A Conversation With Ms Siti Kasim

Miss Siti Kasim. Source: The Star

Siti Kasim. For those who know her would recognize her as the byword of controversy in Malaysian politics. Her doughty character in defending basic human rights and protecting minorities inspires Malaysian progressives and reformatants; while rapier censures against Islam struck a jarring tone within the Malaysian conservative milieu. Love her or hate her, her strong opinions always stick out in the Malaysian public discourse.

I had the pleasure of having a virtual interview with her, not only to discuss Orang Asli issues (see this article to read about said issues), I also got to peek into her political views. Near the end, she has an important message to you young Malaysians.

Note: this interview is edited for brevity and all of interviewee’s opinions are entirely her own.

JUN HAO: Malaysians know you for a lot of things but for those who don’t, could you give us a short introduction of yourself and your career?

SITI KASIM: As you know my name is Siti and my full name is Siti Zabedah Kasim. I am a lawyer by profession. I also get involved in many public interest issues.

JUN HAO: Since we are mainly discussing Orang Asli issues, as a lawyer, what are the challenges, especially legal ones, that you are fighting for the Orang Asli communities?

SITI KASIM: I’m currently the chair for the Orang Asli committee under the Bar Council. We provide informational talks to the Orang Asli with regards to their rights. For example, we go to their villages and explain to them that they do have rights and that they shouldn’t be afraid to speak up and assert their rights. Besides empowerment, we also take on cases with regards to their land. If they are keen to do this for their villages, I will find lawyers for them pro bono. Our committee would normally do fundraising or whatever we can to help the lawyers with the court disbursements, because the Orang Asli communities are mostly poor.

Of course, if possible, we encourage them to collect money by themselves. We hope this can give them a sense of empowerment and self-reliance. For example, in a case in Johor, an Orang Asli community took it upon themselves to pay the lawyer’s disbursements using earnings from their farms.

Seldom, we provide service with regards to criminal cases. If justice is not served appropriately towards the Orang Asli , we would lend a hand. We had handled a case on riot accusation against the Temiar people. Currently, there is also an ongoing case in which a Temuan person was charged with murder before he had a lawyer. When we came in, he was locked up for more than 4 months, and upon seeing that he had lawyers, the prosecution suddenly dropped the case to manslaughter. But still, we mostly work on land cases. Though, if we find misconduct by the police and so forth, we would help them.

JUN HAO: For the uninitiated, could you explain the differences with regards to legal challenges between Orang Asli in the Peninsula and Orang Asal in East Malaysia?

SITI KASIM: There is a difference with regards to their land rights. In East Malaysia, Orang Asal’s ancestral lands are protected by the law, namely the NCR (Native Customary Rights). Unlike the Orang Asli in Semenanjung, these rights are not clearly written in the law. Because of that, their land rights are derived from the common law, which makes it harder for the Orang Asli. But as for claiming these rights, I am not sure why there aren’t more land cases claimed in the courts from East Malaysia because they are a different Bar from us.

Nonetheless, the Orang Asli and Orang Asal also share common obstacles. Money, knowledge and empowerment are the three crucial things indigenous people are lacking. A lot of Natives are living at the fringe of poverty and They can’t afford to hire lawyers; most don’t even have the knowledge concerning their rights to start hiring lawyers in the first place! During my activism years, I have met a lot of well-educated Natives, but only a few speak out for their own people. I feel sad for those who didn’t because their way of thinking had been changed during school or university. Some of them are even ashamed of their background and our education system has not given them the opportunity to feel proud of their identity as the first people of Malaysia. There is no political will in attempting to reverse this perception either.

JUN HAO: So from my personal exposure from the mass media, I always see Orang Asli painted in a grim, pitiful picture. I think one of the worst examples is Al Jazzera’s short documentary about an incident in Pos Tohoi where 5 children were killed running away into the jungle from fear of being beaten by their primary school teacher. Could you illuminate the good progress that has happened concerning Orang Asli’s basic human rights?

SITI KASIM: I think that one good news is that an Orang Asli is appointed as head of Department of Orang Asli Development (JAKOA) for the first time. However, his hands are tied. He knows exactly how to make a difference to his community, but the red tape and the top of the administration are straitjacketing him. Another good news that I think of is that now JAKOA is working with activists and NGOs on these problems. Well, some of them are. In the past, the federal and state governments have always been on the opposite side but during Pakatan Harapan reign, they were more amiable towards the Orang Asli causes. But comparatively, I’m sorry to say there is still nothing much happening in favour of the Orang Asli. There is still no recognition of their ancestral land rights and the school hasn’t changed either.

Most of their ancestral lands are currently under the state government. If the site is lucrative, their lands and farms are expropriated and the opinions of Orang Asli are blithely unheeded during the process. Every time this happens, the Orang Asli would have to take matters to the court, which is not right. They [the government] use many tactics to confuse the people.

JUN HAO: We always hear many Orang Asli and Orang Asal activists wanting to protect them, to develop their communities. But do you think that our concept of development could be different from them, so much so that our intentions are actually harmful?

SITI KASIM: Absolutely. This is the thing I’ve kept saying: we must understand the psyche of Orang Asli. Their ways of living are remotely different from we “townspeople”. That is why we activists have to ask them what they really want.

I have talked to the Orang Asli people who were borned and raised in the interior. They are happy in the jungle to be honest. The things and commodities that we normally desire are not similar to Orang Asli’s. It’s not saying that they reject development. They just don’t want the “townspeople” to interfere with their way of life. People must understand that their way of living is not like ours. Because of that, we shouldn’t expect them to come out from the forest and behave like the rest, as if our way of life is superior to theirs.

For example, a project in Mutiara Damansara took away the Orang Asli’s land and the company gave them bungalows as compensation. Since they are not used to living in urban areas, they don’t know they have to pay for bills such as rent, electricity, water etc. In the end, some of them lose their houses and some have moved to their relatives in the jungle. Also, they are not accustomed to working in contractual jobs from 8 to 5. The way they live is like that: when they need something they would find it; when they need nothing, they would just relax. They don’t go to work every day at a certain time.

This is true for all indigenous people all over the world. They love their forest. It’s the part and parcel of their psyche and we must respect that. We think that they are backward, but we are actually the ones who are backward. They protect forests so well as opposed to our capitalistic psyche. They only take what they need from the Earth.

Other nations realised that and have apologised to their indigenous people. In Malaysia, lack of respect and ignorance is still rife. This was what happened to the incident reported by Al Jazzera. Some teachers discriminated against the Orang Asli students, thinking that they are dirty, smelly, stupid and refused to learn and that they don’t want to progress. If they don’t want to progress and reject education why do they send their children to school? Then when these 7 year old children were at school, they were threatened with more punishment by the teachers. The teachers don’t understand that Orang Asli children don’t speak nor understand Malay. They speak in their indigenous mother tongue. People tend to say Orang Asli people are not “developed” because they don’t want to go to school but they don’t understand that a lot of these Orang asli come from poor backgrounds. They are poor and they don’t have proper facilities and infrastructure to go to school safely.

I do believe our government has plans to assimilate the Orang Asli into becoming Malays by coercing them into embracing Islam. Sometimes the way they were coerced are simply unethical and unlawful.

More must be done. We must try to preserve their culture and identity. Let them live in the jungle, but also give them the necessary facilities, ask them what they want. We must not force our values onto them.

Orang Asli campaigning for PH in Kelantan during GE14. Source: New Mandala

JUN HAO: During my research, I feel that women are less represented within the Orang Asli community. Men seem to be more active in activism such as building blockades. What do you think about that?

SITI KASIM: You must understand that there is an activist called Tijah Yok Chopil who has been speaking up for the Orang Asli a long long time since she was young and she has been trying to empower the ladies. We’ve also seen more women coming out to represent the Orang Asli. About the blockade, although they may not be protesting at the front, they are actually preparing food for the guys. They have their own role. Even though they are patriarchal societies, I believe that I see more and more women representing Orang Asli groups.

JUN HAO: What inspires you to support activism?

SITI KASIM: I was in the UK for 17 years and came back to Malaysia in 2004. I took a year off, not involving in any legal work for a year. I then joined the Malaysian Bar, and subsequently the Human Right Committee in 2007. It was around that time that I found out about the Orang Asli issues, children issues and migrant issues — a whole lot of other issues in our country. Then, I started to take part in helping the Orang Asli, the issues from Rohingya refugees and so on. But quickly, I realised that I cannot save the entire world. That’s why I concentrated on Orang Asli activism, hoping to make a good change for them. I joined the Orang Asli committee created by Dato’ Ambiga and am still serving in it.

I do speak out for other topics too. Religion is an important one because I believe religion is very interconnected with a whole lot of things happening in Malaysia.

JUN HAO: What is your ideal outcome from Orang Asli activism?

SITI KASIM: With regards to Orang Asli, it is very simple. Give them the autonomy to decide how they want to live their lives and provide them basic necessities and facilities like access to education, welfare and healthcare. The first thing to do is that land rights must be protected. The government must gazette their ancestral lands.

JUN HAO: Could you recommend the youth some ways or platforms to contribute to Orang Asli and any other sorts of activism in Malaysia?

SITI KASIM: I believe that to solve any problem, we must solve the root of the problem. In this case, the politicians are the root of the problem. If we choose the right politician, we could solve anything, from refugees to Orang Asli and so on. Better governance would make sure that laws and policies are enacted to do the right things for people, and not for themselves. Unfortunately, now, we have the latter. As long as they get the vote, the policies don’t matter. As a young person, I think you can see this yourself. That is why I don’t believe political parties are the answer to our problem. Political parties have warlords and their MPs will have to listen to their leaders in the political parties.

So my advice is, choose good politicians. Choose the person, not the party. They can be from Independent too. There are also good politicians in each party such as YB Hannah Yeoh, YB Teo Nie Ching, and YB Charles Santiago. Choose the right people in your constituency, new faces, brave warriors that fight for Malaysia; not for the Malays, not for the Chinese, not for the Indians — for Malaysia. Find these politicians who can make bold actions and elect them into the Parliament 1 or 2 years later. These brave warriors would appoint the right people and naturally,magical things would happen in the executive, judiciary and legislative branch.

I don’t see this in the Malaysian government, past or present. Was PH (Pakatan Harapan) able to eliminate all the draconian laws during its 2 years on the helm? None. Why? Because these existing laws benefited them. Regarding the ICERD crisis, Dr. Mahathir suggested to hear what the public had to say. This is wrong. You can’t rely on social media and noises. Great politicians already have their principles aligned to the people. Also, our public officials have always kowtowed to the party leader, like the recent budget, the opposition had to shut up and listen to their political leaders. The current government is the same. As I said, the Orang Asli minister in JAKOA knows exactly how to help his community, but his hands are tied; all actions are directed by the political leader.

JUN HAO: Before we end, is there anything you would like to share to our young readers?

SITI KASIM: I think the last message is the most important one. Nothing would change if we don’t elect the right people into Parliament. Parliament is the place where we can change the landscape of our nation. They make laws, policies and decide on the separation of powers between judiciary, executive and legislative. If we have good people in Parliament, they will implement good policies and laws, which will then benefit the people of Malaysia. All issues including issues concerning Orang Asli, Malaysia’s environmental, humanitarian and economic progress will improve and become better if we have good governance. Right now, we are severely lagging behind other countries and we are in the danger of collapsing as a nation in all areas.

Elect the right leader — it is the political verity that most Malaysians, let alone the youth, would wholeheartedly agree with. But I think we need to be careful about this statement. Though not explicitly mouthed by Siti Kasim, saying this doesn’t mean that we expect a deus ex machina would appear at the right time for citizens to vote. We shouldn’t be tempted to wait for some godlike savoir to save the day, miraculously weeding out the degenerate politicians and rebooting the dysfunctional political system once in office. Change doesn’t come from singular cult leaders; change comes from the collective will of the people. So, instead of fiddling your ballot paper until it wears, why not join an NGO that believes what you believe, talk with groups that you hitherto spill hatred on the social media, or be like Siti Kasim, who utilizes her profession to advance a noble cause. Steps like these might seem piddling at the large scale, they actually signal a powerful message too: we are in this together.

[Transcribed and written by: Yew Jun Hao]

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TLMUN Herald

TLMUN Herald

A not-for-profit publication under the Taylor’s Lakeside Model United Nations Club which focuses on amplifying the voices of the youth of today.