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My tribute to Irene Fernandez – Charles Santiago

Many years have rolled by and I sat in the car, reminiscing, on my way back from the wake of Irene Fernandez. I was 18 years old and working on human and worker rights issues with the Young Christian Workers Movement (YCW) when I first met her.

Irene helmed the YCW in the early 70s. Our paths have crossed over the last 36 years.

We met at conferences both in Malaysia and overseas, and have worked together on matters concerning migrant workers, an issue close to her heart. Irene has single-handedly put migrant issues on the national and international agenda. And took on employers and governments along the way.

She was fearless when challenged and did not waiver when dragged through the courts.

Irene was arrested in 1996 and charged with “maliciously publishing false news” when she came up with a report about 59 migrant workers who had died from preventable diseases in Malaysia's detention camps.

After seven years of trial, she was found guilty in 2003 and convicted to one year's imprisonment. Released on bail pending her appeal, her passport was held by the courts, and as a convicted criminal, she was barred from standing as parliamentary candidate in the 2004 general election.

She was later acquitted in 2008.

None of the persecution and harassment she faced doused her spirit to fight on. She, in fact, waged wars that were truly inspirational for the younger generation. Her commitment to human rights and justice is legendary.

Tenaganita, an advocacy organisation founded by Irene, continues to be the voice for migrant workers, and victims of trafficking and refugees.

We all aim to leave an imprint as we end our journey on earth. Irene leaves behind a legacy which will continue to not just fight for the rights of the oppressed and underprivileged, but also continue to inspire others to be courageous in the face of adversity and to soldier on to fight for what they believe in. It has been a great honour to have known Irene and a privilege to have worked with her.

I mourn the passing of an old friend and comrade.

Her passing is a huge loss to the nation and symbolises the end of an era. – April 3, 2014.

*Charles Santiago is the Klang MP.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.

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