Irene, the lionhearted: A tribute

  • People
  • Friday, 04 Apr 2014

Human rights activist Dr Irene Fernandez fought the good fight and kept the faith.

MALAYSIANS sent prayers when Dr Irene Fernandez was hospitalised on March 25. Many were hoping she’d pull through because she had come to represent moral courage in the fight against injustice, but Fernandez died from heart failure on march 31. She was 67.

The former teacher is the director of non-governmental organisation Tenaganita, which she set up in 1991 to champion migrant worker rights. Tenaganita provides shelter and advocates for the protection of migrants, asylum seekers and victims of human trafficking, one of the most vulnerable groups in the country.

Her fight for the marginalised began decades ago when she gave up teaching in her 20s to take on social causes. Fernandez campaigned for women’s rights, and was indefatigable in standing up for the oppressed. She was also a member of the organising committee of the recently concluded Bersih People’s Tribunal on the 13th general election.

Fighting for women: In 1985 Irene Fernandez was protem chairperson of the All Women's Action Society.
The young activist: Irene Fernandez started out championing women’s rights.

In 1995, Tenaganita released a report documenting abuses suffered by detainees in immigration detention camps. The following year, she was charged with malicious publication of false news under the Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984.

It was the beginning of seven years of trial, and she was found guilty and sentenced to a year’s jail in 2003. She was released on bail, and the High Court finally overturned her conviction in November 2008.

Fernandez has received various awards for her human rights activism, including the Amnesty International Award in 1998; the International PEN Award in 2000; the Jonathan Mann Award in 2004; and the Right Livelihood Award in 2005.

Fernandez leaves behind husband Joseph Paul (on their 35th wedding anniversary, too) and children Camverra Jose, Tania Jo and Katrina Jorene Maliamauv.

She is also mourned by friends and comrades whom she has influenced and inspired. Below are their tributes.


Friend, comrade and fighter 

Maria Chin Abdullah

Executive Director, Empower

Chair, Bersih 2.0

I first met Irene Fernandez in 1985. I had just come back from Britain after completing my Masters degree.

She was one person who never let go of any injustice that crossed her path.

Her passion, courage, her belief in truth and her warmth will always be remembered. The issue of abuses against refugees and migrants would have been swept aside if not for Irene’s boldness in speaking out.

A mutual friend of ours, Ann Kua, reminded me of the days when Irene, a few activists and I (including Sivarasa Rasiah before he became a member of parliament) were involved in providing support for the families of the ISA detainees, arrested under Operasi Lalang in 1987. In those dark days that we gave each other support, Irene was a tower of encouragement to the families of the detainees.

Our joyous moments were when we formed the Joint Action Group against Violence Against Women, with 40 women activists, now known as the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG). We campaigned hard and that was when we collectively drafted amendments to laws related to rape and the domestic violence bill.

It was indeed Irene’s dream – and shared by the women activists from Awam and the Women’s Development Collective, both of which Irene was a founder member – to have a strong women’s rights coalition that brings urban, rural and working women together to speak for rights, justice and democracy.

Irene never said “no” to any issue she felt was worth fighting for. My organisation, Empower, worked with Tenaganita on an exciting project to develop the concept of what equality means to the marginalised and the voiceless minorities, especially women, migrants, refugees, plantation workers and more.

Irene had always related her struggles for women’s rights as intersecting with broader democracy issues. Despite her busy schedule, she immediately jumped into Bersih’s People’s Tribunal on the 13th general election.

Her motto was: the struggle for change begins at home, and she never relented.

So, I salute you dear friend and may you find peace. Your legacy to fight for a better Malaysia for all will continue.


A courageous life 

Ivy Josiah

Executive Director Women’s Aid Organisation

I was introduced to Irene in 1985 when she chaired the Joint Action Group against Violence against Women (JAG) committee that organised JAG’s first workshop to address rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment. Irene was at that time with the Women’s Committee, the Selangor and Federal Territory Consumer’s Association (Women and Media section).

I had just begun to volunteer with Women’s Aid Organisation and Irene’s fiery speeches on women rights were memorable.

In the past year, Irene and I worked together again as members of the Organising Committee for Bersih People’s Tribunal. In fact we were together on March 24 planning for the launch of the People’s Tribunal Report to be held the very next day.

She looked well and happy, and we shared the excitement in anticipation of hearing the findings from the Panel, but sadly she was hospitalised on the 25th morning and did not make it to the launch.

“Irene is irreplaceable and her loss will be felt by the most vulnerable among us,” posted Shanthi Dairiam in an e-mail to women’s groups yesterday.

This is an apt reflection because Irene’s work was to shine a light on the marginalised and the atrocious abuses suffered by hundreds of migrant workers. But when Irene exposed the torture, sexual abuse and inhumanity in detention camps back in 1995, she was knocked down (but not out!) with charges and went through a trial that dragged on for eight years.

I remember that day in 2003 when she was found guilty and sentenced to one year’s jail. She stood in the dock. Behind her were two police women ready to take her to Kajang prison, and behind them a large community of family members, fellow activists, journalists and embassy representatives.

In front of Irene, her lawyers looked grim; in front of her lawyers the magistrate did not make eye contact as she read the judgment. Irene did not look disappointed nor sad. She took off all her jewellery one by one – her earrings, bangles, chain – and handed them over to a family member.

My heart swelled with pain and pride as I watched this proud woman who, almost in a ritual-like fashion, unadorned herself, readying for prison. Fortunately she was released on bail pending her appeal and eight years later she was acquitted.

The trial against Irene emboldened many activists like me to question state authority and the independence of the judiciary and most importantly expanding human rights work to address violations of all people living and working in Malaysia irrespective of ethnicity or citizenship.

Thank you Irene for showing us that to resist injustice is to win.


Leading from the front

Azrul Mohd Khalib


Malaysians for Malaysia

For decades, Irene Fernandez’s work and presence have inspired, motivated, guided and shaped the narrative of the human rights movement in Malaysia to what it is today.

Whether it is the rights of migrant workers, asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, people living with HIV or on the issue of civil liberties, Irene’s contributions are numerous and very often, fundamental to what is available today.

Irene demonstrated to us what human rights leadership looks like, that a person must lead from the front, to lead by example and to be afraid not of persecution by the state. If she feared anything, it was Malaysians’ complicity with injustice as demonstrated by our continued silence on injustices inflicted on vulnerable and voiceless individuals.

Irene lived the human rights activist Harvey Milk’s dictum that “Rights are won only by those who make their voices heard.”

I don’t think she would have wanted us to mourn her passing. I think she would instead remind us to focus our time and energies on working for people who continue to be denied their voices and rights instead of moping about feeling sad. She was that kind of person.

The word “fiery” is synonymous with Irene. She was passionate, courageous and fearlessly outspoken as many at the receiving end of her words would be able to testify. She terrified some and inspired many. Those who were fortunate to see Irene in her private moments will attest to her generosity of spirit, kindness, empathy and gentleness of soul.

In 2004, I was privileged to witness her receiving the Jonathan Mann award and to have later worked with her on a number of occasions.

Irene, thank you for everything you did, for spending every single day working tirelessly to improve the lives of individuals who will never know your name, but who benefitted from your tireless and often thankless efforts.

Your remarkable courage of conviction to ensure the safeguarding of the marginalised and oppressed will continue to inspire many of us who come after you.

Irene, we will forever be in your debt as Malaysia is better because you lived. Rest now in peace.


Among the brave 

Pang Khee Teik

Co-founder, Seksualiti Merdeka

In 2008, when I read that Irene Fernandez was cleared of the charge of “maliciously publishing false news”, I shouted “YES” in my room.

I thought of the 13 long and lonely years she spent battling the courts. I thought of the migrants whose stories of abuse at the hands of Malaysian authorities she had sought to bring to light.

I thought of all the people whose hope for a more hospitable, compassionate, and judicious Malaysia hung in the balance with the case.

Reading the news, I felt our collective vindication pool in my eyes and stream down my cheeks.

In 2008, I was directing an arts space called The Annexe Gallery. Inspired by Irene’s acquittal, I initiated a small award called The Annexe Hero with which we could honour champions of freedom of expression.

We recognised Irene for this: that when she spoke up against injustice, she did it not just for herself, she did it so that all of us can.

Even though she had received many more glamourous international awards by then, Irene humbly came to our gallery and accepted the little Annexe Hero dog tag we conferred upon her.

In 2008, I also founded the sexuality rights festival Seksualiti Merdeka. It was a platform for discussing issues and discriminations faced by people of diverse sexuality and gender identities and expressions.

When we were banned by the then Deputy IGP in November 2011 and I was called in for questioning by the police, Irene called me, offering Tenaganita’s office as a neutral ground for the questioning.

As she had been a speaker at one of Seksualiti Merdeka’s forums that year and Tenaganita was listed as one of our supporters, she was also called in for questioning, along with Ambiga Sreenevasan, Maria Chin Abdullah and me.

In Tenaganita’s office, I felt at home among them. Their presence with me that day assured me that I would be okay, that I am on the side of justice, truth, and democracy.

I shall always remember Irene Fernandez as the brave lady who spoke up for people who were denied their voices, to great cost to her personal safety and security.

She is one of the reasons I am inspired to speak up, to dare to dream of a better Malaysia.

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