When we first started “doing human rights”, there was a great deal of scepticism. Some would say that human rights work was ineffective, useless, and a waste of resources. “No point doing anything-lah, nothing will change”. Others who were more optimistic said, “It is a long game. It takes time to reform deep-seated problems.”  

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the effectiveness of human rights activism and advocacy are influenced by organisational strength and the sustainability of the groups and movements that drive them. 

Often, in the hustle and bustle of our everyday work and the problems we face as advocates and activists, we tend to forget the “why” of organising — funding, platforming, and mobilising — for human rights. 

So, WHY? Why do we pursue human rights activism through organised advocacy? Human rights groups have for years been domesticating human rights, and it turns out that there is a theory for it — vernacularisation, the process of appropriation and adoption of international human rights ideas and norms in a given local context.  

In our chapter on LoyarBurok (LB) and the Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights (MCCHR), we analysed the development of LB/MCCHR as living examples of how human rights are being vernacularised in our country.

We sought to answer the question of what the everyday practice of human rights is. How do Malaysian lawyers “live” human rights? Exploring the practice of doing human rights, we examined how lawyers empowered by the 1998-1999 Reformasi movement subsequently set out to increase Malaysians’ acceptance of human rights. The chapter mapped the political conditions under which LB/MCCHR grew, and the strategies and modes of organisation of these “cause lawyers”. Similarities were drawn between LB/MCCHR and a chapter of Indonesia’s legal aid foundation, Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Jakarta.

Influenced by earlier writings, we picked up from Shanmuga Kanesalingam’s excellent exposition of cause lawyering through LB and MCCHR in Monkey in a Wig and took his research further. We outlined lessons learned from the lawyers’ foray into civil society activism to vernacularise international human rights norms. The introduction and concluding chapters contextualise our study among others in the Routledge Handbook of Civil and Uncivil Society in Southeast Asia

The chapter is an inexhausive illustration, due to the limitations of the Handbook, but it highlights the need to document and study the good (and important!) work of Malaysian civil society organisations. 

With this study, we better understand why some are keen to progress human rights work – and notably, why human rights is important for a better Malaysia.

The chapter was co-authored by Edmund Bon and Wong Pui Yi. Pui Yi is a doctoral candidate at Universiti Malaya, Malaysia. Trained in multidisciplinary qualitative research, her thesis examined the development of Iban ikat textile (pua kumbu) value chains and how Sarawak’s political economy impacted the cottage industry. She has worked in academia, activism, and the arts, and is eager to challenge economic norms.