MALAYSIANSKINI Loud and vocal, you might think civil liberties lawyer Michelle Yesudas was born to be a lawyer. But it was actually a chance encounter with a book in the trashcan that set her on this path.
“During my A-levels in Kolej Damansara Utama, I found a book in a dustbin - (Indian author and Booker Prize winner) Arundhati Roy’s ‘An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire’ - and it was talking about dalits and the untouchables.
“Then I started to see a lot of connections, where injustice in India, like the poor being denied access to justice and institutions, is similarly practised in Malaysia. And the author would talk about how people, like activists, can make a difference.
“So I thought I might as well find a job which can be sustainable and make a difference. I realised I would be a lawyer but only if I dealt with human rights,” Michelle ( photo ) said in an exclusive interview with Malaysiakini recently.
However, being a lawyer wasn’t the first career choice for the 28-year-old KLite.
Art, advertising and journalism, with its emphasis on creativity, were also considered.
This passion was something she shared with her comrade and fellow Chinese-Indian, Melissa Sasidaran, currently practising law with Ramrais and Partners who was also present at the interview.
“I used to enjoy the performing arts, but then I sobered up and decided to just go to university [...], I actually wasn’t sure right up to when I was doing my pupillage, I wasn’t sure I could be a lawyer,” Melissa chipped in.
“As a student it was all very intimidating. But as I went along, I think it became apparent to me that I was actually enjoying what I do. I can’t imagine doing anything else at this point,” she added.
Michelle, after finishing her Master’s degree in the United Kingdom, had a hard time hunting for jobs, but was not quite ready to give up on her creative dreams.
“I was in the UK looking for a job and I got rejected everywhere. I applied to various creative places [...] I sent (renowned graffiti artist) Banksy an email (to work with him); he did not reply.”
The only legal group she to applied to was Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) in Kuala Lumpur, and they were the only people who replied, she disclosed with a chuckle.
At the frontline of human rights abuse
Michelle found out about LFL while doing her Master’s research on the Rohingyas, where she came across the NGO's executive director Eric Paulsen's ( photo ) work on "stateless" people.
“It was an issue that really got my attention. For me, it was the basis of all human rights. But when you are stateless, you have no basis to have rights.
I saw that LFL was the only one who did that (human rights work), so I immediately sent them a bunch of fan-girly emails, and they called me for an interview,” she said.
She has been involved in human rights work for almost two years now.
Being at the frontline of human rights abuse cases, Michelle said she still finds it challenging to control her emotions at times.
One such example was when she represented the family members of the late Aminulrasyid Amzah ( photo ), who at 15, ran a police roadblock and was shot dead by the police while driving his sister’s old car.
“They break down, they cry. They will tell you ‘Do you know how I feel? You do not know how you feel until you have lost a child.
“They are experiencing every human’s worst nightmare [...]. For me, it’s a challenge that I have to deal with well,” she said.
For Michelle, it was perfectly fine to put herself into her client’s shoes.
“If I were to detach from it, they will know I am not sympathetic to them. But how can you not be sympathetic to Aminul’s mom.
“The reality is the kid is not going to come back [...] (but) the system can still give you vindication,” she added.
Melissa on the other hand felt that lawyers are not supposed to take up their client’s cause, but noted that sometimes it was just too difficult not to empathise.
One particular case she remembers to this day is of a child who was imprisoned with adults, and whipped with a rubber pipe to force a confession.
“As lawyers you’re supposed to be professional and independent about whatever. You just do your job professionally. But for that particular case, it was difficult.
"I still think of the child till this day. Every now and then it just comes through my mind with every case that I do,” Melissa said.
Support women who speak up
Michelle hopes that others can empathise with victims as well, especially women who are abused for speaking up, like BFM journalist Aisyah Tajuddin who received death and rape threats after acting in a video which satirised hudud law in Kelantan.
Michelle herself had been quite vocal against the abuse hurled at Aisyah, and for one of her tweets on the issue, she was probed for sedition, but not charged.
“In Malaysia, whenever you have girls who have a public opinion or say something rhetorical, she will be shamed utterly.
“There are very few people standing up for it; I’m not just talking about NGO people. I want regular people to step up to the plate and condemn violence, condemn rape.
“It’s very easy. These are basic actions that a lot of people in the first world countries are able to do - they can band together to condemn violence,” she added.
MALAYSIANSKINI is a series on up-and-coming politicians and activists.
Last week we spoke to Gerakan Deputy Youth Chief Andy Yong . Stay tuned next week for our interview with PKR Youth exco and lawyer Melissa Sasidaran.