By Rita Jong | The Heat
The name’s “Bon” but he’s not quite the British special agent who has been licensed to kill. Unlike James Bond, the boyish Edmund Bon fights his battles in the court room and in the public forum.
Bon is a lawyer who focuses on human rights and constitutional issues. Besides his legal practice, he keeps busy with activism work to highlight legal issues of public interest through the MyConstitution campaign, the Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights project, and through the LoyarBurok blog. His mission is to create awareness and share knowledge among youths to encourage them to take part in nation-building.
Despite his boyish looks, Bon insists he is not young anymore. He turns 40 in June. Despite the 16 years of legal practice tucked under his belt, this yoga enthusiast confesses that he never wanted to be a lawyer but just went “with the flow” because most of his friends were doing law.
The accidental lawyer
As a child, Bon wanted to be “everything from an archaeologist to a fire fighter… anything exciting and adventurous, but never a lawyer”, he tells The Heat in a recent interview.
While waiting for his SPM results, Bon worked as a waiter at a Pizza Hut outlet and at wedding banquets, apart from doubling up as a tuition teacher. It was then that he came across Brighton college offering scholarships at a British Education Fair.
“I applied and got the scholarship to do my A-levels at Bellerby’s College in Brighton in the United Kingdom. When I was doing my A-levels, all my friends were either going to do Accountancy, Economics, Medicine or Law. Since I couldn’t do the first three, I chose Law. Most of my close friends also wanted to do Law. So I went with the flow,” he explains.
That was in 1992. He then studied Law in University College of London and did his English Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1997. He was called to the Bar upon his return to Malaysia the following year.
In 2008, Bon also took his Master’s degree in International Human Rights Law from Oxford University.
Edmund Bon was born in Kuala Lumpur in 1974 and grew up in Ampang. He has a younger sister. Both his parents were teachers but his father later joined a multi-national petroleum company.
His surname is a quirk due to a mistake on the part of government officials during the turmoil of World War II. “My grandfather had registered my father’s birth in Seremban and the official who took down my father’s surname heard it as ‘Bon’. The correct pronunciation would have been ‘Yun’ or ‘Woon’,” he explains.
Bon studied at the Methodist Boys School in Kuala Lumpur where he served as a prefect and joined the Boys Scout.
Initiation during Reformasi era
Upon graduation, Bon returned to Malaysia during the height of the Reformasi movement. He served in the Legal Aid Bureau to fulfil the requirement that new lawyers needed to do at least 14 weeks under the legal aid programme. “There were many categories to choose from and I picked ‘dock brief’ where I was required to mitigate for people who pleaded guilty,” he recalls.
At that time, the political scene in the country was heating up. Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim had been sacked as deputy prime minister. “We needed to defend those who had protested against the sacking,” he says.
The areas around Masjid Jamek and Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur were the scenes of running battles between Reformasi protestors and the police. Hordes of people were getting arrested and charged in court.
Bon and his legal aid colleagues were required to go to the police station to interview those who had been arrested. “There were so many people. We spoke to 50 to 60 people who were facing charges for street demonstrations daily,” he says.
Like Bon, there are many lawyers who cut their teeth in the Reformasi years, including Fahri Azzat, Amer Hamzah Arshad, Latheefa Koya and N. Surendran. The more well-known lawyers such as Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan and Ragunath Kesavan were their mentors.
Some, like Latheefa and Surendran, had gone into politics while handling human rights issues while others continued to focus on the cause outside the realm of party politics. Latheefa is PKR legal bureau chief while Surendran is vice-president of the party.
Upon completion of his tenure in legal aid, Bon joined Chooi and Co, one of the country’s larger law firms, to pursue his cause for human rights. “I did habeas corpus cases and was involved in a background case for Mohamad Ezam Mohd Nor (formerly PKR national youth chief who is now with Barisan Nasional) in 2001,” he says. (Ezam was appointed director of communications for the Finance Ministry on March 15).
“In 2004, we also did the Jemaah Islamiah case and got involved with many ISA (Internal Security Act) and freedom of expression cases. If it wasn’t for this Reformasi period, I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now. It was good training ground,” Bon says.
His compatriot Amer Hamzah, who is also a human rights lawyer, says it was Bon who had roped him into doing such cases.” I remember I first met him at the old Kuala Lumpur criminal sessions court and discovered that we both had a strong interest in criminal cases. We decided to do criminal and legal aid cases together,” says Amer. “He also got me involved in numerous human rights cases and we did a number of criminal trials, unlawful assembly trials and habeas corpus cases for ISA detainees.”
Amer describes Bon as an outstanding lawyer with a “good legal mind” who has the ability to come up with ingenious legal arguments. He adds that Bon is truly an activist at heart, who believes that change can be achieved via social activism.
Teaching future lawyers
For the past three years, Bon has been serving as a tutor in legal education at Universiti Malaya.
“I teach International Human Rights Law and I see that the legal education in all our universities and the LLB programme do not adequately prepare our people for the legal service. The skills which are being taught are a method for the 1930s, where everybody learns the same thing and come out and do the same thing,” he says.
“But now we are in 2014 with so many different jobs and opportunities. And students will need to not just deal with a problem in black and white, but also to know how to deal with a client properly. This practical aspect of the practice is not taught,” he says.
Bon the man
When not tutoring or arguing cases, Bon indulges in yoga. He attributes his boyish looks to this ancient exercise as well as the fact that he likes what he does.
What about taking up politics like his compatriots Latheefa and Surendran? He has, after all, been courted by both Pakatan Rakyat and Barisan Nasional.
But Bon is not swayed. “I have no intention of becoming a politician. Politics changes you and being a political player is not something I want to do,” he says.
That, perhaps, will be his greatest strength yet.