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PSM’s Saras—the reluctant mother figure

TAIPING: Like some people in Tamil Nadu who see a mother figure in their chief minister, Malaysians who are familiar with the social and political work of M Sarasvathy would not hesitate to call her Amma—if only she would consent to it.

It’s not that the 59-year-old co-founder and current Deputy President of Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) doesn’t feel a kinship with the public. She just hates being associated with J Jayalalithaa.

“The word ‘amma’ is nice to hear,” she said, “but the comparison with the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister is not correct. We are at opposite ends of the pole of political ideology. She is a capitalist, with people beneath her, whereas I am a socialist who is equal with all.”

Saraswathy—or Saras, as she is affectionately known among friends—started her social activism at the age of 17. Appalled by the oppression that factory workers were subject to, she organised them into unions to fight for their rights.

Forty-two years have passed, and she hasn’t once turned away from her vision of social and economic equality among Malaysians of all races. She has always been around to lend her hand and voice in the fight for the rights of the oppressed, the needy and the marginalised—factory workers, plantation workers, farmers, squatters, the landless.

There have been many challenges along the way, but her will has remained strong, which is why in PSM circles she is known as the Iron Lady.

She was instrumental in the founding of Alaigal, a Perak-based community organisation that emerged in the early 1990s to dedicate itself to fighting for the legal rights of workers. PSM was a natural progression from this. The party was formed in 1998, essentially by community organisations that felt the need for elected representatives of their own in Parliament and the state assemblies.

In 2011, the monthly Tamil magazine Semparuthi gave recognition to her community work by naming her the Best Female Social Activist. In December that year, for her four-decade fight for the rights of Perak’s disadvantaged communities, she became the first Malaysian to receive the prestigious Japanese Yayori Matsui human rights award.

But the achievements have not come without pain. In the run-up to the Bersih 2.0 rally of July 2011, she was detained in solitary confinement for 33 days under the Emergency Ordinance.

It is believed that she was the first woman to be held under the dreaded EO.
“The detention gave me even more courage to fight for equal democratic rights for all Malaysians,” she said.

The EO arrest was not her first. In 2008, Saras, along with several members of 41 NGOs, were arrested in Kuala Lumpur and charged in court over a demonstration against a rise in oil prices. The case is pending.

“PSM is totally against the privatisation of public essentials and necessities, which causes the cost of living to go up and imposes hardship on the public,” she said.

PSM member K Kunasekaran said: “She is a person who can make the impossible possible with her positive outlook.”

The party’s secretary-general, S Arutchelvan, agreed and added: “She has been a true fighter since her youth. She has sacrificed her personal life for her cause of getting justice for the underprivileged, ignoring her family’s wish that she would get married and settle down. She sees marriage as a threat to her personal freedom to fight for justice for all.”

Another PSM member told FMT yesterday: “Saras is Amma whether she likes it or not, and I’m going to call her that, at least on this Mother’s Day. She deserves the endearment as well as the respect and honour that go with it.”

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