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Monday, 17 March 2014

Bureaucrat to Human Rights Commissioner: Simon Sipaun's Journey

by Tan Sri Hasmy Agam (Suhakam Chairman)

 This collection of speeches by Tan Sri Joseph Sipaun as the President of Proham represents the embodiment of his views on some of the pertinent issues relating to human rights.  Tan Sri Simon is known for his plain-speaking style, often laced with humour, speaking his mind and expressing his views without fear or favour -- which is very refreshing indeed -- in keeping with his firm belief that in a real and vibrant democracy citizens should be given ample space to voice their views.
 The issues that Tan Sri Simon  touched on are wide-ranging -- from a general yet incisive overview of the human rights situation in Malaysia to his bold and instructive commentary on Malaysia, its past, present and future, to the sensitive issues of illegal immigrants in Sabah and ethnic relations and religious freedom, among others.

 Tan Sri Simon's comments relating to the challenges faced by SUHAKAM remains as valid today as they were during his time as a Commissioner and Vice-Chair of the Commission. We share his lament and agree with him that one of Suhakam's main mandates, namely, that of advising and assisting the government in formulating legislation and administrative directives and procedures remains as elusive as ever.

 Tan Sri Simon speaks from a position of intimate knowledge, experience and authority having served the Sabah State Government for over thirty years, reaching the very top of the state bureaucracy as State Secretary, and upon retirement as a Commissioner and Vice-Chair of the Commission of Human Rights of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) for about ten years.  I understand that during his service in the Commission he had consistently articulated views that were not necessarily popular but pertinent to the issues at hand; they were always robust and refreshing and with the important perspective of his home State of Sabah.

 Tan Sri Simon was most candid when he talked about Malaysia's past, present and future. While quite a lot of what said may be controversial, it is refreshing, enlightening and very educational -- giving the perspective of Sabahans that many of us are not aware of. While Tan Sri Simon was nostalgic about the good old days in North Borneo before it became a constituent part of the new nation called Malaysia, he was clearly looking towards the future and has the best interests of the nation at heart. I am sure his 26-point wish list for Malaysia is shared by large segments of our reflective and thoughtful citizenry. All in all, his piece on Malaysia's past, present and future is very thought-provoking and instructive which we should all pause and reflect on, in the larger and longer term interests of our beloved nation.

 Among the issues that he was most passionate about as a SUHAKAM Commissioner relates to the promotion and protection of the rights of the indigenous people of Malaysia. Clearly, his passion for this subject sprung from his own humble beginnings as a member of an indigenous community in Sabah and also, as a former civil servant who observed first-hand the situation on the ground, and finally as a SUHAKAM Commissioner who highlighted the issue of the plight of the indigenous peoples in Malaysia and took up their cause vis-a-vis the powers that be. SUHAKAM was therefore extremely grateful to Tan Sri Simon when he agreed to advise and assist the Commission as one of three Independent Consultants during its National Inquiry on Land Rights of the Indigenous Peoples.

 Is is my hope that Tan Sri Simon will remain actively engaged in the years ahead in the perennial business of promoting and protecting human rights in the country, within as well as outside of Proham, as his views and ideas remain very cogent and constructive, motivated by nothing else but his desire to see Malaysia grow and mature into a strong human-rights- respecting nation -- the vision and mission he had persistently nurtured from the days he was in SUHAKAM. In this regard, he must be commended, along with a number of his former fellow Commissioners, for establishing Proham as yet another civil society organisation comprising of former members of two important Commissions, who continue to be concerned about the human rights situation in the country.

On a personal note, I share a lot of affinities with Tan Sri Simon Sipaun in terms not only of our humble beginnings as the son of poor parents living in a difficult rural environment, but also as former bureaucrats who, upon retirement, continued to serve the public as Commissioners of SUHAKAM. Indeed, if I had been able to take up the position as a Commissioner of SUHAKAM which I had accepted upon my mandatory retirement about a decade ago, we would have served together as fellow Commissioners.

Like him, I know the transition from the position of a bureaucrat -- in my case as a diplomat -- to a Human Rights Commissioner was not always an easy one, despite our experiences and understanding of the plight of the poor and the vulnerable segments of our people. I'm sure Tan Sri Simon would agree with me that the transition has been a very enriching and worthwhile experience in our life's journey. I wish him all the very best in his future endeavours.


From the Foreword of the book- Simon Sipaun: Human Rights Defender (Proham 2014)

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