by Mariam Mokhtar
When her mother, a rubber tapper from the Harcroft Estate near Sitiawan, was badly hurt whilst collecting latex, Ano Rao knew what her ambition would be; but her dreams were only fulfilled two decades and four children later.
Despite the best efforts of the medical staff at the Ipoh Hospital, Ano’s mother suffered a stroke and was bedridden. She was only 29-years old. At the end of the 10-year legal wrangle with her mother’s employers, RM8000 compensation was awarded, half of which covered the lawyer’s fees.
On receipt of the money, Ano and her father found that they had been shortchanged by RM500. She accompanied her father to see the lawyer in Ipoh and their persistence and patience were rewarded, when after hours of waiting the lawyer met them.
They told him, “RM500 is a lot of money for us.” The lawyer apologised for his chief clerk’s error, then reimbursed Ano’s father. Ano was impressed with the lawyer’s conduct and his chambers. Her mind was made up: “Wow. This is nice. One day, I must become a lawyer.”
Ano is now an International Human Rights Lawyer, practicing in London. Her other responsibilities include being on the Advisory Panel for Health Protection Agency in the UK, the Advisory Council of Britannia Hindu Temple Trust and the Executive of the Hindu Council.
When were you born? Where were you brought up?
I was born in 1963 and grew up in Ladang Pundut. My primary schooling was at the “Our Ladies” Convent in Sitiawan. I did my Form Five at the Methodist High School in Taman Kok.
And your family background and ancestry?
My father was a fishmonger, but later became a grocer; my mother was a rubber tapper. My grandparents were indentured labourers, brought by the British from Andhra Pradesh, in 1913.
My maternal grandmother worked as a rubber tapper in the Harcroft Estate, which had a big rubber processing plant for the latex collection. Both grandfathers were toddy tappers. My parents grew crops behind our home, mostly for sale, but they gave some of these vegetables to the very poor.
What shaped your ambition to become a lawyer?
I spoke good English at school, liked writing compositions and father used to encourage me in my studies. With my mother’s accident, father took out a case against the Ladang Pundut estate. It was a lengthy trial; the whole family suffered.
The visit to the lawyer in Ipoh, to resolve the compensation issue, helped focus me and formed an impressionable and lasting image for a 14-year old. In the air-conditioned room, I remember staring at pictures of the lawyer in his silk wig and black gown, the bookcases containing thick law books, the case files on his desk, the oil portraits of English judges, the big executive chair and the coat stand from which hung the lawyer’s gown.
When did you obtain your law degree?
I had an arranged marriage soon after my Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) and we moved to Seremban for my husband’s work. After 10 years as a court interpreter, he was accepted to read law at a university in London, but was refused study leave. So, I encouraged him to resign and told him that I would support him.
In 1985, we left our firstborn with my parents and went to London. To make ends meet, I worked in a supermarket and also in a fast food shop. I attended night classes at Birkbeck College, University of London. My husband graduated in 1992 and in 1996, I received my law degree from London’s Guildhall.
How did you end up being a Human Rights lawyer in England with access to the UK Houses of Parliament?
In 2007 I heard about a prominent Malaysian Indian lawyer being jailed and it was my dealings with the temple work in London which prompted me to become a Human Rights Lawyer.
How do you juggle family and work life especially in England, where the support network of family or the convenience of maids, is not readily available?
There was an eight year gap before I had my second child. Later, my mother provided much needed support, when she came over for a year, to settle my eldest child into life in England.
Did your grandparents tell you stories about Malaya’s struggle for independence?
I was told that during WWII, several estate workers were taken away to work on the railway lines for the Japanese. Many died and our community had a high proportion of widows.
As a Human Rights lawyer, what do you think of the human rights movement in Malaysia?
Malaysia’s human rights record is very poor. There is discrimination, a lack of understanding, no mutual trust nor a shared vision. Race relations are poor and equality does not exist. The judiciary needs to be independent. It appears that Britain is more tolerant and multicultural.
What worries you most when you visit Malaysia? What makes you happy?
Meeting friends, family and former classmates is a joy for me. Sadly, many familiar places no longer exist and people from the estates are scattered. The places which represent our history are gone. And with that loss, the community has also disappeared.
What are your hopes and dreams for Malaysia?
We are in the 21st Century and future generations must learn to avoid conflict. We need to improve race relations and strive for equality. We need good reforms to unite everyone.
Will you live and work in Malaysia?
After my graduation in 1996, the family returned to Malaysia. We attempted to open up a law firm in Sitiawan and Ipoh, but were told we needed a Malay partner. My biggest worry was the children’s education. I also wondered if they would be refused scholarships or places at university. There were unfair discriminatory policies for house purchases. In the end, we left.
Have you a message for young Malaysians?
Success in life means you must learn to be persistent and work hard. You also need to stand up for your rights. To have hope, and faith in god are important. If I can do it, so can you.