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March 2008
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Shahrizat didn’t deserve to lose

By Child Care Worker

Almost everyone I know is happy with the election results, and so am I. I am so proud to be Malaysian, I burst at the seams! I am, however, devastated by [former Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri] Shahrizat Abdul Jalil’s loss.

Over and over again, I hear that Shahrizat did not deserve to, and should not have lost her seat. I’ve heard comments such as: “Isn’t it too bad she was up against Anwar’s daughter? The rakyat did not vote against her personally but against the establishment – she was just collateral damage!”

No insult to Anwar’s daughter, because I don’t know her and have no idea what she’s capable of achieving, but honestly, did the rakyat vote for the best candidate in Lembah Pantai to serve the people?

My opinion? No!

The wave of sentiment against the BN [Barisan Nasional] is understandable and I am so proud of Malaysians that they stood up against injustice, and called for change. But, in doing so, in punishing and making examples of BN candidates, they also voted out a very effective, compassionate and intelligent leader who was making positive change and aiding those who had fallen through the cracks through ignorance, arrogance, incompetent systems and procedures. I am talking about the children many may not know about – the children that Shahrizat fought for, that many may not know exist.

I speak from experience, having worked with her on different projects for marginalised children – stateless children, the urban poor, street children.

Before anyone jumps down my throat, let me tell you that I do not work for government – I work for an NGO [non-governmental organisation] and have been for the last 22 years of my life. I have many complaints against the Welfare Department and the system and how we treat our children, but I must stand up and defend, as I do many times, those who have been wronged.

Three-term MP for Lembah Pantai, Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, lost the seat to Nurul Izzah Anwar in the March 8 polls. Photo by Jacqueline Ann Surin.
Three-term MP for Lembah Pantai, Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, lost the seat to Nurul Izzah Anwar in the March 8 polls. Photo by Jacqueline Ann Surin.

Shahrizat was wronged! In the years that I have worked with her, the ministry, under her care, had an open door policy, where you could literally walk in through her doors any time of the day and speak to someone who would make sure that what you had to say would get back to her. Sure, it would take a while, but it would get to her and she would act.

She fought for the rights of all children, under the CRC [Convention on the Rights of the Child], to be respected and honoured. I sat in on one of those meetings where she argued with a representative from the Immigration Department, for an hour and a half, reasoning with him that it was our duty to protect all children, not just Malaysian children in this country.

I walked in with documented cases of children who were hurt, violated, abused. They were almost all stateless children and had no rights under the current system. Within a week of filing a complaint and submitting my documents, there was a program with JKM [Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat or Welfare Department] and JPN [Jabatan Pendaftaran Negara or National Registration Department] officers coming to register the children I had.

Sharizat did it. Nobody else cared enough.

She fought for the Anti-Trafficking Bill of 2007, that was comprehensive and protected all children, regardless whether they were refugees or stateless. How it was to be implemented was, however, not up to her because that fell under the Home Ministry. But she was one of the driving forces who pushed it through.

The Child Protection Policy that has been tabled in Parliament was also her initiative. She involved more NGOs and people on the ground, including children and youth, in her decision-making and actually listened to what everyone had to say while setting up projects and programs for children.

She implemented more “grassroots-up” and not “top-down” policies and implementation systems. Now, if only more BN politicians had done that and been less arrogant, things might have been better.

People may be quick to blame Shahrizat for all that goes wrong with children, but she can only help children within the existing guidelines and rules, as horrible as they are, and she would be the first to acknowledge and apologise for them, and actually do something about it!

No, she could not prosecute a case of child abuse or murder – that’s up to the police and public prosecutors. No, she could not decide where a child goes during a custody battle – that’s up to the courts. No, she could not find a missing child once they went missing. Her hands were tied by the laws and her officers had to enforce them according to their interpretation.

My point is, it was not the minister’s fault – she really tried but it’s the system that fails us. What Shahrizat did was to identify the loopholes, fill in the gaps and make amendments to the law. That was what she did, that was what she was trying to do and more could have been done, had she not lost in the March 8 elections.

She had three important areas under her – women’s issues, family development and welfare – which includes children, the old, the sick, the mentally- and physically-challenged, the poor, the rich, the abused, the violated. It was a formidable task to juggle all these departments and meet the needs of all and still be gracious and compassionate and effective.

I can only pray that the new minister, whomever, she or he is, is half as good and sensitive as Shahrizat – ask us, who worked with her on children’s issues, what she has done. To me and the children I know, Shahrizat kept her promises and she delivered to the best of her abilities and that is good enough because that’s what effective leaders do.

Smart, compassionate, astute, willing and able, Shahrizat was one of the better ministers and politicians the rakyat let go. I am sure Shahrizat will be fine in whichever sector she chooses after this, but the children I serve and the people I know who work with her, are bereaved at our loss.

Indeed, Malaysians lost a great champion of children’s rights to collateral damage.

[Note: In a highly unexpected turn of events, Shahrizat lost the Lembah Pantai parliamentary seat to Nurul Izzah Anwar by 2,895 votes in a three-cornered fight that involved independent candidate N. Periasamy.]