From out of Tunku’s shadow, she flies

Written by straits-mongrel
Monday, 30 August 2010 22:59

Last year, during the same Merdeka period, an article in The Star gripped the nation and turned viral on the internet. One specific portion was copied onto blogs, emailed and floated in local internet forums as thousands praised its simple level-headed message. More recently, we caught up with the author,

SHARYN LISA SHUFIYAN, to discover the person behind the article

Sharyn3NOT so very long ago, exasperated and outraged, she threw a punch at a security guard inside a mall. Socked him hard on the shoulder. Made him look small – “he needed that” – and put him in his place as a fellow human being.

“We were selling chocolates at a stall, my friend and I,” says Sharyn Lisa Shufiyan. “Just earning honest pocket money – we’d do that all the time during college breaks. My friend has a little disability, which that particular guard at the mall noticed and started teasing her about it. He was incessant. She was hurt, made overly conscious of her ‘blemish’, which really isn’t one.

“We ignored him at first, until she couldn’t take it anymore and stormed off to make a report. I tried talking to him, numerous times, told him to back off. But here’s the sad bit – no-one was listening to a ‘lowly’ salesgirl even if you’re a ‘lowly’ security guard yourself. And gender discrimination is apparent. The guard said to me, ‘Mak kau tak ajar budi ke?’ (Your mom didn’t teach you manners?) to which I snapped back, ‘Because of my mom I’m like this!’ adds the 25-year-old former student of Convent Bukit Nanas.

“That moment, I decided ‘Enough’. I got mad, balled my fist, and threw one at the guard. Push me too far and I can be biadab too, especially if you mess with people I care about.”

You listen to the story, you study the figure telling it, and there’s a mild disconnect. Sharyn is Let-It-Be gentle, compassionate and thoughtful. You may say she’s peramah, definitely not someone who eats men for breakfast. Not unless they ask for it.

But the Tunku would’ve grinned broadly, wouldn’t he? This was, after all, his great grand-daughter giving a remedial lesson on Respect 101.

Sharyn Shufiyan is honoured to share the same bloodline as Tunku Abdul Rahman, Bapa Merdeka and the nation’s first Prime Minister, but she doesn’t wear that on her sleeve.

“It’s an honour, yes, but in the end, so what? Honour and respect is something you earn as an individual. We don’t inherit those. I certainly don’t want to. I want to earn my stripes,” she says.

Sharyn1This Independence Day, even as the media blares the Tunku’s seven shouts of “Merdeka!” at the historic event, Sharyn is herself articulating her own independence.

“I am my own person,” she says in her gentle tone. It’s measured, but you sense a real spine in the delivery. She’s done her share amongst the Common and is very much common, having worked as a salesgirl, waitress, barista and mailroom runner.

“I’m a 21st century Malaysian woman, thinking, feeling and digesting with my own senses and judgment. I am constantly forming my own position on issues,” says Sharyn. “I understand my great grand-dad’s position in the context of that era, and I appreciate them. I don’t necessarily agree with all of them in today’s context. Our society has changed.”

“Compared to the Tunku, I may seem to be more left-leaning. But please, I don’t mean terrorism nor bloody revolution! I know some parties will be quick to jump on that. I mean a civil society struggle towards less class distinctions, certainly less ethnic distinctions, and increased empowerment.”

She’s interested in grassroots activism, she goes on to tell. A good deal of this came from observations and experiences while completing her studies in Media Studies and Anthropology in New Zealand.

“Studying in New Zealand definitely opened my eyes. Wellington – where I was – is a beehive of social activism. Protests and demonstrations are accepted as a right to free speech and assembly. It’s not just empty words in the Constitution. It’s just so different than in KL.

“And the classes I took when in college – the Humanities courses like Sociology and, Social Psychology, Philosophy – they weren’t textbook-frozen. They were living discussions and dialogues on contemporary issues and core values. I’m interested in reading Philosophy. Those were important for me. They sparked my interest in people’s movements, the grassroots claiming their voice,” says Sharyn, who has been part of Wild Asia‘s Communications and Editorial team not long after returning home.

“I came home late 2008, after the Tsunami at the last Elections. It was a time for reflection. People thought things would change after such a resounding message by the voting populace. They didn’t. The nation was embroiled. Factions deepened; they got ugly. I hope to do my part in the healing. Perhaps once I was complacent, but not anymore.”

Sharyn_2Sharyn is also a citizen journalist, trained by Malaysiakini, where her dad works. She uses citizen journalism as her platform to highlight issues that she thinks is of national interest and also to play her part in building a democratic and free media environment.

Citizen journalists are your everyday individuals picking up a pen or a camera, and highlighting stories usually left in the dark by mainstream media. They are the alternative news provider,” she explains.

“I work at Wild Asia because I believe that my work has to mean something. The place I choose to work has to be uplifting. I can’t work in a place that contributes to the despair of people’s lives. At Wild Asia, I help handle the website content and write pieces every so often for special projects. Ultimately i like social work. One of the most memorable assignments was being in Sarawak interviewing the Iban smallholders in their rumah panjang. I learned a lot.”

There is a brief pause, her eyes study the rim of the coffee mug.

“The Orang Asli and natives of Sabah and Sarawak, these are the original Bumiputras, but where are they in the scheme of 1Malaysia? It’s a disheartening picture,” she says. “There is no real effort to get them empowered. They are given some pittance allowance, ad-hoc assistance in terms of food or electricity, foodstuff, and made to feel indebted to a tuan. But they are dumbed down. Well, as consolation perhaps little gestures at showcasing some of their handicrafts. Otherwise, real opportunities to higher education, infrastructure, healthcare, economic sustainability, they are left high and dry when it comes to these.

“And a large majority does not understand the Orang Asli, nor do they understand community development. Some people think moving them out of their land giving them brick houses is ‘developing them’ but that’s not how it works. That is not understanding their needs. This is not what caring for the citizenry is about.”

You think you noticed black spots of outrage darting about in her eyes as she details this part of the interview. But in a blink they’re gone. Sharyn is tempered, more forged these days. Yet one is reminded of that episode not so very long ago in a mall, when a friend was bullied. You know it’s still very much in her to stand up for things she cares, though the zest of a punch is now more sublime, more creative. That’s bad news for bad people.

Because this Merdeka, the Tunku’s great grand-daughter wants you to know she is now her own person. She is independent, stepped out of the shadow of her fond ancestor. With her pen and cam, equality and justice has a fresh ally. Stay tuned, civil society.

Sharyn’s ready.

P.S. Sample of Sharyn’s work at Citizen Journalism, click here. Or for the full team of Citizen Journalists, click here.

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