HUMAN rights lawyer and activist Malik Imtiaz Sarwar recently won the Bindmans Law and Campaigning award for his work on human rights.
Malik, who says he always knew he wanted to be a lawyer, has worked on some precedent-setting cases, including the Apcet 2 remand hearing, and the Lina Joy conversion case that earned him death threats.
The current president of the National Human Rights Society (Hakam) talked to The Nut Graph on 11 May 2009 at his office in Kuala Lumpur about an idyllic life growing up in Penang, and the impact of 22 years of Mahathirism.
TNG: Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
Imtiaz: I was born in Penang, on 29 January 1970, at the Adventist Hospital. I spent my primary and secondary schooling years there — at Wellesley Primary School and at Seri Inai, which had just been set up then. A lot of the academics from USM (Universiti Sains Malaysia) sent their children to the school. One of my school mates was Azmi Sharom. His younger brother, Azlan, was my classmate. Karpal Singh’s kids all went to Seri Inai as well.
I left at 16 to do my A-levels in Singapore. I went to Raffles Junior College — I was an Asean scholar.
What was growing up in Penang like?
It’s what we all fantasise about what Malaysia can be. Growing up in Penang was a very gentle, nurturing sort of existence. Maybe because my dad was an academic and we were thrown together with all sorts of people. And there was never any distinction between who or what we were. Everyone just trusted each other to do the right thing.
We had Hindu friends — very close family friends — and we used to spend a lot of time in their house. And their parents just instinctively understood that they had to be careful when it came to food where we were concerned. Likewise with my family, when people came over for festivals, there would always be vegetarian food.
So there was a lot of respect for each other’s differences. And I think there was also a lot of acceptance of each other’s differences as well. Life there was very rich; we had the benefit of a full multiracial existence without really thinking about it.
But as I grew up, things slowly changed. I was in secondary school when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad came to power and bumiputera-isms became very marked. There was talk about who could get a scholarship and who couldn’t. This obsession with wanting a “bin” in your name. All that sort of language started entering our sphere of consciousness. That became very difficult to understand for many of us. We were not raised to see differences.
We were made to understand that if you are a Malay [Malaysian], then you are a bumiputera. But then Indian Muslims in Penang were considered bumiputera, and they came from the southern part of India, whereas we were from the northern part, but were not considered bumiputera.
Tell me about your family.
My dad, Datuk Prof Gulam Sarwar, 70, is an academic. He set up the humanities school in USM. He is now an adjunct professor at Universiti Malaya (UM) on theatre studies. My mom is Hajrah, and I have one sibling, an older brother, who is a doctor.
Were your parents originally from Penang?
No, actually, my parents were originally from Perak. Dad’s from Taiping and mom’s from Kuala Kangsar.
How did they end up in Penang?
They were already there by the mid-60s. My dad graduated from UM with a degree in literature — he’s quite well written about actually. He got a posting at Methodist Boys’ School in Penang before going on to join USM after feeling a calling to do research in Malay traditional theatre and art forms from 1969 or 1970.
He is known mainly for wayang kulit and Mak Yong. He helped get Mak Yong declared as a world heritage art form. He was instrumental in getting the proposal through to Unesco. I guess that’s how my parents ended up in Penang, and they stayed on because they liked it.
We are all pendatangs. Where did your family originally come from?
On my father’s side, my grandfather was a migrant. He came in from that part of India that later became Pakistan. He came when he was still a young man — maybe in his teens — well before World War II. He was an entrepreneur. But I am not sure of the exact dates when he came to Malaya.
I am also not sure when my ancestors on my mother’s side came here. But they, too, were from the same part of India that became Pakistan. Both sides have been here for a long time.
My great grandmother, when she was alive— she died quite late, in her late 90s a few years ago — she could remember the horrors of Partition. I am not sure if she was told the stories or she was there, but I remember her telling us the stories.
Tell me more about your grandparents.
My grandfather’s name was Mohammed Yusof, and he settled in Perak. He worked in textiles first, before diversifying. He built himself up financially before going back home to get a wife. They had five children in all.
On my mother’s side, there were seven children in all — three girls and four boys. Both my parents were the eldest in their respective families. My dad was one of two boys, but his younger brother died quite early.
My mother’s siblings have all gone on to do well. One of them is Abdul Majid Nabi Baksh, the academic and author. He was professor of English at UM at one stage. Another brother was with the Attorney-General’s chambers, but left soon after Operation Lalang. Another one was deputy dean of engineering at UKM (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia); I also have an uncle who is retired now but is consulting with the education ministry. You could say my mom’s side were all from a very academic background.
After doing your A-levels in Singapore, what did you do?
I couldn’t get to do law at National University of Singapore, so I came back and did law here. There was a problem over whether or not I qualified for a scholarship, but apparently, I did not, at that point.
I think there was a lot of confusion over what is a bumiputera and what is not. When I went for the Asean scholarship interview, I was asked why I didn’t stay back in Malaysia, where I could possibly benefit from being a bumiputera. So that’s when I told them that I was not — at that point. But now I have been invited to join the Bumiputera Entrepreneur Chamber and all that.
But I think no one really understands where this line is drawn. Recently, in an interview with Al Jazeera, Tun (Dr) Mahathir (Mohamad) was asked pointedly how he could consider himself to be a Malay when he had Indian ancestry, and he replied that the constitution is the constitution. By that definition, I could also be considered Malay.
When I was in Singapore, I had a chance to speak with the other Asean scholars — there were about 100 of us. And these were the top one percent of the students in the country, from various backgrounds. And when I asked them why they were there, the answer was uniform: “We couldn’t get scholarships to study overseas, and the Singapore government offered us a place.”
Of this number, I think one or two were eventually offered Public Service Department (PSD) scholarships and came back to Malaysia. But most of the rest stayed on in Singapore after completing their studies, and some eventually gave up their citizenships. I don’t blame them — they went on to do something with their lives, with really great jobs. So the Asean scholarship was a lifeline for them and that, for me, was an eye-opener, you know. It was a real awakening.
Were you ever tempted to move overseas?
My father, in his career, suffered from the fact that he was not a bumi. He was passed over for promotion numerous times, even though he was internationally reputed in his field. And some of his colleagues went on to make a name for themselves overseas, too. But he stayed back because he really believed in what he was doing.
I guess from him I got this sense of … you’ve got to be prepared to stand up for what you believe in. That was a lesson that was very firmly entrenched for us when we were growing up. You had to be respectful, you had to be careful, you have to sometimes turn the other cheek, you know, but you never back down on principle if it [is] important to you.
What is the kind of Malaysia you would want to see for future generations?
I wish it could be the way it was before. I wish we could remove the 22 years of Mahathirism and plot it the way it might have gone if Tun Hussein Onn had remained on as prime minister.
I think we have emphasised material gain too much. The emphasis has always been about status and symbolism. Vision 2020 was all about the symbol of developed nation status. We’ve not really given much thought to human infrastructural needs, and the societal evolution that we need.
In many ways, we are a bankrupt society that is so focused on wealth and status — at the cost of all the key ingredients of an informed and well-developed society. It’s not just about racial delineations, it’s about intellectual limitations, it’s about cultural limitations.
The kind of society we have, strictly speaking, should be really one of the model societies in the world. Where else can you find a society that, although we have all been brought together, we have not all melted into each other. We still have our heritage, we still have our culture.
I think in terms of nationalism and national identity, we ultimately have to embrace one national identity, but [our various backgrounds allow us such richness and diversity and it’s] not just the festivals and open houses. It’s about the kind of fabric that could be woven together that in itself then speaks for competitiveness, strength, resilience — all the things that we need to move into the future.