Irene Fernandez’s legacy to Malaysian Muslims
Like many Malaysians, I never knew the late Irene Fernandez in person.
But this much I do know about her, that she was someone who spoke on behalf of the voiceless, at a time Malaysian society frowned upon anyone defending the invisible community of migrant “Banglas” and “Indons”.
It is sad that Irene’s death last week did not prompt even a short official message of condolence from the government of Malaysia, despite her huge sacrifices in championing the course of what is arguably the country’s most important engine of growth, the migrant community, the bulk of whom is made up of Bangladeshi and Indonesian labourers.
The other prominent Fernandez (with a slightly different spelling) that most Malaysians are familiar with may have flown in millions of migrant workers into Malaysia on cheap, no-frills (and no-meals) journeys from their countries.
This Fernandez, on the other hand, had been on the ground for more than two decades, speaking out against their slave-like exploitation and how they were left to rot in squalid conditions, all because of the absence of a man-made piece of paper that would earn them recognition as human beings on God’s vast earth.
Irene went against the general Malaysian psyche of treating non-Caucasian (and increasingly, in the current parlance, non-Middle Eastern) foreigners as second-class citizens.
In 1995, Irene exposed a shocking tale of torture and the dehumanised conditions of migrant workers at the Semenyih immigration detention camp, triggering the usual kind of childish reactions that Malaysians have now grown used to from our paper-shuffling bureaucrats.
And in the usual manner, instead of investigating and taking action on the camp, she was taken to court for publishing false news, in what was to become the country’s longest-running court battle.
As a result of her conviction, she could not stand for elections a few years later. Had she stood and won, she would have made it in the half-a-page-or-so list of principled and sincere Malaysian elected representatives.
Neither was she the stereotypical female NGO activist, the smoking, conference-attending pseudo-feminist quoting the UN Charter during the day, and tweeting anger at silly ustads during the night.