By Natasha MH
“Just call me Maria.”
There I was sprucing myself over protocols and hand-ironing my shirt fighting the mid-Sunday heat and YB Maria Chin Abdullah, clad in t-shirt, jeans and black sneakers, extends her hand to welcome me with informality. They say not all heroes wear capes, and I’m looking at one of them. Meet our member of parliament for Petaling Jaya constituency.
With the YB title set aside, here I was, looking at a pleasant and ever-smiling woman in her early 60s, who would ultimately be written in our local history books for defying many odds.
This is no ordinary woman and mother of three. Maria Chin has been the voice of activism for women’s rights in Malaysia with a history of detainment and release under the infamous Security Offences and Special Measures Act (Sosma). She became chairperson of the Bersih rallies from 2013 to 2018 and was executive director of Persatuan Kesedaran Komunity Selangor (Empower). And that’s the nucleus of her DNA – empowerment.
While most people are busy running errands and catching up with household loose ends during the weekends, Maria Chin is in a hall surrounded by hyperactive youths. There were trainers and sportsmen teaching them team-building, communication and social skills using the language of equality through sports. There were music, basketball and outdoor games. That’s not a rarity for her.
In fact for Maria Chin and her team of volunteers, this is family and this IS part of catching up on domestic loose ends.
Since the inception of the new government post May 9, Maria Chin has been busy looking into her new portfolio which covers seven areas: youth, health, transport, environment, housing, women empowerment and democracy.
I was privileged to spend the afternoon with her whose schedule I can assume rivaled the Prime Minister’s.
“I was at the Taman Medan Cahaya area in PJS2 on Saturday helping several B40 families and this Friday we will be handing out food to families. You are welcome to join us especially in packing the food.” Within an hour I was part of Maria Chin’s family. That’s how effortless and approachable Maria Chin does things.
“My work highlights the B40 group – a term used to identify families below the poverty line.” She describes while gesturing to her team to prepare the next event. She turns and appears slightly serious, saying: “My concern is to ensure dignity for everyone. It bothers me that there are families out there with insufficient food to feed their children and struggling to meet ends while there are those who have too much. We need to fix this divide. It should not happen at our level of democracy.”
Her expression softens, “But we can, and we will, because Malaysians are extremely supportive once they know what needs to be done if you provide them with right info. They’re willing to help out and be involved in this as much as I am.”
For those who are unfamiliar, ‘dignity for everyone’ is a very important philosophy for Maria Chin. “It affects all of us,” she begins. “It runs through the seven areas of my work including LGBT challenges because we can’t talk about gender equality if we don’t fully address all that’s inclusive.”
I asked what the public, myself specifically, can do to assist with her mission. “You’re helping already,” she smiles. “By spreading the correct narrative on what affects us and what needs to be done.”
Maria Chin describes how despite 61 years of Independence, we still presented basic but major issues pertaining to equal quality of life. Take youths for instance. We have a spectrum of concerns ranging from increased mental health problems, drug abuse to lack of freedom of speech at universities and colleges.
I realized it’s been a while (a long while) since we heard members of parliament concede students to be active in politics while on campus. “Are you sure that’s a good idea YB Maria?” I asked mischievously. She nods, “The landscape has changed. We need to hear their voices in order to know how we can help them.”
That brings us to the Ola Bola event of the day at the Pusat Rakan Muda, PJS3. “The purpose of having this event is to provide students a platform to bond, feel united, and for us to have the opportunity for discourse on what bothers them. What are their thoughts? What are their fears? We can’t assume and prescribe for them and I think a lot of what’s available for them out there are based on that. That’s our first step to making a change.”
Retrospection on my own varsity days while looking at the youths at play, I asked Maria Chin if they were mentally prepared to embark on local politics. “Are they ready YB Maria? You know they don’t read much these days…”
“When I was detained under Sosma for 11 days without opportunity to be heard, I was adamant to ensure such draconian laws be abolished as it muted our human rights to be clarified, to defend ourselves and to feel safe. That’s a clear violation.”
The Security Offence Special Measures Act (Sosma) allows the Malaysian police to detain a person for 28 days before filing any charge. “And we should begin with the fertile grounds of education starting with repealing the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA). If students are given the means and opportunity to be ready, they will be.”
At that point I was getting extremely excited. A product of local university, I recall how the UUCA clammed all opportunities to even congregate among friends on campus without a security guard reprimanding and asking us to disperse.
“I’m advocating for young children to begin learning about the United Declaration of Human Rights. We can begin by inserting moral aspects on what is right and what is wrong. That way, they will grow up shaped with the fundamentals. That alone will make a big difference on how youths perceive and react to the world.”
“You have a long list there, YB Maria,” I articulated while taking a long exhale. “Yes I do but it’s needed and that’s a delayed responsibility on our part. But now we can move forward and we will do it.” I transposed my gaze to the teenagers nearby.
They were happy. It was hard to tell the B40 from the rest. Everyone looked equal. Looking back at the lady beside me I marveled at the energy and spirit Maria Chin projected throughout the afternoon.
As a citizen, I admit I had my own reservations on where the new government was heading, even fearing that we were going to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. But seeing Maria Chin in action with her team of dedicated volunteers I couldn’t help but feel good and optimistic about what lay ahead.
Yes, there is a lot work that needs to be done. That is a given. I was skeptical about certain key issues but I was grateful Maria Chin allayed some of them especially in regards to marginalised communities, addressing the impoverished, youths and draconian laws that need to be abolished, and a transparency for Article 10 – Freedom of Speech, Assembly and Association – a law many Malaysians negate existed.
Maria Chins seems the perfect fit to improve standards of human rights in our backyard. And for that I’m overwhelmed by her activist spirit and gracious invitation to be part of her endeavors. “So you mentioned you needed help this Friday YB Maria?”