WITH having to travel to far-flung villages in Malaysia – often over rough terrain – the work of the Deputy Rural and Regional Development Minister can be physically taxing.
This is especially true for Sivarasa Rasiah, who – in his own words – “is operating on half an adrenal gland, only one of two vocal chords and no thyroid at all” after a bout with cancer in early 2000.
To this day, Sivarasa cannot shout, something which, according to him, his wife, local theatre personality Anne James, is “quite happy” about.
“I used to be able to sing those days but I cannot anymore with one vocal chord. Currently, although I am operating without a thyroid and with only half an adrenal gland left, I thank God that I am fine,” says Sivarasa during an interview at his office on the 31st floor of the ministry building overlooking a boulevard in Putrajaya.
When he was first diagnosed with medullary thyroid cancer during a medical check-up in 2000, Sivarasa was in the full swing of his career as both lawyer and politician.
Despite his father and third eldest brother having served in the police force – a situation he describes as “a bit like a Tamil movie script” – Sivarasa went the political route. He first became involved in human rights issues while studying in Britain and continued his activism when he returned home, cofounding NGO Suaram (Suara Rakyat Malaysia) before eventually joining Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s legal defence team during the Reformasi period in the 1990s.
In 1999, he stood for his first election in the then Ampang Jaya parliamentary seat, losing to MCA’s Tan Sri Ong Tee Keat. It was a year after Anwar had been sacked as Deputy Prime Minister.
“It was quite bizarre – I had no symptoms whatsoever but my cancer markers were very high,” Sivarasa recalls of the cancer.
“Thyroid cancer is generally quite treatable but mine was quite rare and a bit complicated,” he says, adding that the only treatment option was surgery.
However, the operation to remove his thyroid gland and the lymph nodes in his neck damaged one of his vocal chords, rendering him voiceless for almost a year.
“That was a difficult period. Imagine being a lawyer and a politician and you have no voice,” says Sivarasa.
Today, after three surgeries – the last two because of complications with his adrenal glands – his battle with the big C has clearly not set the tall lanky PKR politician back at all.
He has turned up for the interview in a purple batik shirt (later changing into a formal suit for the video shoot), apologising profusely because he’s running late due to a series of back-to-back meetings.
In between the meetings and his visits to his own constituency in Sungai Buloh (he was the Subang MP before the constituency delineation exercise), Sivarasa continues to call on rural communities for first hand views of conditions on the ground as well as to check on the status of projects and keep in touch with his ministry’s agencies.
“I cannot do this job just sitting in the office on the 31st floor of the ministry building in Putrajaya,” he says, vowing to meet state government and leaders regardless of party affiliations.
“I am well and physically active,” he says, though he laments that, like everyone else, perhaps he “should exercise more”.