I started getting involved with EMPOWER in 2005, I think, when I was still at University of Malaya (UM). I was in the Department of Gender Studies in UM, and I actually did my first internship with the Women’s Development Collective (WDC). Maria and Yoke Lin were in that organisation, and that was almost like my first step into activism. Later on, they founded an organisation – back then EMPOWER was known as Pusat Janadaya. Before, I had been volunteering at WCC (Women’s Centre for Change) for certain things, and then there were volunteering opportunities with EMPOWER. So I started volunteering there as well.
Back then, we were working on issues related to the people who were affected by the tsunami in Malaysia. I was specifically involved in projects that work with the women, men and children from Kota Kuala Muda and Langkawi. I enjoyed working with Maria and Yoke Lin– that actually played a very big part in me in continuing to volunteer back then. I graduated in early 2006. Both Maria and Yoke Lin asked me if I want to work with them at EMPOWER and I thought, “Why not?” So, I joined EMPOWER as a staff in 2006 and was there for a little less than a year as a staff, after which I moved on to something else.
I wasn’t there when they first conceptualised the idea, but when the programmes started; around the time when they did the focus group discussions, I came in around that time. It wasn’t much earlier on, but I think there were people before me. Later on, we registered and became PKKS (EMPOWER), I was definitely there at that point. We started as Pusat Janadaya and we started the process of registering as a (society) under RoS (Registrar of Societies) — I was there from before we started that process.
I think (it was) my involvement that changed my life trajectory — I wanted to be a diplomat, and then I joined the NGOs and I never really left. It was full of learning. I think one of the things I really appreciated was that I grew up in an environment where the hierarchy is very strongly present and an environment where you kind of do what you’re told, and you shouldn’t be questioning things and all that, but that exposure initially in WDC, and then further on in EMPOWER with Maria and Yoke Lin really introduced a different way of working, a different work culture to me; one where your opinions matter, where you’re given that space to discover and try things. They don’t let you “drown”, but they let you (have) that space to actually explore things and that’s something I really, really appreciate until today, because they taught me a lot of things, they taught me how to multitask. When I first started, I was the only full time staff and our office was actually the third room in my apartment. So (it was) a lot of fond memories– it was my first full time job, and then my first experience of having the office in the house, so a lot of discipline and things like that were necessary. I remember meetings at Maria’s house because her house is a bit bigger. So when it were larger meetings, it will be at her house, or else it will be in my apartment. It was a lot of fun because I learned a lot of different skills. Initially, I had a finger in almost everything, including the programmes. The process of developing the programmes was a lot of conversations and discussions. We were trying to think what would be the best way to structure this (programme) and because I was in the university at that time, a lot of my friends also were involved as volunteers. So it’s almost as if you’re just doing something you love and that kind of set the precedence to the kind of jobs that I would want to do; something that I enjoy.
Of course there were struggles, as always. Because I was new to a full time job, and learning the work culture. We always talk about practising human rights, making human rights a reality, and I think this is one of the spaces where I could actually try and put it into practice. It’s not something you just speak about, but you genuinely try and put it into practice as much as possible, to have that congruence between what you’re saying and what you’re doing. I really appreciated that. When I do job applications, I still write about what I learned in this job. I worked a lot with the young people in the Kota Kuala Muda community and it’s over a period of two years plus because I started as a volunteer.
Community organising sounds very exciting before you start and a lot of us go in thinking we’re going to help people. It’s an experience that genuinely teaches you something — it teaches you that you’re actually not helping. You have to work together for things to work and you have to be very conscious about the power dynamics. Those are the very key things that I got from my time at EMPOWER that until today, I try to be very conscious of it in anything that I do — any job, any work, any engagement with people — that power dynamics is very important. I credit that to the fact that I actually have the space to make mistakes, the trial and error. I remember in the earlier programmes, we were really frustrated when people don’t come on time, but after recognising that people work differently, communities may function differently since the cultures are a little different — I’m not really talking about ethnic culture, more like what kind of space you’re in, what kind of opportunities you have. And the more I understood that, it formed part of my thought process. I found that I could actually make more genuine connections with the young people that I was working with and that was really, really beautiful.
EMPOWER has grown so much as an organisation. When I talk about my experiences with people, they look at me as if they are not sure if I am talking about the same EMPOWER. Actually, a lot of people don’t know about that part of EMPOWER’s history– it started off as an organisation wanting to focus on marginalised communities and how it defined marginalised communities was in a certain way, when it started off. I think that definition has been expanded, perhaps after a lot more thought. I was there for about ten months to less than a year, and then I went away for an internship that I got because I was a staff of EMPOWER. I went to Korea at the time. I came back for six months, and then I left to study again. But even in that ten months that I was away, the direction of EMPOWER had changed a bit. Back in 2008, there was this coalition for good governance — I’m not sure if it still exists — and EMPOWER was quite involved. At that point when I was there, the conversations were about, “should we focus on community work? They wanted tuition and skills”, and “should we focus on more policy matters” and things like that; a very heated debate and discussions because people felt differently about different things.
Now I see and I understand that there has been work done on violence in the cyber sphere, the work that has been done on the UPR (Universal Periodic Review) — that’s a lot of work, actually, (because) coordinating a lot of different groups is a lot of work, looking at the policy level, and then now I know there are a lot of workshops about cyber safety and the Internet and things like that. I think it has taken a different direction and maybe that’s because of the idea about the marginalised communities has grown, which is good. I think it’s grown a lot — its involvement in Bersih; people whom I’ve met through conversations about Bersih, when I told them of my experiences, they weren’t sure if I was making these stories up, because they don’t know about EMPOWER’s beginnings. EMPOWER has grown a lot and always has such a small staff group, and the projects have been huge — I don’t know how they do it right now, but yes, it’s grown a lot, and it’s taken on work at different levels; policies, grassroots, working with different communities. I’m actually very happy to see (this). Although sometimes, I may feel like removed — because I’m no longer active due to lack of time, but it’s also very exciting to see how something that has started off a certain way has just grown so much and I think it’s because of the people. I have the opportunity to come in contact with different people over the years. Although I’m no longer active with EMPOWER, every now and then, there is a little bit of space for me to be involved. It always makes me feel very happy.
I don’t know how EMPOWER identifies itself, but for me, I always think of it as a feminist organisation. I think those were the initial principles — we may not have called it a feminist organisation, but the principles in which it functioned was definitely feminist. I would say it’s a feminist organisation working on shifts of policy, as well as community engagement in the sense of bringing people, different groups, together on current issues.
The most significant experience with EMPOWER for me is the spaces that were created for me as a young person — I was only 22, 23 when I first started – those spaces enabled me to believe in myself. I think that’s really significant, because it’s easy to say that everyone’s got work, but it’s a lot more difficult to work towards creating that space and (based on) my experience when I was working; when I was given three days to figure out how to run a program and I wasn’t sure if I could do it, and they told me that they wouldn’t let me sink and we’d work it out together. It was exactly that kind of spaces that are really necessary, especially for young people who may think that what they think doesn’t matter. That’s what’s significant for me; that space, that opportunity to truly believe in yourself.