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‘And then I told myself, I have education and I am aware of what is going on, so maybe I should do something about it’ – Interview with Nalini Elumalai, Programme Officer Malaysia for Article 19

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For this month’s e-newsletter, FORUM-ASIA talked to Nalini Elumalai. Nalini is currently Programme Officer Malaysia for Article 19. Before taking on her current position, among other things, Nalini worked for several years with Suara Rakyet Malaysia (SUARAM), one of FORUM-ASIA’s members based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

In this interview we asked her about her background, her motivation, inspiring moments and challenges. And had the opportunity to learn more about her beliefs as a human rights defender.

How did you get involved with human rights?

I was a student when I first got interested in human rights. In my first university year, in 2003, I got involved in the student movement. Basically the student movement was about working with the grassroots community and on student issues. I was also volunteering for the grassroots community, with a network of oppressed and marginalised groups. So that is where I got started with human rights issues and the struggle.

After I graduated I joined SUARAM. I worked with them from 2006 till 2013. When I joined I worked as campaigner on the right to trial, on a campaign for the abolishment of the Internal Security Act, one of the laws that was used by the Government at that time as a political tool for repression. It was a tough campaign. And I was very new, very young. But I was part of a very good team, who taught me a lot. Eventually, in 2011 the Prime Minister announced the law was going to be repealed and replaced. After that I was involved in many other issues, such as police accountability and refugees.

Since then I have worked with the Asian Anti-Death Penalty Network, and have done consultation work for Amnesty International Malaysia. I also went to study in the UK for one year, international human rights law. And now I am with Article 19, as the Malaysian Programme Officer.

What attracted you to human rights? What resonated with you?

I grew up in a town some one or two hours away from the city. Almost everything happened in the city. So when I came to Kuala Lumpur to study, I had little knowledge of the rest of the country. This came with certain questions, like: why is there poverty?

When we grew up we lived in poverty as well. As a middle class family, you go through certain pains and you do not understand why. Why does my dad have to work such long hours? Why do we have to save money? There are a lot of questions in your mind.

So when I went to university, when I joined the student movement, a lot of my questions were kind of answered. I studied political science in university. The theory that I learned and the reality that I saw of Malaysia, completely contradicted each other. So I told myself, something is wrong in this country. And then I told myself: ‘I have education and I am aware of what is going on, so maybe I should do something about it.’ That is when I joined the student movement. And from then, there was no turning back.

I am a very optimistic person. I do not usually give up on things. I always believe in people’s power. So I think that is driving me to continue doing what I want to do. And politics is very interesting. I love politics. I cannot see myself separate from politics. This is the interest that I have, and this is what drives me to be an activist.

Do you think that motivation has changed over time? Or is it still the same?

From when I first got involved to now, with the knowledge I have gained, I understand things better. My perspective has changed. I have a human rights approach and a class approach now.

Also, it is normal for activists to have frustrations. Normal, because you work so hard. But at the end of the day you see little change. I felt frustrated too. So I took some time off, to make sure that I would not give up.

And I re-found the motivation within myself. But also from my friends, who actually do a lot of work, they inspire me. And definitely also the community that I work with. They inspire me more than anybody else. Every time I feel down I just have to go talk to somebody, some activist who is very strong, and that will restore my motivation. Their struggle will motivate me.

Could you give an example of one of those struggles, moments that motivated you?

A lot actually. For example, the struggles of communities, particularly indigenous peoples. Such a huge issue, such a difficult struggle. But they come all the way from the place that they live in. They live in faraway places, so they need to make that long journey to the city, just to give testimony.

So those kind of moments, when I see voiceless people and normal ordinary people bravely speak for themselves. Or the activities that we have in the country that are genuinely working with people on the ground. These are the moments that I really appreciate connecting, as an activist, to others. Not many people have the opportunity to see voiceless people find their voice. Without fear. They want to fight for their rights. Those are the moments that inspire me the most.

And on the flip side of that, what have been moments that have been challenging?  

Well, having the same Government for the last 60 years, since independence, is challenging. And then there are the government institutions, the public institutions, which are very corrupt, not working. That is very frustrating. And also the opposition that we have in the country. They are very frustrating too. There is no unity.

Actually the tensions among these political parties are affecting the ordinary people. Mentally, in their work, in their daily lives. The questions being whether you see anything change. We are doing a lot of work, but at the end of the day, you have to question how much more we have to do. You do something, expecting something, but it is not working. So you question how much more we have to do? How much more do we have to sacrifice? Those kind of questions are always in the back of my mind.

What are your thoughts on engaging with people that you do not agree with? People that might, in your opinion, be part of the human rights problem in Malaysia?  

When you are young, you do not want to listen to so many people. You kind of stick to what you want to see, what you want to hear. That what makes you excited.

When you grow up, gain knowledge and meet people from around the world, you get a different perspective. You want to listen to more people that do not hold the same opinion as you do. Listening to the same people, the converted people, it is not so interesting anymore. There is still the important element of solidarity, but it is different. Like I know what you are going to say, you know what I am going to say.

Meeting with and hearing opinions of people that we have never heard before, can also be risky. They might target you afterwards. And taking such risks is something that not everyone can afford to do. But if you think that that it could bring something, some kind of hope and change, why not?

Let us talk to these people. At the end of the day, it is just talking. I am not going to change their minds immediately. They are not going to change their minds immediately. But it is something to show that there are differences, and that differences can be sorted out. It is just that we need to talk.

If you could go back to your university, where you got started, and meet with young people that are themselves at the start of their human rights path, what advice would you give them?

I think first of all, for everyone getting involved with activism people need to be genuine, they have to sincerely believe that they want to contribute something. I strongly believe that if people are genuine and sincere in their struggle the world will be better.

You do not come to the human rights field to get the fame. That is happening around the world, even in Malaysia. Younger activists who get excited when they see media, want the glamour, want to be popular, but not doing any work.

For me, if you do work genuinely, then your work will be recognised. If my activism, my activities, my contributions, are helping, are providing more space or providing change in the country, then I will be happy about it.

If my family knows that I have grown up to be someone that is useful for society. That is the thing that I want to hear. I do not want anything else. And I do not care either.

So for the younger activists, be genuine and do as much as you can. You are young, you have a lot of energy. You should be able to contribute that energy back to society. You are privileged in the sense that you are educated. So you can do many things. It is time to pay back to society.