika itu kerana dia memang tidak sampai hati orang lain melihat sewaktu kami makan.

Walaupun hanya 12 tahun, saya macam sudah dewasa kerana terpaksa membantu emak dan kakak, bersama-sama pergi menoreh getah kami seluas dua ekar. Pokoknya tidak banyak kerana sudah tua dan mati dimakan anai-anai.  Saya dan kakak juga bekerja di kebun sayur orang Cina, kami berjalan kaki sejauh tiga hingga empat batu tiap-tiap hari.  Kami tidak bermain-main seperti kanak-kanak lain, bekerja itu menjadi sejenis permainan bagi kami.

Sungguhpun saya seorang perempuan, saya pernah membuat pelbagai kerja macam anak lelaki – membacu simen, membuat pagar, memotong kayu sepanjang lapan kaki, sebesar ibu jari kaki dan diikat sebanyak 25 kelamin, selepas itu mengangkutnya ke suatu tempat yang diperlukan dengan memikul dibahu. Kerja ini kami lakukan sebelah petang selepas kembali dari kerja di kebun-kebun sayur Cina.

Adik-adik saya sangat berdikari kerana kami kerap meninggalkan mereka di rumah semasa kami pergi cari makan. Dari usia lima atau enam tahun mereka kena menjaga sendiri.

Tijah ada beberapa orang adik-beradik?

Semuanya ada 10 tetapi seorang telah meninggal dunia. Pada masa itu, dua kakak dan satu abang saya sudah berkahwin dan duduk di kampung lain, anak kelapan pula dipelihara mak cik saya. Maka tinggal kakak, saya, dua orang adik perempuan dan satu adik lelaki di Kampung Chang Lama.

Saya anak keenam. Kakak saya tidak mampu menghantar kami semua ke sekolah, hanya saya dan adik ketujuh yang bersekolah. Kami tidak tahu macam mana memohon bantuan daripada Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli (sekarang ditukar nama kepada Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli) walaupun ia wujud. Semua orang di kampung kami membeli buku dan baju sekolah sendiri.

Selepas itu, kakak saya jatuh sakit dan emak pun tidak boleh bekerja kerana kena menjaganya. Dua orang adik terkecil pun mengikut emak dan kakak pergi tinggal di Kampung Langkap. Saya pula menumpang dengan satu keluarga Katholik di Tapah untuk menduduki SPM, tinggal adik saya yang menduduki SRP tinggal bersendirian di rumah.

Sebenarnya saya tidak merancang untuk mengambil SPM, saya sudah berhenti belajar semasa Tingkatan 4 dan keluar bekerja kerana kakak tidak mampu membeli buku untuk saya dan sudah kelihatan kurang sihat.

Tetapi seorang paderi datang mencari saya dan memujuk saya untuk menyambung pelajaran walaupun pada masa itu sudah bulan lima dan tinggal beberapa bulan sahaja sebelum SPM. Dia menyuruh saya untuk mencuba sahaja.

Speaking at an Orang Asli convention in December 2009 in Kuala Lumpur. This was when the idea to organise a march to Putrajaya in March 2010 to protest against a controversial land policy first emerged

Maka Tijah ada habiskan SPM?

Saya tidak mendapat apa-apa gred tetapi lulus beberapa subjek dan mendapat sijil am. Selepas itu saya tidak menyambung pelajaran lagi dan bekerja sekejap sebagai guru tadika di sekolah St Mary dan pernah bekerja di kilang juga.

Namun saya rasa tidak puas hati dan pekerjaan-pekerjaan ini rasanya bukan panggilan saya. Maka saya berhenti kerja, balik ke kampung dan bekerja di ladang sambil membuka kelas untuk mengajar budak-budak.

Saya juga cuba berbincang dengan orang kampung – apa yang terjadi dengan Orang Asli? Kenapa keadaan kita macam ini? Adakah kita suka keadaan sekarang?…Saya berfikir Orang Asli tidak akan menjadi orang terpinggir jika wujudnya satu sistem yang baik untuk [melindungi hak-hak] Orang Asli. Tetapi daripada menyalahkan orang lain, lebih baik saya memulakan sesuatu dan menguji adakah cara saya lebih berkesan untuk menjadikan Orang Asli lebih berkeyakinan diri.

Dan pendapat saya memang tepat, keadaan berubah selepas saya memulakan program untukempower komuniti. Daripada Orang Asli malu dan takut bercakap, mereka menjadi lebih berani untuk berkongsi pendapat mereka. Memang Orang Asli bercita-cita untuk memperbaiki status mereka supaya setaraf dengan orang lain, cuma selama ini mereka salah dianggap orang bodoh dengan otak kosong.

Orang lain yang sentiasa memutuskan dan berfikir bagi pihak Orang Asli apa yang bagus untuk mereka. Maka, semakin lama mereka bukan semakin terbuka, malah, kebijaksanaan dan keyakinan diri semakin terhapus.

Selepas saya yakin cara saya adalah betul, saya terus mengadakan aktiviti dan diskusi dengan orang kampung. Hasil usaha itu kami boleh lihat … Orang akar umbi yang tidak pernah bersekolah dan mendapat apa-apa pendedahan lebih baik daripada Orang Asli yang berpendidikan atau status tinggi, yang takut sangat nama atau gaji mereka terancam.

Sebaliknya, orang kampung tidak terikat dengan apa-apa, dia bercakap ikhlas apa [masalah] yang dihadapinya [di kampung], berdasarkan kebenaran. Kebangkitan dan kesedaran [golongan ini] lah yang menjadi isu Orang Asli lebih hangat timbul, masyarakat Malaysia juga lebih mengambil perhatian terhadap isu kami.

Jika tidak, selama ini Orang Asli dianggap anak emas kerajaan – Orang Asli minta apa-apa sahaja dan kerajaan akan beri! Itu tanggapan negatif yang salah. Sekarang ramai orang masyarakat sudah sedar apa yang benar-benar sedang berlaku dengan Orang Asli.

Bagaimana pula Tijah mengaitkan pengalaman-pengalaman ini dengan identiti sebagai warganegara Malaysia?

Sebenarnya Orang Asli sangat jelas dengan identiti kita. Kita bukan orang Melayu atau Cina, kita Orang Asli, orang lain yang confuse.

Tijah (right) in Kampung Chang in August 2008 to celebrate the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People

Orang Asli tidak macam komuniti lain, kita komuniti yang sangat terikat dengan alam semulajadi dan tanah kita. Kita punya budaya, kepercayaan, kesenian, falsafah kehidupan, cerita mitos … semua berkait kuat dengan tanah di mana kita berasal. Oleh sebab itu, apabila Orang Asli tiba-tiba diusir ke kawasan baru, mereka akan hilang identiti mereka. Berbanding dengan Orang Asli yang masih tinggal di tanah adatnya, Orang Asli yang dipindah ke kawasan baru, jiwa mereka tidak tenang dan adat resam mereka mudah hilang.

Kalau mengikut perlembagaan, kita bukan bumiputera. Kami memang anak jati sini yang tidak berketurunan dari negara lain, kami peribumi tanah ini. Orang Asli memahaminya, tetapi [selepas 53 tahun sejak kemerdekaan Malaya] pemerintah masih belum [sanggup] meletakkan Orang Asli di kedudukan yang tepat.

Setakat ini kami dikenali sebagai Orang Asal bumi Semenanjung tetapi jika secara rasminya masih dikategorikan sebagai “Dan Lain-lain” tanpa maksud yang jelas.

Malah kita sering dimasukkan sebagai orang Melayu, walaupun kita melihat orang Melayu sangat berbeza dengan Orang Asli. Nama Orang Asli pun digalakkan menggunakan “bin” dan “binti” walaupun sebelum ini kita biasa memakai “a/l” dan “a/p”. Ada juga ahli Umno yang menyogok Orang Asli menyertai Umno sedangkan parti itu tidak ada kena-mengena dengan Orang Asli. Jika Orang Asli boleh masuk Umno, maka kita sepatutnya boleh masuk MCA dan MIC juga.

Nampaknya pemerintah sendirilah yang confuse.

Saya pun tidak pasti sama ada mereka benar-benar confuse atau sengaja hendak mengelirukan orang lain.

Iktiraflah kedudukan Orang Asli di dalam perlembagaan. Kita bukan hendak mencabar atau mengambil alih kedudukan orang Melayu. Kita memahami mereka adalah bumiputera, tetapi macam Orang Asal di Sabah dan Sarawak, kita peribumi tanah ini dan sepatutnya hak-hak kita sebagai peribumi dipertahankan. Sekarang [pemerintah] yang memutuskan segala-galanya, ambil tanah Orang Asli dan menentukan siapa yang boleh digelar Orang Asli [sesuka hatinya]. Identiti kita macam sesuatu yang dipermain-mainkan.

Apakah perubahan yang Tijah ingin lihat di Malaysia pada masa depan?

Saya mahu Malaysia yang menghormati semua kaum. Kalau saya boleh mendapat sesuatu, kamu juga boleh dapat. Saya rasa itu lebih adil.

Saya tidak mahu Malaysia yang dikuasai oleh satu kaum sahaja dan kaum lain terpaksa menunduk kepada satu kaum. Itu tidak baik kerana siapa yang menentukan satu kaum lebih mulia daripada orang lain? Tuhan mewujudkan dunia ini dengan pelbagai kaum.

Saya hendak melihat rakyat Malaysia yang menyayangi satu sama lain, bekerjasama berjuang untuk kedamaian semua orang.

The book Found in Malaysia, featuring 50 of our best interviews plus four previously unpublished ones with Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir and Ramli Ibrahim, is now available at all good bookstores for RM45.

“Thorough-bred Malaysian”

by Gan Pei Ling / 21 February 2011 © The Nut Graph

Edmund Bon is a Reformasi-generation lawyer-turned-human-rights-activist. (Pic courtesy of Daniel Soon)

Lawyer. Activist. Trainer. LoyarburokkerEdmund Bon wears many hats in his quest to champion human rights.

Bon is currently the Bar Council’s constitutional law committee chairperson. This is the committee that, since 2009, has been running the MyConstitution campaign to popularise the federal constitution among Malaysians. Bon and his contemporaries — Amer Hamzah Arshad, K Shanmuga, Fahri Azzat, Sharmila Sekaran and Edward Saw — also started the LoyarBurok blawg in 2006 which highlights legal issues of public interest. They published their first book, Perak: A State of Crisis, in 2010.

Bon says their next plan is to create a rakyat centre, also called the Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights, in Bangsar: “We want to have a laman bersantai where people can use the place for free, lepak there, hold events, start and create a culture of discourse.” Their main aim is to mainstream human rights, especially among young people.

In this 19 Dec 2010 interview in Kuala Lumpur, which had to be updated in January 2011 after Bon found out more about his ancestry from his parents, Bon shares stories from his past and future hopes for the country.

TNGWhere and when were you born?

Edmund Bon: I was born in Kuala Lumpur (KL) on 6 June 1974.

Where did you grow up? Are there any childhood stories that you remember till today?

I grew up in Ulu Kelang, near the zoo, then Ampang. I had a boring life then…[but] when I was two or three, a nanny from another house put something like 10 liddy sticks into my ear and injured it.

You can remember this even though you were so young?

My parents had to send me to the hospital and they keep repeating the story.

We’re all pendatang. Can you trace your ancestry?

Bon (second row, first left) in Form 2 at Methodist Boys’ School, KL. (Pic courtesy of Roshan Thiran)

On my father’s side, my grandfather came from Wen Chang City in Hainan, China. He died before I was born but my father told me he came to Malaya in the 1910s.  My grandmother was from Canton and she was his second wife. They had three boys. My father was the second son. He was born during World War II.

When my grandfather went to register my father’s birth at the police pondok in Seremban, there must have been some miscommunication and the constable wrote his surname as “Bon”. Actually a closer English pronunciation of my Chinese surname, which means cloud, should be “Yun” or “Woon”.

All my father’s siblings had different spellings for their surname.

During the Japanese occupation, my grandfather sent my father and his elder brother back to China to be exposed to life in the village and to acquire some Chinese education. But life in the initial years of the communist liberation in China was chaotic. So my grandfather brought them back to Malaya in 1954.

My father became a teacher before joining the Human Resources Ministry as a labour officer. He later left the civil service to join a multi-national petroleum company. He met my mother during a gathering in a friend’s house in the early 70s.

Bon (third from left) and the LoyarBurok futsal team. (Pic courtesy of Seira Sacha)

My mother was born in 1946 in Taiping. She was a music teacher in government schools until she set up a music school in KL. I used to follow her to the private studio and learnt the piano there. My mother was also the principal of Maryvale Good Shepherd kindergarten. Her parents were both teachers.

My grandfather was the first male to be appointed as a headmaster in a girls’ school – Zainal Girls’ School in Kota Baru. He was also very active in sports and one of the rugby pioneers in the country. His mother was a Hokkien Nyonya from northern Penang. She worked very hard, by selling Nyonya kuih, to support his education through to Singapore’s Raffles College.

As for my grandmother’s father, he came from Kwang Tung, China to Penang when he was 16. He had a shoe business and used to travel far and wide on an old bicycle to get business from the Europeans in the estates, sometimes up to 60 to 70 miles on alternate days.

Regardless of my ancestry, I am a thorough-bred Malaysian and have allegiance only to the country of my birth – Malaysia.

What about school? How was it?

I went to Methodist Boys’ School in KL, for primary and secondary [education].

I was a prefect, a boy scout and a member of groups like the Tennis Club, Christian Fellowship and Literature & Dramatic Club, so I was quite with the establishment.

After PMR, I wanted to do arts. I didn’t like science, but my parents didn’t let me.

During Form Four and Five, I became more anti-establishment. We had a very strict headmaster. I remember he was fierce and caned those with long hair and I also got it.

Were you aware about the concept of race then?

Bon celebrating his birthday as a one-year-old between his father (left) and mother. (Pic courtesy of Edmund Bon)

I was aware but it wasn’t something I cared about. One of my best friends since Standard Two is this guy called Roshan Thiran – he’s the CEO of Leaderonomics. But we had many Malay [Malaysian] friends, too.

It didn’t matter, as long as we had the same interests.

So you were in science stream. How did you end up becoming a lawyer?

Oh, that was by accident. I didn’t plan to become a lawyer.

During my childhood, the Indiana Jones movies were very popular. Being young and impressionable, I wanted to be an archaeologist. And then when I saw [fire fighters] put out fires, I wanted to be a [fire fighter], too.

And when I was young, my nanny used to tell me I should never become a lawyer because “Lawyers always cheat and lie for money.” We used to call her Ah Che. I was very taken in by her repeated statements so it never crossed my mind [to become a lawyer].

It was not until I did A-Levels that I decided to do law. I was offered a scholarship to do A-Levels at Bellerby’s College in Brighton, UK after SPM. Not knowing what I wanted to study in university, I took economics, English literature and law. Law was the easiest and most interesting subject to me, and many of my college friends were going to do it in university, so I read law, and vowed to prove [my nanny’s impression of lawyers] wrong.

After I became a lawyer I explained to Ah Che and she understood. Her words still ring in my ears every time I get tempted.

Were there any particular events that jolted you to become more socially and politically aware in England?

The education system there changed me. I remember my dad used to ask me to raise my hand and ask at least one question in class each day in school in Malaysia. I was usually shot down. But it was different in the UK. We were encouraged to think, speak up, and ask questions, including stupid ones.

Another major influence was the subjects I read in law. At that time I read a lot about the European Convention on Human Rights, and there was the European Court of Human Rights where governments could be sued for human rights abuses.

We learned about the court cases and the judges were very pro-human rights. It made me very excited about human rights law and I thought it was the same in Malaysia. I didn’t know anything about (Tun) Salleh Abas or the 1988 judicial crisis. I only found out when I came back.

When did you come back? What happened after that?

1997. I have told this story many times already. During Reformasi in 1998/1999, many people were arrested in the street demonstrations. (M) Puravalen, Ragunath (Kesavan), and (R) Sivarasa were leaders at the Bar Council’s Legal Aid Centre in KL and they asked for help to defend the demonstrators. So that’s where I started.

My employer Chooi Mun Sou encouraged us and still does.

Bon’s maternal side of the family. His sister is seated in between their grandparents. Bon is standing far left in red with his mother sitting next to him and his father standing behind. (Pic courtesy of Edmund Bon)

Later, I followed Sivarasa and Christopher Leong, a partner in the law firm I’m with, to Kamunting, for the habeas corpus application of the Reformasi activists detained under the ISA (Internal Security Act).

I was assigned to record Hishammuddin Rais and Tian Chua’s stories. That’s where all the sensitisation about human rights activism really started. Then people like Amer, Shanmuga, Fahri, Edward, Latheefa Koya and I started to move together. There were others from this Reformasi generation of lawyers, too.

If it weren’t for the Reformasi period, people like us would not be doing what we are doing now. If you ask me why am I still doing what I do? It’s because I still believe that there are many human rights problems but with the correct people and strategy we can change things for the better. And it’s fun!

Are there any family stories that stuck with you?

When I just started work, my dad used to tell me about how pervasive the NEP (New Economic Policy) was in Malaysia, including in the multi-national petroleum company he worked in.

Once, his American boss recommended him for a promotion but his department overruled the decision because the post was reserved for Malay [Malaysians]. So my dad was not promoted.

What are the changes you hope to see in Malaysia in future?

I think we should get rid of our obsession with race. We are all Malaysians. Political parties should be based on political ideology, not race.

Bon (left) conducting one of the sessions at a MyConsti workshop at Kolej Yayasan UEM in 2010. (Pic courtesy of Daniel Soon)

The current political landscape in Malaysia is extremely polarised. You are either for Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat. It has turned into a zero-sum game. More attention is being paid to the parties or political personalities than issues. We may see more racial and religious rhetoric being raised at the next general election at the expense of real issues. Many people don’t realise you can be political, but need not be politically partisan.

I want to see a government that really listens and acts to uphold the rights of every Malaysian particularly those who have been marginalised.

[Also], our education system needs to be run by experts and not politicians. We are not able to compete with the rest of the world.

I would like those who are elected to be scrutinised more on their performance, conduct and pledges. A new social movement combining all the major civil society groups should lead this initiative.

The youth should be mobilised and empowered as part of the “voter bank” to demand and sustain good practices for future elections. A sustained campaign for a number of years will surely lead to positive changes in the way politicians handle elections.

The book Found in Malaysia, featuring 50 of our best interviews plus four previously unpublished ones with Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir and Ramli Ibrahim, is now available at all good bookstores for RM45.