Alumni profile - Siti Kasim
When I first came back to Malaysia in 2004, I had no idea about the existence of our indigenous people. This subject is not taught in our schools. No one talks about them. I joined the Human Rights Committee under the Bar Council in 2007 and that’s when I realised there are many human rights issues in Malaysia. I started visiting the villages of the Orang Asli, which is the word for the peninsula indigenous people, and I learnt about the issues, and I saw who they are.
Can you tell me a bit about what inspired you to study Law and why you chose Queen Mary?
I studied at Queen Mary between 1992 and 1995, as a mature student. I already had my daughter so it was quite hard for me but Queen Mary was very kind to accommodate me by allowing me to change my seminars, because I was working part time and studying full time. I had been working full time in the school curriculum and assessment authority as a typist. My employer encouraged staff to improve themselves through education. So I took the opportunity to take night classes on legal method – Access to Law. I didn’t have A Levels, I didn’t go to sixth form, so they wanted something to prove that I was able to study a degree. I managed to get accepted in a few universities, Kings College, Queen Mary, Brunel. I was told Queen Mary was extremely highly rated for commercial law. I knew I had to continue working and I had a baby, so I also had to make sure the plans worked, and of course I wanted to make sure the university was a respected one. So that’s why I chose Queen Mary, but I actually didn’t end up taking any commercial subjects.
Professor Roger Cotterrell was my mentor, he was such an angel, and he helped me with how to cope. When I tried to change my seminars, at first they were reluctant, understandably, if I did, everyone else would want to change theirs, but when I explained my specific circumstances, they allowed it, so I managed to arrange my working hours and classes to fit. That’s something I’m very grateful to Queen Mary administration for. So for three years I did my Law degree, and that was a hard time for me. As a mother, I was always rushing around! I would leave my house in Croydon at 6, take a train to Notting Hill Gate, start work at 7, finish at 12, and immediately take the Central line to Mile End to go to classes at 2. I did that every day, except Wednesday when I had a whole day of lectures. My daughter at that point was 2 years old and went to a babysitter. So my ex-husband would take her there and pick her up. He didn’t like having to do that every day. I finished my classes at 6, so immediately after I would have to rush back. But when I had time, I would go to the library. Sometimes my friends would see me there and ask what the date was – they wanted to buy lottery tickets.
As an activist, if you are not working from the heart, you won’t last long. I’ve always wanted to do the right thing for oppressed people. Like trans women, who are arrested for just being who they are. This is because of religion and the state becoming too intertwined in Malaysia.
What inspires you to be an activist, to advocate for human rights?
I think it’s always been inside me, that belief in and being able to see right and wrong. When I first came back to Malaysia in 2004, I had no idea about the existence of our indigenous people. This subject is not taught in our schools. No one talks about them. I joined the Human Rights Committee under the Bar Council in 2007 and that’s when I realised there are many human rights issues in Malaysia. I started visiting the villages of the Orang Asli, which is the word for the peninsula indigenous people, and I learnt about the issues, and I saw who they are. Like everywhere in the world, the indigenous people are very kind, shy and non-confrontational. They are all these things and they are being bullied and controlled by this body who is supposed to be looking after them. So I decided I had to try and empower them, tell them about their rights. I’m glad that over the last ten years, they have become less afraid to speak about their own rights. Currently I am the chair for the Committee for the Orang Asli under the Bar Council. The committee’s role is to keep in touch with them and if they want to take a case to court, e.g. claiming their ancestral land rights, then we will find lawyers who will do pro bono for them. There’s a group of very good lawyers in Malaysia, including myself, who have these public service instincts, so we do a lot of pro bono cases for the Orang Asli. Even with pro bono support, we have to pay some costs, so I also do a lot of fundraising, through dinners and other things.
As an activist, if you are not working from the heart, you won’t last long. I’ve always wanted to do the right thing for oppressed people. Like trans women, who are arrested for just being who they are. This is because of religion and the state becoming too intertwined in Malaysia. Our federal government has no business running a religion. I believe they should be kept separate so that’s why I will keep on fighting for as long as I can. Because I talk about sensitive issues like religion and race, I get a lot of death threats and cyber bullying.
I see the way the country is going and there is no political will by the politicians to change the landscape, the policies, the intrusion of religion in our schools and our civil service, none of the politicians dare to take this bull by the horns, they don’t dare to even talk about it because it’s deemed as ‘sensitive’ in Malaysia. Personally, I am a Malay, which means I am a Muslim. But I am worried about the direction Malaysia is going, so I started this NGO called ‘Malaysian Action for Justice and Unity’, in short MAJU, which in Malaysian means ‘forward’ or ‘progress’. I started this with one other like-minded person, he’s a business man, so he helped to fund this. So the idea with MAJU is we want to uphold universal human rights and civil liberties. We cannot rely on our politicians, even the opposition dare not touch the elephant in the room which is using religion in politics. So we had this idea to promote independence with our political parties. The problem in Malaysia is the political parties control their MPs. So if you have a good leader, who really thinks for the people, that’s ok you can follow their guidelines, but we have leaders in this country who think about themselves and they make decisions for themselves not the people. So we need to find another way, we need a strong and courageous leader to make the change. So now we’re trying to promote this idea of independence to the public and explain why it will really work in Malaysia.
Being a vocal woman, a Malay, a Muslim, and because I’m not a ‘typical-looking’ Muslim, for example I don’t cover my head, I get a lot of death threats and they create a lot of fake stories about me, even telling the public that I gave birth by the roadside in London! All because I defend the rights of the non-Muslims as well. In Malaysia, we have our federal constitution, and that’s what I uphold. On top of that, I’m very supportive of the rights of the LGBT community as well. Recently, I was arrested and charged in court for defending the rights of trans women during a dinner.
What’s something in your life that makes you happy?
Going into the jungle, being around the trees, the mountains, the rivers, and that’s part of the reason I’m happy doing my work with the indigenous peoples. Going there is not like working, I love being in that environment. And I get a really nice reception from the people, they know I like to eat the big frogs, so they will be sure if I come during the season to catch the big frogs at night. So this kind of thing makes my heart really happy.
I also really enjoy my own company and don’t get lonely so this pandemic hasn’t been as much of a problem for me as other people. As long as I have internet or books then I’m good. I’m also very active on social media, highlighting the issues and doing a lot of webinars, last night we had a webinar talking about the Gerak independent movement. We’re trying to explain the idea to the public because not many people know that everything derives from the parliament which controls how the country runs. If they don’t make an effort to change the laws or have separation of judiciary, executive, and parliament, nothing will change. So I need to tell the people, parliament is the key. We need to put good people in parliament. If we have good people in parliament, they will ensure the policies and laws are good.
What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?
Life is beautiful, I embrace life. It’s another day to do something for my country. It’s another day to fight for my country to become better. That’s what keeps me going, I feel like I have a purpose in life. There are a lot of things for me to do in Malaysia, which is exciting!
There’s a lot going on in Malayasia, every day something else. For example, there’s a recent decision by our federal court regarding Malaysiakini, one of our independent news portals which is alarming in terms of affecting our freedom of speech, press and expression. We can see the vindictiveness of the judiciary in this decision.
Do you have any particular fond memories of your time at Queen Mary?
Being a mature student, I didn’t have much time to spend on campus, in the library or in the Union. But when I did have time I loved going to the library. I was actually there when Queen Elizabeth II opened it! That was the closest I ever got to meeting her. My circumstances were very different to other students, who were mostly young and free, they could do a lot of things.
One other thing I remember is that in my third year, we had options, and for one I chose labour law. Professor Napier was the lecturer so the classes were always in the evening because he came from UCL. He only taught evening classes, 6 or 7 pm, so most of the time I couldn’t go. Somehow I managed to get distinction for my labour law and he sent me a note, congratulating me, and he said ‘I just wish I’d seen you more in class!’ That was another benefit of being at Queen Mary, as part of a collective of London universities, you felt a real sense of camaraderie with other colleges. You could take options from here and there, widen your experience, and get the best lecturers, the best quality of teaching.
What advice would you give a student or prospective student?
The support I had from the teaching staff, especially Roger Cotterrell was amazing. Anyone looking to study somewhere, 1,000% go for Queen Mary. It has not only the best teaching with the best lecturers, but also great support. In terms of accommodating you and your circumstances, from my perspective as a mother and a mature student, working all that time, it was incredible. If not for the support I had from the college, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I cannot recommend Queen Mary enough. And it’s a nice environment as well – even better now!
I haven’t been back for so long, but I’d love to go back when lockdown is over.
What are your plans for the future?
Malaysia needs help to change for a better future and I intend to do my best to do my part in that change. If it doesn’t change, if it continues to go down the route it’s going, many Malaysians will find themselves displaced and Malaysia will be a fail state. I hope the leaders in Malaysia can see the destruction of their policies for the future of Malaysia. I want to feel that at least I am trying to do something for a better Malaysia for all Malaysians.
This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Coordinator, Hannah Dormor. If you would like to get in touch with Siti or engage her in your work, please contact Hannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.