GENETICIST. Lawyer. Human rights activist. Subang Member of Parliament. Parti Keadilan Rakyat Vice-president. Sivarasa Rasiah has worn many hats.
Sivarasa returned to Malaysia on his 30th birthday in 1986 and began a life of activism in championing human rights. The Rhodes scholar says he began thinking critically about social issues while studying law at Oxford University, which transformed him intellectually.
The Nut Graph interviewed Sivarasa at his Petaling Jaya home on 10 Dec 2009, which, incidentally, was Human Rights Day.
TNG: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in Bangsar Hospital in Kuala Lumpur in 1956. We lived on Jalan Beserah, off Jalan Kuantan, near Kuala Lumpur General Hospital. Our house was one of several government quarters, and was where Istana Budaya now stands. I remember our garden was huge, almost one acre.
My parents had eight children, seven boys and one girl. I'm the seventh.
Where are your parents from? Can you trace your ancestry?
We're Sri Lankan Tamils. My mother's father came to Malaya as a civil servant. He became the financial controller of the Malayan railway. My mum was born here in 1922. They lived on Station Road, now Jalan Perhentian in Sentul. That was where the railway yards were. We can trace mum's ancestry about three generations back. My mum's great-grandfather was one of the early doctors in Sri Lanka.
My dad's brothers brought him to Malaya to study around 1916, when he was only seven. His parents remained in Urumpirai in Sri Lanka, so I never met them. They were farming folk as Urumpirai is in Jaffna, a farming area.
What were your parents' occupations?
My father was the police force registrar. He was the head of administration: the most senior non-uniformed staff in the police force, reporting directly to the Inspector-General of Police. He would travel around the country inspecting the administrative procedures in all the police stations.
I used to follow him on some of his trips and to his office at Bukit Aman. I remember running around there as a kid. During Deepavali, the house would be full of police officers who would visit us.
In Bukit Aman, if there were 90,000 files, my dad would know where each and every single file was. I used to joke with police officers and tell them, "You know the filing system in Bukit Aman? You have a good filing system because my dad was part of setting it up!"
In my father's time, there was no such thing as "fail hilang". If the file was not on the shelf, there would be a note to say where it was, with which person, in which building. And this was without modern information technology.
My third brother became a uniformed police [officer]. He was in the special branch for many years, then in the Tatatertib section in Bukit Aman, and became OCPD (Officer in Charge of Police Disctrict) in Klang. He retired early as an Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP).
Mum was a [homemaker] and looked after the eight of us.
What are some of your strongest memories growing up?
I remember playing around a mining pool nearby, which is now Taman Titiwangsa. We were constantly warned about it being quite dangerous. I remember a big garden full of orchids and bougainvilleas; my dad loved gardening. My six brothers and I were all part of his workforce.
My dad was also a champion tennis player. We had a wall in the house, and [my brothers and I] used to knock a tennis ball against the wall, learning and polishing our game.
When I was 11, we moved into the house that my wife and I live in now in Petaling Jaya. I went to secondary school at the Victoria Institution (VI); Dad was insistent on that. Playing games, being active in societies, it's all mandatory at VI. I learnt to play cricket and hockey in school. Even though I wasn't a great [athlete], it was fun learning and playing.
As president of the Interact Club, I invited Joe Bugner to visit our school when he came to box Muhammad Ali in the World Championship Final. We also visited Muhammad Ali in the ring, all as part of the Interact Club's activities.
What are some of the stories that you hold onto from your family?
My dad was a traditional dad, so there was not much talking. He was heard the most when you had done something wrong. Mum was the person we would talk to — about our studies, our friends.
Dad was a civil servant, so holidays were mostly around Malaysia or Singapore, visiting relatives. When I was still a kid, I remember us renting a bungalow at Port Dickson, and the whole family, including grandparents and uncles and aunties, would gather there.
I think generally, people spend less time with the extended family now compared to 30 years ago.
How do you connect to these stories as a Malaysian?
Well, all this is what makes me Malaysian. My grandfather, the financial controller of the Malayan railway, and my father, the police force registrar, have played their role in making this country what it is today. They shaped the face of this country by helping build its infrastructure and shaping its administration.
Are there any aspects of your identity that you struggle with?
The main issue for a lot of non-Malay [Malaysians] is the issue of being treated equal.
Half of my family now lives in Australia, having migrated there. When the New Economic Policy (NEP) kicked in, the first person who moved out was my elder brother. He qualified as one of the first doctors from Universiti Malaya, but then found he was being bypassed for scholarships and promotions although he was just as qualified. He left in the early 1970s.
Another brother managed a well-known freight company. He left in the 1980s because of the unequal business opportunities, and primarily because he was frustrated with the rampant corruption. Two other brothers also subsequently migrated to Australia. I think this is the case for many middle-class families today.
There is a sense that this country has failed a substantial number of its non-Malay citizens. It has also not allowed them their full potential. I know a lot of Malay citizens and bumiputera in Sabah and Sarawak have also been deprived, with only an elite group benefiting. But for the non-Malay [Malaysians], there's the sense that a lot of potential has been wasted, particularly for the national good.
For example, I'm in the private sector as a lawyer. If things were different, I might have chosen to work in the public sector. Today, I could be a judge or prosecutor. I think many non-Malay citizens have stayed away from the public sector, knowing that it was difficult to expect fair and equal treatment within the system.
What kind of Malaysia would you like for the future and for yourself?
I would like a Malaysia that's genuinely democratic. We currently have an authoritarian system, a sham democracy. I want a genuine democracy where everyone can find their place; where any Malaysian, regardless of race and religion, has an equal and fair opportunity to do what he or she wants to do, where we can speak up and express ourselves without fear or favour.
I would like the wealth of this country shared and distributed equitably. A lot has been taken away from non-Malay [Malaysians] in the name of Malay [Malaysians] under the NEP. However, a substantial portion of Malay [Malaysians] themselves are being cheated of their share of the nation's wealth.
Equitable distribution would mean Sabah and Sarawak are not left behind. The Gini coefficient for Malaysia, which measures income inequality, indicates our income inequality is surprisingly among the highest in Asia. It is even worse within the Malay [Malaysian] group.
People talk about racial tension, but if you put in place a genuine democracy with equitable distribution of income, the races will naturally live well together.
[Making this change a reality] is an ongoing battle. I don't know if we'll get there, but we're coming to a critical point within the next one to two years. Either we're going to make it and take this country to great heights, or we're going to be running on the spot for longer — or worse, regressing.