To people who know him well, he is simply called Simon Sipaun. His colleagues usually see him walking barefooted in his spacious office.
Only when Tan Sri Simon Sipaun meets visitors at the office of the Malaysian Human Rights Commission at the Centre Point Shopping Centre in Kota Kinabalu does he quickly don his shoes.
“I feel more comfortable walking around barefooted. This is something I’m used to since I was a boy,” said the 68-year-old Suhakam vice-chairman born in the district of Penampang, from which many notable Kadazandusun leaders have emerged.
From the national stage, the Kampung Tuavon boy is stepping into the international human rights arena. On March 6, he headed for Cyprus tasked with giving Malaysia’s perspective on shaping the goals for a new human rights body in Iraq.
The down-to-earth Sipaun has the experience of making a difference to the ordinary person with his years with Suhakam and as a civil servant for 41 years.
Sipaun vividly recalls a man in his 70s coming to see him in Dec 2004.
“He was from Kampung Karambunai .
The Sabah government in 1971 acquired his land for a low-cost housing project. The compensation was another piece of land in the vicinity and he was given a letter as proof.
However, when the man went to the Land and Survey Department, he was referred to the state Town and Housing Development Authority and was sent on a wild goose chase between the two government departments.
“He had been shuttling back and forth between these two agencies for more than 30 years just to get what was supposed to be rightfully his. Finally, someone told him about Suhakam three years ago and he came to see us,” said Sipaun.
All it took was for the commission’s Sabah secretary Jasmih Slamat to call some top brass in both agencies to determine if the draft land title was waiting for the man.
“The problem is the uncaring attitude of counter staff. Just imagine, this man had been patiently going back and forth between these two departments for more than three decades,” said Sipaun, who easily relates to the difficulties faced by the rural indigenous communities.
An ethnic Kadazandusun born in Kampung Tuavon, Penampang, Sipaun’s childhood memories are the tough living conditions amid the Second World War and his family that literally lived off the land.
“My parents cultivated padi during the day and in the evenings my father would head to the nearby rivers to catch fish. They had no cash income. If the crops failed for that year, we couldn’t eat rice,” said Sipaun, whose two elder sisters and a younger brother Michael died during that difficult period.
His younger brother Steven, who was born towards the end of the war, was the only sibling who survived.
That trying period left a lasting impact on him.
“For a long time, I had a lot of feelings of insecurity. I always made sure I had something for tomorrow, not merely to live for today,” said Sipaun, who is known for his simple tastes.
A year after the end of the war, Sipaun began his studies at St Michael’s School.
“My father constantly reminded me that if I didn’t get an education, I would end up like him.
“Putting in maximum effort but getting minimum returns, I realised I had to study hard to get out the vicious cycle of poverty,” he said.
His persistence in getting an education paid off when he was among 13 Sabahans selected to enter Form Six in 1958.
With a Colombo Plan scholarship in hand, Sipaun went for technical training in New Zealand. In 1962, he became a clerk in the British colonial administration of North Borneo.
Sipaun rose through the Sabah civil service ranks and eventually took on the State Secretary post which he held from 1988 until 1993.
Following his retirement, he was chairman of the state Public Services Commission for 11 years until 2003.
In 2000, Sipaun was among the first Commissioners of Suhakam and three years ago was elected to the vice-chairman’s seat.
Upon his appointment in Suhakam, Sipaun made it a point that the commission’s mission should include articulating the needs of Malaysia’s indigenous communities.
“I feel they are marginalised. If you look at leaders in professional, financal, industrial and business fields, there are only a few from the indigenous communities.
“They are more visible in politics, and in the case of Sabah’s Kadazandusuns, in the priesthood,” said Sipaun, displaying his well-known trademark of a wry sense of humour.
His push for Suhakam to voice problems faced by indigenous communities resulted in three public forums in Sabah, Sarawak and the Peninsula to determine the concerns of their leaders.
“Basically, there are land issues, lack of access to education and poverty. We will now have specific forums and focus on education. In this regard, we are determining why the playing field is not level,” Sipaun said.
To date, Suhakam has organised 18 sessions with the respective district offices and Sipaun has made it a point to attend each session in Sabah. Similar sessions, though fewer in number, have been held in Sarawak and the Peninsula.
“The sessions enable us to explain what is human rights and what is Suhakam. The day-long gatherings allow us to hear from the grassroots their issues and concerns,” he said.
For Sipaun, having these meet-the-people sessions is paying off.
“Since we went to the districts, our Sabah office has received the largest number of complaints. Since 2000, Suhakam has received 1,100 complaints, and of these, 781 were from Sabah.
“To me, it indicates that Sabahans are more aware of human rights or that there is more human rights violations in this state,” said Sipaun.
Sipaun could have entered the global human rights stage, but he firmly believes that more has to be done to create human rights awareness in Malaysia, particularly in Sabah and Sarawak.