Monday, 03 October 2005

Ten Things You Didn't Know About..

Sivarasa Rasiah

In the midst of moving to new office premises, getting ready for a seminar at the weekend and preparing for a trip to the United States, social activist Sivarasa Rasiah still manages to squeeze in some time for LOSHINI CATHERINE JOHN.

SIVARASA Rasiah is no stranger to the world of law and politics. The 49-year-old lawyer, a co-founder of Suaram and vice-president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, together with fellow activists from non-governmental organisations, has long been involved in humanitarian work.

He juggles time between running his law practice and doing what he can to help the less fortunate and those seeking justice. We decided to dig further into his many faceted life.

1. Though today he may be one of the top lawyers in Kuala Lumpur, Siva's first degree was actually in genetics. "I was trying to get into medicine after high school in Victoria Institution but didn't make the grade. Form Five was great but I guess in Form Six, there were many distractions. So instead I went into genetics in University Malaya and graduated with first-class honours. Six months into my masterís I realised that this was not my cup of tea and was already looking at other options," he recalls.

2. He applied for a Rhodes scholarship to pursue law at Oxford. "I wanted to get out of genetics. I knew with a law degree, I would be quite versatile and so I went for it. Can't imagine what life would have been like if I hadn't," he offers. "Still I'm grateful for my scientific background, which has proved to be very useful in court."

After completing his law degree and the Bar in Britain, Siva took a year off and went to Germany where he spent most of his time in libraries there reading. He worked for a bit after that in London before returning to Malaysia on his 30th birthday.

3. "When I came back, I was filled with passion and energy. I guess being in the UK had opened my mind to many things. I got very interested in human rights and had been involved with union workers and stuff like that there. It sort of ignited a spark in me and though fundamentally I remained the same person, there were certain aspects of me that had changed," he says.

4. His first involvement with an NGO was in 1997 when he got involved with a women's group called Citizens Against Rape. "That was just the beginning. Later I decided to help out a group of villagers in Bukit Merah who were protesting against a factory in the area that was producing harmful radioactive waste. Later it was with anti-ISA work which eventually led to my first arrest. I spent six days in the lock-up," he says with a smile. Siva got arrested twice after that during the 1998 Reformasi period but shrugs it off as part and parcel of the job.

5. With nights in prison, surely his wife must object to his nature of work? "Ann (James, a name in the theatre world) was outside the lock-up all night long," he recalls fondly. Incidentally, he met his wife at a demonstration as well. "It was during Operasi Lalang and she was there too. We were kind off thrown together and that's when it all happened. After a long courtship, we finally got married in 1993," he reveals.

6. Siva indicates that through it all, his wifeís strength has been monumental. "The nature of the job takes up a lot of my time. Sometimes when she has rehearsals, we hardly spend time together. But I'm blessed for having such a lovely wife whom I can depend on emotionally ó with what I do, it's really needed," he stresses.

7. For someone who's had a brush with the police, ironically both his father and his older brother were members of the force. "I get teased sometimes about this and when I get invited to give talks at police seminars, I always start by telling them how my father was the registrar of the police force and my older brother was a senior police officer. When I was growing up, our house would be filled with my fatherís colleagues from the police force during Deepavali functions. Funnily enough, my first arrest happened during Deepavali where I spent the festive season in a cell. My mother was not too pleased!" he says.

8. This lawyer-cum-politician is a cancer survivor who lost his voice for almost a year. "Can you believe a lawyer and a politician without a voice?" he laughs. "I came back from abroad after the 1999 election and had a mild asthma attack. After several checks, the doctors found that I had thyroid cancer. They managed to remove the cancer but damaged a nerve on my vocal chords. I had to speak with a little boom box and a speaker for a bit. Felt like Michael Jackson. Thankfully, my voice came back. I can't sing or shout, but at least I still can talk," explains Siva who, by the way, can strum a tune on the guitar and was a finalist at his school talentime.

9. When not too busy with law and politics, Siva loves to "chill out" with his wife. "Prior to getting involved with politics, I had more time. I loved going to Pulau Redang just to snorkel or Taman Negara or any beach really. These days I'm a little busier though I try to be a bit more selective as to what I take on. Most times Ann and I just spend time at home watching movies and doing nothing," he shares. Oh yes, and he does also try to squeeze a massage whenever he can ó the one indulgence he loves.

10. With so much on his plate, his answer to what his favourite moment is comes quick and easy. "Spending quality time with my wife, that's what I enjoy most!"

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