You currently work at the Association for Prevention of Torture (APT). What does APT do and what does your role involves?
The Association for the Prevention of Torture works to build a world which is free from torture. We focus on effecting change in different countries around the globe, through reform of policies and practices, building and strengthening the capacity of authorities, and working together with civil society and other stakeholders to cultivate a culture of torture prevention. I manage the Asia Pacific programme. It’s one of our biggest regions, and presents many diverse and complex issues.
I’ve been with the APT for close to four years. I joined in July 2013. Before the APT I was with the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, followed by UNHCR. I’ve always tried to work closely with national stakeholders, with governments, and with people who I believe are the ones responsible to make change. That’s always been my passion.
When did you first become interested in human rights?
At 17, I became interested in human rights. I’ve always loved the idea of understanding the challenges people face, and supporting them. In university, I was supposed to do a science major but I changed to law, because I felt that studying law would put me and my capabilities in a position where I could really help people. I was very active at university. I joined the student representative council, and advocated for issues in the country – I was all out. I’ve always been committed. If you do commercial law, you can make a lot of money, but that was never of interest to me. I knew immediately after I graduated that I wanted to do something in the human rights field.
You did your MA in Applied Human Rights at the University of York. How did you find it? Would you recommend your course?
I did my Master’s mid-way through my career. The message there is to never be afraid to find the right moment for you to recharge or to build your capacity. It’s not necessarily after you graduate from your first degree. I wanted to discover how I could push my work in a different direction, and that’s why I took the Master’s.
That particular course is very interesting, because it’s an applied human rights Master’s, which means it allows students from different disciplines to come together and have an intellectual exchange on human rights. There were lawyers, there were healthcare practitioners, there were NGO staff, and they each brought their own application of human rights to the table.
Personally, I was very into popular culture. Although I’m legally trained, I’ve always believed that popular culture has lots of potential to communicate really important subjects, such as human rights. On the course, I looked into how music, art, and cultural activities can be used to communicate human rights messages. My dissertation focused on freedom of expression in Cairo during the Arab Spring. I went to Cairo, and to Tahir Square, (in particular) and met with a lot of inspiring musicians and art practitioners. They shared their experiences of advocating for democracy in Cairo, and explained what kinds of censorship they faced, and what support human rights principles and mechanisms could offer them. My lecturer was also right in saying that I just wanted to find a reason to go and rock with musicians in the Middle East.
I really believe that there needs to be more room for people to theorise how grassroots movements, especially human rights movements, are motivated and informed by music and art. I rapped for my thesis presentation, although I never did that before! I didn’t intend to be a maverick, but the Centre for Applied Human Rights was really cool. The learning environment encouraged you to be yourself and to put a lot of originality and creativity in your work. Of course, you had to comply with specific academic requirements – it was a Master’s, not a concert – but it was okay to put yourself into the work and show what you really loved doing.
You were awarded a Chevening Scholarship for your MA in 2007. What was the application process like?
It was a very competitive, tedious process. Thousands of people apply, and there were fifteen of us from Malaysia who got it. We were really grateful for that. You need to have an idea on how the scholarship can contribute to your work afterwards, when you return to Malaysia, and also to your development as a person. The Chevening Scholarship is about building and identifying leaders in different fields, so it’s very important for you to have a sense of what you want to do after the Master’s, how you think you can contribute to the community or to your field or organisation.
You don’t have to have a road map, but you must at least have a sense of clarity and commitment. It’s important for you to show that this one-year opportunity in the UK is not just about getting really good grades, but also about all those opportunities for intellectual exchange. How will it build you as a leader? I think Chevening was looking for that in candidates.
How did the Chevening Scholarship impact your career?
Chevening has a really strong alumni network, of people in different fields and disciplines, so there’s a sense of solidarity. I’m based in Geneva, and the moment you ask if there are any Chevening Scholars around, you can get ten or fifteen people from different sectors coming together. In terms of professional development, having a qualification which has been recognised by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office gives that added edge to your resume.
Do you see yourself going back to academia?
I was about to start a PHD in York after my Master’s, but personal circumstances got in the way. I wanted to continue on the same path, looking into what art could mean for human rights. Instead, I went back to Malaysia, and had the opportunity to put a lot more thought into my future. It was a blessing in disguise.
I worked with the UNHCR for a year, but found that I’m not built to be a humanitarian worker. It’s a tough job and I learned my lesson during that period that you just need to know when you have to stop. You shouldn’t continue doing something you feel isn’t right for you. I really salute humanitarian workers out there. They work really closely with people in difficult circumstances, and you need to draw an emotional boundary and be professional, to ensure you remain objective and impartial. I was a caseworker, and personally couldn’t build that barrier. I couldn’t put on a poker face. It’s just not me. I’m a very expressive person, and I knew if I continued to do it, it would consume me as a person. It’s different for each person, but it was a struggle for me. You shouldn’t be ashamed to admit that you can’t do something. It only means that there’s something out there for you to do, and that you are good at something else. That’s the way I approach it. It’s a slow journey. Coming back to doing PHD, If I were to do a PHD now, I might have a better sense of what I want to do.
When did you realise you wanted to work in torture prevention?
There was no specific moment. The human rights field is vast, and I’d never thought of specialising. I’d always been a generalist, but the opportunity to work with the APT allowed me to make the transition - at APT, I specialise in torture prevention. It’s a different set of challenges for me, in terms of acquiring the right kind of knowledge and skills, and I love that. In addition to that, I also enjoy my current position, because in my work I have to do a lot of engagement with people - negotiations, building trust, building confidence - and I feel that’s where my skill is. I talk a lot, I can throw a joke here and there, I have a sense of humour, and it’s where I feel I can be most effective. In my region, it’s all about that. It’s about building confidence and building trust, trying to show that despite the really gloomy situation when it comes to human rights, there’s always hope.
Where do you feel the most progress has been made since you joined APT?
I have a colleague who was here for ten years, but more developments and positive things started to happen in her region after she left. She certainly left an impact in her region through the work that she did. To me, we are all planting the seeds. We might not see the fruits during our term here, but it’s a matter of cultivating and raising this tree.
There’s some inspiring work we’ve done in the Asia Pacific region. In Indonesia, we’ve been working closely with the national institutions over the past eight years to support them in increasing the effectiveness of their oversight and monitoring work. The momentum was a bit slow at first, for a variety of reasons. We came in and supported them, and now we can see that the national institutions are a lot more motivated and committed to go to the next level.
Last July, we broadened our advocacy for Indonesia to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT) by reaching out to staff and members of the Parliament.
One of APT’s main mandates is to promote OPCAT ratification and implementation It’s a strong framework, but we also don’t say you have to ratify now or tomorrow. To us, what is more important is for states to understand and see first the added benefit of using the OPCAT framework. It shouldn’t be seen as a burden or a foreign intervention. It should inspire local actors to be more effective at preventing torture by having better national oversight to reduce risks of torture. That’s the message we bring to it.
I’ve always had this artistic side to me, but before my work with APT I’d never had the chance to really bring it into my work. I’ve always liked to draw and visualise, and APT were very supportive about me bringing that element into my career. They’ve always encouraged me to use that in my engagement with partners.
Recently we cooperated with the International Commission of Jurists, Cross Cultural Foundation, and Amnesty International in Thailand, to raise awareness about torture on the International Day for Victims of Torture. We’re very far away here in Geneva, but I could support partners in Thailand by drawing a comic on why Thailand should have an anti-torture law to spread the message. It’s a very serious topic, but it can be dry. The comic was well received and was widely disseminated on television and the national news. Partners were saying my cartoon was getting more airtime than their public statements!
Just to put things into perspective, I told them that this sort of communication is a lot more attractive and powerful for laymen, who don’t understand legal terms and public statements from human rights organisations. I’ve always believed that visuals like photographs and cartoons are powerful. Comics can imitate reality, but without the harshness of real photographs – the blood, the sweat, the tears. It’s a really effective medium to explore.
Who are your role models?
My mother and my daughter. My mother is a single mother and raised me all by herself, no nonsense. I get my resilience from her. You need resilience in this work. Of course, when you’re 12, you don’t see it, but now, at 38, it makes sense.
My daughter is my biggest role model and my best friend. She’s 9 years old. I’ve learnt a lot from her about not giving up. Her sense of originality and her worldview are really exciting. That’s why I’ve made a comic blog about my life with her in Geneva. I see a lot of sense in her view as a child. She always has really interesting comebacks.
I’m rooted deep in my passion, in what I do, because I’m surrounded by these really wonderful women and I’m proud to say that. They remind me to stay true to myself, no matter the situation. As a woman, there are a lot of challenges out there, trying to distort how you perceive yourself, but no matter what, only you know who are you, and it’s important to stick to that.