Remembering Azmi Khalid
Human Rights Advocate
zmi was born in Sungai Petani, Kedah on 29 October 1949, the fourth of eight siblings (four sisters and three brothers). Though born in Kedah, Azmi spent his early primary school life in various other parts of the country, following his father’s frequent job transfers. His father, Encik Khalid Ariffin, was then a cooperative officer and his mother, Puan Asma Haji Che Man, a homemaker. Both parents were from Kedah and have now settled in Ampang Jaya, Kuala Lumpur. Of the eight siblings only the first four were born in Kedah: Fatimah, Ariffin, Khatijah and Azmi. Fatimah, the eldest sister, who has since passed away, lived in Kedah, Ariffin, the eldest brother, worked for Shell Malaysia but is now retired and lives in Petaling Jaya. Khatijah is with Sunway College. The four younger siblings (Fadzillah, Fauziah, Azahari and Azman) were not born in Kedah. Fadzillah, who was a systems analyst with Intan, has also passed away. The remaining younger sister, Fauziah, works at HSBC Bank Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, while Azahari is now attached to Maybank (New York). The youngest brother, Azman, is with Nestlés Malaysia.
Azmi spent a good number of years of his primary school life in Malacca. He often regaled the family with stories of his early school life at the Tranquerah English School and never failed to show us the various memorable places in Malacca, which he was particularly fond of, on our trips there.
During his younger days, he contributed articles to a children’s magazine called The Young Malayan. He had the ambition then to be a journalist but, caught up later with the cause of human rights, he changed his mind. He often sat on the editorial boards of some school magazines. He was an industrious student and participated in many school activities.
Azmi attended two different secondary schools; the Sultan Abdul Hamid College in Alor Star and later the Victoria Institution (V.I.) in Kuala Lumpur. He had fond memories of the V.I. where he made many good friends who remained until the end. In the V.I. he was on the editorial board of the school magazine, a committee member of the National Language Society, a school librarian and a member of the school Cadet Corps. He was also a member of the Bahasa Malaysia school debating team, joining seniors such as Rafiah Salim and Wan Ahmad Hulaimi in 1966.
Azmi pursued his legal studies at the London School of Economics (LSE) and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). While there he joined the Malaysian Students Law Society and served on its committee. He was also on the editorial board of the Society’s annual journal Kanun. During his LSE days he was exposed to a myriad of student activities that included demonstrations as well as various social interests that LSE students were so involved in.
Upon his return home to Malaysia, Azmi joined the newly established Law Faculty at the University of Malaya in 1974. During that period the university campus was rocked by student demonstrations and Azmi had to help secure bail for the release of some law students who were caught in demonstrations on and off the campus.
Azmi began his teaching career in the area of Public International Law and Constitutional Law. He zealously guarded the teaching of Constitutional Law and was particularly selective in the choice of co-teachers and tutors for that subject. He insisted that anyone who taught that subject must appreciate the underlying principles of the Constitution and Constitutional Law. In fact, when he was on his first sabbatical leave in 1978, he was glad that it was Ariff Yusof, someone who shared his views on the subject, who took over in his absence.
At the Law Faculty, the trio of the VI debating team met up again when both Hulaimi and Rafiah joined Azmi. However, the reunion did not last very long; Hulaimi left first and Rafiah followed suit but Azmi remained. It was on the occasion of Rafiah’s departure from the Faculty to join Maybank, in 1988, that Azmi had the occasion of reminding her that she was to be literally sitting on the remnant of what was left of Bukit Mahkamah, which Hulaimi had launched a campaign to save. With the departure of Rafiah they split ways but remained good friends.
After failing to register a human rights society, Azmi decided to pursue another route. He developed a new law course on his favourite subject, International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, in 1979. He was extremely happy that the course was approved for teaching by the University and was excited at the prospect of being able to impart his knowledge and share his views on the subject so close to his heart. Azmi firmly believed that upholding and spreading human rights awareness through education would be a sure and effective way, though it may be a slow process. Although he realised that such a subject would not attract many students, he believed it was not the quantity that mattered; rather it was their commitment to the cause that was of paramount importance.
In late 1978 Azmi joined ALIRAN, which was formed in Penang. He was so happy to be part of ALIRAN that he served on its committee for many years. It was what ALIRAN believes in as much as the approach that it adopts that impressed him most. Azmi was by nature committed to everything that he believed in. He felt very strongly for the cause of ALIRAN and would spend time and energy for what he knew to be a cause for humanity as well as a fulfilling pastime. Even when asked by the then Dean of the Faculty as well as some other colleagues to consider pursuing his Doctorate in Law, Azmi always maintained his view that writing in the Aliran Monthly or the likes, on issues that matter most, was indeed a more meaningful contribution to humanity. Even then Azmi often complained of the inability to do as much as he would like to. Being almost of the same age as Dr Chandra Muzaffar, he often envied and marvelled at how much more service Dr Chandra had contributed to ALIRAN (as President) and to other causes. However, the achievements of some other friends gained in pursuit of wealth and fame did not seem to interest Azmi much.
Azmi was often asked by students and ex-students to write references for them either in relation to their job applications or in furtherance of their studies. He kept copies of some of the letters that he had written for them over the years. But the reference that gave him satisfaction was the one he wrote for a temporary canteen operator of the Law Faculty, Pak Cik Mahat, who was keen to be considered as a canteen operator at the MPPJ building in Petaling Jaya and succeeded in his application. Pak Cik Mahat was forever so grateful. Azmi found that the joy which Pak Cik Mahat had was much more rewarding than perhaps getting some of his students into postgraduate courses.
Besides being a reference writer Azmi had also stood as guarantor for several of his students and was even landed with a court judgment.
When Azmi assumed the position of Deputy Dean in 1980, the late Professor Ahmad Ibrahim was then its Dean. During his tenure he had one overriding concern: that the subjects he taught might suffer setbacks due to his heavy administrative duties.
Azmi and I were married in April 1980. The arrival of our daughter Alina in 1981 and our son Rizal in 1982 caused more constraints on Azmi’s time. But spending time with his young children brought him much joy. Azmi always insisted that one of us be around when the children woke up in the morning. Since my work at the Attorney-General’s Chambers required clocking in at eight in the morning, Azmi was happy to stay back. In fact, Azmi started doing this after the birth of Alina. He used to bathe the baby before going to work rather than trust the maid to do it. He later spent most morning breakfasts with the children. The breakfast times they shared became one of the children’s most memorable moments with him.
After three years of administrative work, Azmi decided that juggling domestic, academic and administrative responsibilities was too much of a strain on his time. In his letter of resignation to the late Prof. Ahmad, he wrote to say that during his three years as Deputy Dean he was coping with both administrative and academic duties in a manner that he could no longer say in all honesty that his academic work did not suffer too much. He felt that his academic work had been steadily declining and for his own as well as his students’ interests he needed to take immediate steps to arrest that trend. Besides, such constraints on his time could not be the way for him to bring up the family because as he stated “my loved ones deserve better from me and I really aim to see to that”. He resigned from the Deputy Dean’s position in 1983; he later reassumed the position in 1986 for another period of two years.
For a hobby Azmi enjoyed listening to music. Very much a homebody, he liked just relaxing at home whenever he could. It was no surprise that his favourite holiday spot was Fraser’s Hill. He enjoyed the serenity and quietness of the place where he could leisurely spend time marking the endless examination and assignment scripts of his students while the children would run around playing in the cool weather. Interior decoration was another of Azmi’s interests. He was quite meticulous about choosing the right colour of his home which, more often than not, ended with brown.
Azmi was described by many as quiet, a man of very few words. As he himself often remarked in response to such comments, he preferred to think rather than to talk. His quiet strength was accompanied by gentleness, patience and commitment that showed him as a serious person in every way, though he possessed a good sense of humour.
It was in October 1985 that Azmi first discovered his illness while on sabbatical attachment with the Human Rights Internet at Harvard University, Massachusetts. It was a shocking discovery for all of us, what with being so far away from home. However, even before there was much time to absorb or ponder over it Azmi was already scheduled for surgery. On the first day of his admission into Mount Auburn Hospital at Harvard, Jack Tobin from the Human Rights Internet visited him and they both had what he said was to be the last “puff”. At that time the doctor who diagnosed him did not fully disclose the medical problem as yet. After becoming aware of his illness, Azmi never thought of smoking again. In fact Azmi had made a few failed attempts to give up smoking. Each time he failed he joked that smoking and passion for human rights were his only two “vices”; alas, everyone had vices he declared. Having given up one “vice”, he said that he was then quite happy to continue with the other.
Recalling some of the possible symptoms of his illness, Azmi was grateful that he was being given medical attention in Boston. He reassured us by saying there could not be a better place to get such treatment than in Boston. He was in one way happy and at the same time very hopeful that his prayer to discern what was ailing him was going to be answered. Azmi always reminded all of us to count our blessings especially in the face of any adversity — something that helped him persevere through his own difficult times.
There were many concerned friends and family members who offered good advice on diet observation, food supplements, exercises etc. Azmi diligently observed some of them so much so he even kept a daily record of his consumption of some food supplements for years. That was also a reflection of his trait of being so organised. He liked keeping a record of things, even copies of personal letters, including notes or instructions to his office secretaries.
Much as he tried to forget his illness there were times when it was just impossible to ignore it. But in 1987 and 1988 two dark political events brought Azmi back on his feet. In the wake of Operation Lalang in 1987, he actively worked to secure the release of some detainees through applications of the writ of habeas corpus. Azmi was visibly upset when he attended a habeas corpus application in the High Court for Dr Chandra and seven others. In the Attorney-General’s submission to the court, he defined solitary confinement to mean being confined to a single room which he admitted was not up to a five-star hotel standard! Azmi was even more upset that the trial judge had brushed off arguments that the ISA should never apply and was not intended to be used against government critics or to stifle legitimate opposition or to silence lawful dissent.
The next event that occurred soon after this was the convening of a tribunal that led to the removal of Tun Salleh Abbas as Lord President in 1988 together with two other Supreme Court judges, Tan Sri Wan Suleiman Pawanteh and Datuk George Seah. Like many Malaysians, Azmi was very much affected by these depressing events.
Around the middle of 1990 Azmi’s illness took a turn for the worse. The political situation of the country had also not recovered from the constitutional shock of these two events. To many social activists the country was in a depressing state. This did not help Azmi spiritually either.
In the same year Azmi and I went on our haj. Despite his medical condition, the tranquility of Masjid-il-haram gave him a sense of peace and calm. The rituals of the haj included many prayers at Masjid-il-haram. All of us there, including my mother and father, naturally prayed hard for Azmi’s recovery. When he found out about this, he jokingly remarked that his recovery may help improve Malaysia in a very small way as a better country will serve a bigger purpose. He said his health was important but so was the country’s condition. He was praying for the betterment of the country he said because then it would provide for a better place for the children and future generations to live in. The haj was such an achievement for Azmi. It gave him so much fortitude. He often missed our two children when we were there because he had never been away so long from them. He kept thinking about bringing them there later but sadly his wish was not to be fulfilled.
The next two years were quite agonising for the family though Azmi hardly complained or grumbled. After much persuasion by doctors, family members and friends he agreed to go for another medical treatment, this time at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, Australia. During the two years Azmi had to make two trips for medical treatment there. But he passed away on 24 May 1992 at the same hospital.
Though one ought to have expected the worst in the light of his medical history, it is but only human to think in optimistic terms. Death is always a shock but it is a necessary reminder of the omnipotence of God. Even though an important part of my life is over, there is so much that is good to remember. These memories will carry us through in our lives. We actually never lose the one we love, for even though he is gone, within the hearts of those who care his memory lingers on ....
Reproduced from Azmi Khalid, Human Rights Advocate -
A Tribute (2002)
Last update: April 30, 2005.