Like a star: Zaitun “Toni” Kassim 1966-2008

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toniWith her sparkle, wit, boundless energy, compassion and principled stand on human rights, Toni appeared like a star across the sky and a song in our hearts, writes Yeoh Seng Guan in a tribute.

It was apt that we began our memorial service at the Annexe Central Market by exchanging hugs with those gathered in honour of Toni. As Pang Kee Teik, organiser together with Jerome Kugan, reminded us, this was the trademark manner in which Toni used to acknowledge her friends. In life, this embrace characterised Toni’s warm personality and her commitment to people and the many causes that she took up. In death, it memorialised her generosity of spirit and the love we have for her.

The tributes that flowed that Saturday evening – in the myriad forms of anecdotes, poems, songs, short fiction, and video – by her many friends made us cry, laugh, marvel and be grateful that such a person as Toni had enriched our lives through her warm presence and zest for life.

We heard how a young person’s anxiety about her Muslim faith became less daunting because Toni said it was “okay to ask questions”, of how a novice trainer initially intimidated by her illustrious reputation eventually became one of her closest friends. We listened to how she unflinchingly offered comfort to individuals marginalised by the unjust contradictions of societal norms and of her ability to confound sexist and racist platitudes with firmness and good humour.

In all of these encounters, it was Toni’s uncompromising zeal for open, honest and respectful dialogue that grounded her being and which endeared her to many, especially to the young and young-at-heart. Toni was simply inspiring and accessible at the same time.

Good, passionate, warm-hearted

The testimonies also bore witness to her own exemplary range of talents, abilities, interests and diversity of friendships that she was able to make and nurture. Her friends included musicians, journalists, writers, theatre practitioners, film-makers, academics and social activists. What bound all of us together was the knowledge that Toni was a good, passionate warm-hearted person and a deeply committed human rights activist who took up a range of causes that revolved around protecting the dignity of human beings and their freedom of expression.

Toni was born in Ipoh, one of three daughters. Her father passed away while she was young. Her mother resigned from her full-time job as a nurse to look after the family. Toni had her primary and secondary education in Ipoh and Malacca before continuing her tertiary studies abroad in Flinders University, Australia. Whilst in university, she volunteered for the grassroots-based NGO, Community Aid Abroad, and subsequently took up a position with them for six years.

When she returned to Malaysia in the mid-1990s, Toni was quick to re-immerse herself in local and national issues through activism. The list of NGOs that she was involved in and helped to steer throughout the years is broad as it is diverse. They included the Malaysian AIDS Council and PT (formerly known as Pink Triangle) Foundation, where she helped in formulating awareness programmes on HIV/AIDS. At Awam (All Women’s Action Society), she served as vice-president and spokesperson for a time. She was also a key member of Sisters-in-Islam and its principal trainer on women rights and Islam. And Toni was an active secretariat member of the human rights group, Suaram, as well as member of the Malaysian chapter of Amnesty International.

A song in our hearts

Toni’s facilitation skills were well-known, and she was much in demand as a trainer both in local and international workshops. She conducted workshops for diverse individuals and communities – from indigenous peoples, sex workers, transgender persons, persons with disabilities to urban poor communities, youths, Muslim women, and Muslim religious teachers (ulama).

Toni was also active in numerous civil society initiatives that lobbied for more democratic space and social justice in Malaysia. She was part of human rights fact-finding missions and delegations. Somehow, Toni even found the time and energy to review and take part in theatre as well as perform in an acapella singing group. Her most recent involvement, which gave her much pleasure, was the Fiesta Feminista held in the University of Malaya in early 2007. She felt hopeful about the blossoming of a new generation of gender and human rights activists.

In the political arena, Toni is best known for being the first woman candidate running on a women’s platform in the 1999 General Election. As part of the “Women’s Candidacy Initiative” (WCI), she contested in the Selayang parliamentary constituency to raise concerns that transcended political party lines and to highlight issues of discrimination in the political process. Although she did not win, she was voted one of ten outstanding Malaysian women in 1999 for her pioneering effort. The recent general election saw Toni named as a candidate again for the WCI. Sadly, she had to withdraw because of worsening ill-health, which later claimed her life on 4 June.

Like so many others who knew or had worked with her, we at Suaram deeply mourn her tragic passing. We miss her sparkle, wit, boundless energy, compassion and principled stand on human rights. Only slightly more than a year ago at our Suaram Fundraising Dinner, Toni had chosen to sing a song, “Like a Star” (by Corinne Bailey Rae), to commemorate the lives and contributions of human rights defenders in Malaysia over the decades. Like them, Toni has appeared like a star across the sky and become like a song in our hearts. She will not be forgotten.

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