Different strokes

Colourful character: Siti

LOVE her or hate her, there’s no way anyone can be rid of her opinion – that’s controversial activist lawyer Siti Kasim for you.

Her dyed platinum blonde hair, which she has sported since her 20s, is a loud and vivid statement of her unconventional ways.

No one expects her to speak in a politically correct tone, or in any way nice, since that simply goes against the grain of her beliefs.

What you hear or read about her is what you get, and that’s where most politicians, at their camouflaged best, will never measure up to her.

And let’s not even start about those who need to wear religious cloaks to appear puritanical to convince their followers, or flock, that they are pious.

In Malaysia, where conformity has increasingly gained a stranglehold, dictating the way we dress and the manner in which we speak, she is clearly not a favourite. In fact, she jokes that she is flamed more than praised on social media.

Unsurprisingly, most lawyers, after struggling for years to obtain their degrees, would prefer to make money, join a club, play golf, secure more businesses or wine and dine with their clients.

Not Siti Kasim, though.

Once a month, she goes to “the jungles”, as she puts it, to meet the Orang Asli community, trading fat pay checks for soul-satisfying activist work with little to no remuneration. How many lawyers would do that?

Any way this is looked at, it is still hardship, and most times, she has to sleep on the floor when she carries out such unglamourous work. That’s pure dedication.

She also helps a group of Rohingya refugees manage their rented accommodation at a shop lot in Selayang since they can barely communicate with their landlord.

Siti Kasim speaks up and defends the transgender minority and is ever-ready to pick a fight with religious authorities.

It doesn’t take a genius to deduce that she won’t be on the Raya card list of the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) or any state religious departments.

“Preachers are human beings as well. Who are they? They’re not God. Some of them can’t even read Arabic,” she said in one interview.

Explicitly aware that criticism is par for the course in an increasingly religious Malaysia, she has defended her choice of dressing, and her well-published views on the creeping of Arabisation into Malay culture has gained traction too.

Recently, she found herself arrested, handcuffed and remanded by the police following a complaint by a woman who claimed Siti Kasim had abducted her daughter, a mature 24-year-old, and not some child.

In what has become a much-viewed piece of video footage, Siti Kasim was arrested after police barged into her house and detained the teenager, her client. Selangor CID chief Senior Asst Comm Fadzil Ahmat said the arrest was not due to kidnapping, but merely for obstructing police duties.

Obviously, the actions of the police did not endear the authorities to most Malaysians, except for Siti Kasim’s devout critics, of course.

It would seem the police have their hands full having to deal with so many more pressing issues which require urgent attention, yet that doesn’t seem to be case.

In the New Malaysia, more people like Siti Kasim are needed. With Barisan Nasional’s failure, we need strong voices who dare challenge the new government.

Like any politician, power will eventually seep into the psyche of the new leaders. Authority, assets and adulation have a way of affecting even the most level-headed leader.

With populist backing and endless adoration, often bordering on idolisation, criticism remains a bitter pill to swallow for these people of power.

Ironically, they are also the ones who preach freedom of speech and press.

Siti Kasim is a known detractor of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s, saying, in an interview: “When he got caught, I can tell you I was the happiest person in London. I’m not joking because I think Malaysia was safe at that time. But unfortunately, of course, the people had already been brainwashed by then.

“I blame it on him – he’s the one who brought Islamisation into Malaysia. They mix Arab culture with Islam.”

But Malaysia needs to move on.

I am sure Anwar understands the progressive ideals in the new political environment. What is done is done.

Siti Kasim keeps authorities nervously seated on their thrones and high horses. But Malaysia has changed, and they better be prepared to live with that, or learn to adapt, at least – for their own sake.

These are early days yet for the New Malaysia. Let’s hope that the seeds of a new political culture is sowed, so that every opportunity is given to the new leaders to learn, assimilate and govern in a fresh way.

Some have remained in opposition mode, though, as Deputy Prime Minister Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah Ismail has observed. They are still combative in their language and mannerism even though they are already in Putrajaya.

The Barisan Nasional law makers have yet to act and sound like the opposition, presumably caught up with trying to rebuild their respective parties following their defeat, or still attempting to come to terms with the sobering realities.

Instead of exposing scandals involving the government, they find themselves in an unenviable position where the new government is incessantly exposing corruption and mismanagement scandals from their tenure, keeping them on the backfoot.

As for PAS, it’s difficult to expect them to raise any substantial issues, besides those relating to religion.

It is at this juncture that we need a vibrant civil society to triumph – more so, when many well-known NGO leaders have already become MPs in the new government.

Don’t expect them to take a critical position now as there are party rules to adhere to.

There are many misguided Malaysians who like to put liberals like Siti Kasim in bad light, implying liberalism to be a western hedonistic practice.

However, they choose to forget that the Rukunegara, or our national principles, clearly states that we must “ensure a liberal approach to her rich and diverse cultural traditions.”

More importantly, in our democratic country, we need to be receptive and accept diverse opinions, the foundation on which our multi-racial society was built on.

That’s the only way Malaysia, and Malaysians, will mature politically.

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