Anis Syafiqah: A Malaysian heroine

Anis Syafiqah, the face of contemporary student activism in Malaysia.
Anis Syafiqah, the face of contemporary student activism in Malaysia.PHOTO: KARIM RASLAN
Anis views activism as a way of applying the lessons learnt in university.
Anis views activism as a way of applying the lessons learnt in university.PHOTO: KARIM RASLAN

Anis Syafiqah, a twenty-four-year-old, hijab-wearing student is the face of contemporary student activism in Malaysia.

A neat and supremely composed, Chomsky-reading linguistics major from the University of Malaya, (UM) the country's leading tertiary institution, Anis sits opposite me in a canteen.

She is cool and collected. Her answers are brisk, underscored by a surprising warmth and intelligence. But Anis is used to pressure.

Only last month, her colleagues and she arranged the “#TangkapMO1” (i.e. “#ArrestMO1”) rally in Kuala Lumpur.

The group—most of whom were students—demanded action against the “Malaysian Official 1”, cited in a US Department of Justice lawsuit surrounding the troubled state investment fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

However, I first heard of Anis – or rather saw her—in a viral video that was sent to me many times over only a few weeks earlier.

Standing outside a university from which she'd been prevented from entering, she was addressing a small group of fellow students on her concerns about the ongoing 1MDB scandal.

Anis starts out quite demurely, but her voice – and anger – grows.

At one point, she harangues the police officers who were blocking her way: “The whole world knows we have been robbed: how can we still relax?”

It was a bravura performance, impeccably-timed and freighted with emotion. For many Malaysians, it was an electrifying moment.

Here was someone young, attractive and articulate capturing all at once the entire country's frustration and dismay.

Where did this remarkable young woman come from?

Was she the norm or an exception to the rule?

How had she emerged from a nondescript coastal town, Sungai Besar in the far north of the central state of Selangor and a middle-class background (both her parents were school-teachers) to capture so much national attention?

"I started with the Persatuan Mahasiawa Islam (PMIUM, “the UM Muslim Students Association”). This year is the 60th anniversary of the movement's formation by Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas. I enjoyed being a member because it helped me understand the role of students, especially as a Muslim.

"I knew I had to pursue the values of Islam because Islam is based on justice. Racial politics is just a political game. Why shouldn't we meet and mix with other races?”

"I stood for campus elections and to my surprise, I won under the pro-Mahasiswa (i.e., Malaysia’s pro-student, anti-establishment front). I participated in NGO events and witnessed the wave in voter sentiment in the run-up to the 13th General Elections.”

"I was moved to get involved with the #Tangkap MO1 rally because in the week after the DOJ made its disclosures, there was no response from anyone.

"What I am doing is all about opening the eyes of the people: it doesn't matter who, the important thing is that Malaysians need to be aware [of what is happening to our country]. Women have a key role to play in raising this awareness.”

Anis' rhetorical skills and her quiet, but forceful arguments have been matched by an ability to organize and mobilize.

In the lead-up to the rally, she chaired meetings bringing together NGOs and opposition politicians, managing diverse agendas and egos.

Anis' understanding of the role of the student is a refreshing throwback to the sixties and seventies era of student activism: "While I recognize that I have a responsibility to study, activism is about translating what we've learnt. Students are critical stakeholders.

Indeed, the word 'university' is linked to the word 'universal’.

"The more we open the eyes of society, the more we unite it.” Many outside Malaysia have been flummoxed by the level of apathy in our public life.

Do we care about what happens anymore?

Or are we inured to corruption and the abuse of power?

You may disagree with her politics, but Anis Syafiqah and her contemporaries clearly care passionately about where the country is headed.

These young people aren't caricature millennials who moan and groan, then do nothing.

 
 

Anis and her friends want to make a difference and they have the courage of their convictions. Of course, this is hardly surprising given that UM has had a long history of student activism.

Many of its “alumni" (including Anwar Ibrahim) have gone on to become leaders on both sides of the political divide. With Anis Syafiqah and her friends, the university's tradition has been renewed and regenerated.

As I left, I was struck by her elegant use of language and the way she captured the challenges of operating amidst Malaysia's ultra-tight controls.

Relating to me with a half-smile how she engaged with the authorities, she said, "I didn't say that I would continue or even stop what I'm doing. But what I said was that I will think about what is the best thing to do and do it."


Karim Raslan is a South-east Asia commentator and founder and CEO of the KRA Group, a public affairs consulting firm with an Asean-wide focus. This is the latest instalment of his long-running Ceritalah column.