Monday, July 12, 2021

Mehrun Siraj - an inspiration to women and everyone - How many reject benefits so public funds are not wasted unnecessarily?


Mehrun Siraj is a Malaysian woman, an inspiration for those that uphold justice and human rights.  Sadly, many good people are never highlighted by media, who seems to simply focus on MPs, politicians, etc that many a time are not the best role models...

Being knowledgeable about rights and good values is wasted if one's personal life, actions and choices do not reflect this. 

...she also managed to irritate not just the government but her fellow Commissioners when she rejected the official car that she was offered ("None of us need another car! Why waste public funds?"), which meant that everyone else had to reject theirs too.

Puan Mehrun recently left us, and here is an extract from a write up by her son. Read on. Haji Sulaiman Abdullah, her partner, a former Bar Council President and human rights defender may be better known to many - 

"...She was born in Singapore in 1945, in the last weeks of the Japanese Occupation. There was a tradition of activism, education, and social service in the family. Her father Haji M. Siraj was a teacher, headmaster, religious scholar, and leader in the Boy Scouts and St Johns Ambulance movements. Her mother Khatijun Nissa Dawood (Mrs M. Siraj) was a pioneering feminist and Muslim women's rights advocate.

Mum went to Raffles Girls School, primary and secondary, and then transferred to Raffles Institution for her A-levels. She entered the University of Singapore (as it was then known) in 1965 to study Law and graduated in 1969.  In university, she was known to be brilliant and beautiful, and she broke many a heart when she began going out with the man who she would eventually marry -- my father.

Upon graduating, she began chambering with David Marshall, Singapore's former Chief Minister, but left after a few months to take up a teaching job at ITM in Malaysia. (She told me many decades later  that she found  Marshall's old-school sexism intolerable; she was from a family of strong women who had no qualms about expressing their views, and she didn't hesitate to tell him off.)

In 1971 she married my father and moved to Penang, where she finished her chambering with Lim Kean Siew and began practicing law. She had a lifelong fondness for Penang thereafter, though her time living there was short, as both my mother and father were appointed to the Law Faculty of Universiti Malaya (UM) in 1972, and moved down to KL.

She was at UM for just short of 20 years, including stints in London studying for her LLM and PhD at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). 

She was the first family law lecturer at UM, and eventually became the pre-eminent Malaysian scholar in that field. Her scholarship was of such a high standard, and her writing so clear and fluent, that she was accorded the uniquely Malaysian "honour" of being regularly plagiarised by other academics.

Her students remember her with great fondness as someone who would always listen to their problems, dispense advice, and host gatherings of students long into the night at our family home. She was known to be firm but very kind. 

One former student said he was taking a Revenue Law exam and had crammed it the whole night but was overcome with nerves. He put up his hand, and the invigilator (Mum) came over. He explained his problem and asked to be allowed to go and have a smoke outside before continuing. To his amazement, my mother went to the chief invigilator and got permission for the student to go for a smoke and carry on with the exam. She was cool like that.

She resigned from UM in 1992. Thereafter she was a visiting professor at Bond University in Australia; a consultant on Family Law and Population Law for the United Nations Development Programme; and then in 1996 became a Professor and Dean of the Law Faculty at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM). She was a staunch advocate of awarding places and scholarships based on merit, not on ethnicity, which resulted in a large intake of ethnic Chinese Malaysians, a move she had to defend against certain entrenched interests. She later became an Adjunct Professor at the International Islamic University.

All throughout her teaching career she had a parallel life in civil society and public service. She was variously President of the Association of Women Lawyers; a longtime exco member of the Medico-Legal Society; and a member of the National Council for the Integration of Women in Development, among many other organisations

Among her most notable involvements were as a member of the Law and Ethics Committee of the Malaysian AIDS Council. She drafted the Malaysian AIDS Charter in 1995, a landmark document calling for the rights of persons living with HIV to be respected. She also travelled around the country to advocate for the removal of discrimination against sex workers and members of the LGBT community who were living with HIV.

She was also one of the first Commissioners of the Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM), where, perhaps contrary to the desires of the government that had set it up, she fought tirelessly for human rights. She was a lead author of the Report on the Kesas Highway Incident, which comprehensively investigated and laid bare the failings of the security forces in their violence and abuse of power in breaking up a major protest. She was unrelenting in her gathering of evidence and her cross-examination of protestors and senior policemen alike.

I am told she also managed to irritate not just the government but her fellow Commissioners when she rejected the official car that she was offered ("None of us need another car! Why waste public funds?"), which meant that everyone else had to reject theirs too.

My mother stood 4ft 11in high, but had a big smile, a calm, warm energy, and tremendous courage. In 2008 she was speaking in a forum on the Bar Council on freedom of religion when the hall was stormed by a mob who accused the Bar of being anti-Islam. With the other panelists being shouted down and the atmosphere turning ugly, my mother went to microphone, this indomitable little lady, and told off the protestors.  "You represent UMNO, but I represent the Muslims! I am ashamed of your behaviour. Islam does not condone this behaviour. Do not misuse Islam! Sit down and behave yourself! Kurang ajar! [Badly brought up -- a serious rebuke in Malay culture.]"

Away from public life, she was a warm and funny person, devoted t - o my father, to her family, and to me and my wife Claire. She adored her daughter-in-law and would often, to my bafflement, spend just ten minutes talking to me when I rang, and then an hour talking to my wife. She introduced me to literature, to classical music (Indian, Chinese, and Western), and to theatre. She loved Kundera and Soyinka and Nabokov, and also Bob Marley and the Bee Gees.  She was deeply religious but also open-minded and open-hearted; tolerant and accepting of all faiths and all identities. She bore her many health issues with great charm and cheerfulness. She has made me who I am, and I will treasure her memory...."

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