Irene Fernandez, Joan of Arc of abused migrant workers
I am saddened by the death of a remarkable and irreplaceable woman, a towering and selfless Malaysian who devoted her life to helping the helpless, comforting the exploited and soothing the wounds of the tortured in a once bright place that is blackened by corruption and that has lost its way.
Often she faced insurmountable odds against the might of the powers-that-be and its institutions of persecution. The political tyrants made life unfairly difficult for this intrepid, irrepressible and humble Malaysian ‘Joan of Arc’ of maltreated migrants and repressed refugees in her country.
It is incredible how such an amazing woman who spoke out for the voiceless and right-less can be charged in court for doing good for others, and it is an indictment of ourselves that we allowed the good to be called evil and the evil good and Irene to be bullied by those who abuse their powers and disgrace their humanity and country.
It is hard to speak of Irene without recalling the hostile environment where the authorities are unwilling to be scrutinised and held accountable for their deeds. She overcame the untold hardships she suffered at the hands of the overbearing authorities that had harassed her.
I first learned of this amazing woman some years ago when news of her court case emerged in the local newspapers and Malaysiakini. This unassuming and soft-spoken woman had been unfairly persecuted and prosecuted for her role in highlighting the plight of migrant workers.
It was the irony of her plight and her unwavering commitment to her cause and forbearance under unfair persecution that earned her a place in my heart. She was my hero not found among men in her ‘jihad’ for the unjustly treated.
When proud men pursued gain and glory, this woman of women chose to side with the poor and oppressed.
Malaysiakini co-founder Steven Gan, then a reporter for The Sun, and his colleagues had in 1995 written an incriminating report of the government on 59 primarily Bangladeshi inmates that had died of preventable and treatable diseases such as typhoid and beri beri at the Semenyih immigration detention camp.
The Sun had refused to publish the damning report so Gan turned to Irene who published information from it under the title, ‘Abuse, Torture and Dehumanised Conditions of Migrant Workers in Detention Centres’ and for that she was hounded for the rest of her life by the government.
She was arrested and charged in 1996 with “maliciously publishing false news” and found guilty in 2003 after a seven-year trial. But her trials, courtesy of the government, continued outside the court. They are well-documented in local newspapers and even some outside.
In this sort of twisted persecution when politicians abuse their powers in government to prosecute the innocent who help others against the politically connected, Irene is no different from Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng when he was jailed for not dissimilar reasons.
As with opposition leaders Anwar Ibrahim and Karpal Singh, what her political enemies could not achieve in the popularity stakes, they did by using the court to hamper her attempt to attain political office by turning her into a criminal, thus disqualifying her from running for parliament.
While the wielders of power in darkness tried to tarnish her name, the enlightened world saw differently, and she was chosen in 2004 to receive a Right Livelihood Award, also referred to as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize.’
A woman not filled with bitterness
I have met Irene twice, and regrettably, not more. The first was when my wife and I saw her in her office in Petaling Jaya when we visited Kuala Lumpur. My wife a medical doctor had always been interested in the plight of sex slaves and wanted to find out more from her about the subject.
Some months later, Irene and her husband and son were sitting in front of me as we shared dinner in a Chinese restaurant in Perth. I had asked her to give me a call when she visited her son in Perth and she did. Then I noticed that Irene had looked frail and had trouble walking and used a walking stick as aid.
During our dinner, my wife and I learned more about her work. I got a greater insight into her work and role and I remember a woman not filled with bitterness or one would expect to be full of acrid remarks for her cruel persecutors and political enemies after all the injustices she had been put through.
Instead she merely stated what was true regarding the plight of the migrants, what they were up against, and even in such normal discourses, it is difficult not to note the injustice of all she had undergone. But Irene had shown no ill-will toward her cruel persecutors and our conversation was about those who she helped.
She overcame what her persecutors had dished out to her and with her passing, the plight of the refugees becomes more urgent with the need for more people to stand behind the work of Tenanganita she began.
I had learned much from our brief time together and if I have regrets in life, surely one must be in failing to follow up with Irene because we were overtaken by other pressing things and soon lost touch with her.
As I write, I recall the strength of this remarkable woman in whose stoic countenance were etched the sufferings of a saintly woman, sufferings not the fruit of personal making but from helping the helpless in their pitiful plight.
The troubles and sorrow of the suffering became as much hers. I was with greatness and regret not having realised it.
A life of many trials
Malaysia came to its senses when on Nov 24, 2008, justice Mohd Apandi Ali overturned Irene’s conviction of ‘maliciously publishing false news’.
For 13 years since her arrest and charging in 1996, Irene had lived a life of many trials, her passport was held by the court, she could not stand for parliament in 2004, and was the subject of many police visits to her office and questioning.
Yet I had observed she had not been shy in making timely and relevant comments when needed on the plight of migrant workers and refugees. In a place where many are cowed and timid, Irene roared like a lioness without fear and favour, and political correctness was not in her vocabulary.
In her quiet dignified manner, she seemed a tower of insurmountable strength on an unshakeable urgent mission. In fact I see in her a regal quality that only great people like Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa display. Such people of conviction are rare these days.
Malaysia has many women of noble character who make their country a better place. They are the salt of the nation. Irene stood tall among them, if not above most, and has left a legacy that will be a challenge to match, if at all possible.
With other Malaysians and those who have been beneficiaries of her compassion and commitment, I share the grief of the passing of a great Malaysian and I know would have been a great friend had we had not let that opportunity slip.
My wife and I pass on our condolences to Irene’s family. Good night, Irene, good night – see you in the morning.
STEVE OH is author and composer of the novel and musical ‘Tiger King of the Golden Jungle’.