KUALA LUMPUR: Critics and even some friends have told Siti Zabedah Kasim that she is “too tough and aggressive”.
“But if I were not aggressive, I wouldn’t get things done,” argued the lawyer who fights cases for the orang asli in court and has taken their causes to heart. As one of her friends responded: “What did you expect, Snow White?”
By day, the feisty winner of one of the 10 inaugural Star Golden Hearts award works in a law firm in Kuala Lumpur. But, she has no ambition to become a partner there.
“Money is not my motivation and if I were a partner, I couldn’t do what I do,” she said. “I’m available for the orang asli whenever needed.”
For example, when the body of the first of the seven missing orang asli children from Gua Musang was found in October, Sasa Sobrie’s parents called Siti and she rushed to Kelantan.
She managed to raise about RM15,000 and channelled the money towards funeral expenses, transportation and accommodation for the orang asli families in Gua Musang.
“She really helped us with food, a place to sleep and rented transport,” said Dendi, a Temiar from Pos Simpur who is the youth chairman for Jaringan Orang Asal Kelantan and who helped in the search.
When their villages were flooded last December, the orang asli in Gua Musang also called Siti, who did a shout-out on Facebook and made the first delivery of food items and other supplies that weekend.
“The response from the public was fantastic,” she said, adding that she was “begging for a good cause”. The Bar Council paid for six lorries that carried food and clothes to the flood victims.
Siti coordinated three trips, sending in tonnes of food like dried prawns, ikan bilis, rice, Milo, tea and coffee. The second trip was with Allianz Malaysia which, as part of its Corporate Social Responsibility programme, paid for the helicopters.
“When the floods hit the east coast last year, she was there to help the orang asli wherever she could, getting food to them and being very involved,” said former Bar Council president Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan. “She is very dedicated to the cause.”
Siti’s first encounter with the orang asli was in 2010. She was a member of the Bar Council’s human rights committee and went with then president Ambiga and other committee members to Kampung Chang in Bidor, Perak.
“I stayed with the orang asli and saw how they lived,” she recalled. “I realised that many things needed to be rectified.”
Ambiga felt there were so many orang asli issues that a special committee was also needed, said Siti, and the Committee on Orang Asli Rights (COAR) was born in 2012. Siti decided she had to focus on the orang asli, becoming COAR’S deputy chairman.
COAR’s goals include creating awareness of the rights of the orang asli and empowering them, she said. “We go in, by invitation, to talk to the villagers, explain what their rights are under the law and what they can do in order to get these rights.”
The year COAR was set up, 13 Temiar protesters and Siti were arrested after they held a blockade and demonstration.
“They gathered the money for food, worked together and planned everything,” she stressed. “I only advised on their legal rights – that they might be arrested – and what to do.”
The police said she was an instigator, she remembered.
“If explaining their rights is instigation, I’m very happy to be called an instigator.” In the end, none were charged.
COAR offers free legal services to orang asli in court and is now helping with between 10 and 15 cases in Johor, Pahang and Kelantan.
Recently, Siti and fellow lawyer Roger Chan have been acting pro bono for three Temiar who were charged with rioting.
Although the response to her shout-out after the floods and for the families of the missing orang asli children was overwhelming, the lawyer has been underwhelmed by the response to her call for lawyers to volunteer free legal services for orang asli. (COAR covers the court fees.)
“We are still very short and can count on one hand the number of lawyers helping with these cases,” she said.
But Siti is hopeful about a new plan to have chambering law students work on orang asli cases for at least two weeks.
“This has been approved and will start soon,” Siti said. “It will help to make them aware of the issues.”
Like her fellow Star Golden Hearts award winners, Siti has reached out to a different community, investing her time, effort and passion.
“She has been our comrade and our lawyer in the struggle for orang asli rights,” said Dendi. “She really cares about us.”
Siti’s philosophy is summed up in the Thomas Paine quote in her Twitter profile bio: “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”