A Singaporean Identity – A Singaporean Malay Muslim woman shows up to make a difference

SaleemahMy friend, Saleemah Ismail, showed up in my life in 2003 when she became a volunteer at the Singapore chapter of Unifem (now renamed UN Women). She went on show up in regional women’s affairs, spearheading Unifem’s advocacy work for trafficked women in the region. As President of Unifem Singapore between 2006 and 2011, and Board member of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organizations, Saleemah also reached out to all Singapore women and helped to set up Aidha, a training program for Singapore’s home help. She left us to work on UN assignments in Cambodia and Myanmar. Now she’s showing up in the Singapore Malay Muslim Community as Vice Chairperson of Suara Musyawarah, an independent committee whose aim is to engage Singapore’s Malay Muslim Community and gather feedback on the community’s aspirations and concerns.

We caught up at lunch last week to talk about her latest heart task.

“I am a Singaporean Malay Muslim woman,” Saleemah told me. “The concerns of the community are my concerns because I’m a leaf from the same tree.”

Saleemah believes that before anyone can do anything meaningful, they must show up in their
own lives. Her involvement in Suara Musyawarah, which translates as the voice of lively discussion, is first of all about being alive and committing to her own heritage and legacy.

Saleemah makes no bones about what that heritage and legacy is: She comes from exactly the type of marginalized background considered “an issue” in her community.
The youngest of six children of a storekeeper and a cleaner, Saleemah lost her father when she was nine and grew up in a two room apartment in Circuit Road, a neighborhood rife with single parent households, drug dealers, pimps and unsupervised children like herself, easy
prey for recruitment and assault.

Saleemah remembers being offered money for sex while her mother was away working two shifts as a hospital amah, being asked to sniff glue, being given the choice to quit school if she felt like it at the age of 9. Miraculously she escaped all the dangers. “My father called me Saleemah which means protected. And all my life, I’ve felt protected,” Salemah explains
with a trusting smile.

But despite her charmed life, Saleemah was still unable to look her legacy in the face until recently. She recalls how she chickened out of the job she was pro ally meant to take up at Unifem in 2003… “Actually, I didn’t go to Unifem intending to be involved in trafficking. I first went to Batam as the interpreter for a reproductive health project in Batam. But
when the young sex worker at my first interview started telling her story, all I did was cry. I was a hopeless mess. I just kept thinking over and over that it could have been me if not for divine intervention.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oUQ4oNR_w-g&feature=youtu.be

She told Unifem she’d give her time in the back room instead, as the chairperson of the
steering committee. What happened next was school outreach programs and the eventual passing of a Singapore law that criminalizes Singapore citizens who engage in sex with underaged sex anywhere in the world, including neighboring Indonesia where Saleemah assisted at that disastrous interview. It was a triumph of back room leadership.

In 2010, Saleemah moved nearer the cliff face in an assignment with the United Nations
Development Program. Although she was still working with programs and training, she was now meeting survivors of far greater trauma than a Circuit Road childhood. And when she returned to Singapore in 2012 and was asked to help with Suara Musyawarah, she knew it was time to finally show up at the mirror and take a good long look at the shadows lurking behind her.

Suara Musyawarah’s been engaged with individuals and groups in the community since late last year. While we’ll have the full report, Saleemah feels she is in a position to make these three comments about the marginalized segment of the Singapore Malay Muslim community:

– Although some people believe we’re dealing with a culture or heritage of disadvantage, I believe that even one person can make a difference. In our family, my father was the person who short-circuited the cycle of abuse coming down from my mother’s family. He simply would not allow corporal punishment in our house. Our flesh was precious he told my mother. To emphasize the point, he told her he’d break one of her dishes if she hit us. It persuaded her…. And then there’s the matter of my name, which has always given me the confidence to take risks and do what is right. That’s the lasting legacy that my father left me, even though he died when I was just 9. What I learnt from my father is that it doesn’t matter how uneducated you might be, how little time you have in someone’s life. Still you can be an influence which can change things for the better.

– The most important person in our lives is ourselves. We need to show up in our own lives. For those from marginalized disadvantaged backgrounds, showing up may mean something as simple as taking responsibility for waking up and getting to work on time, or doing homework, or deferring consumption to pay bills. For myself, it used to mean doing work for women’s organizations because I’m a woman. Now, it’s work for Suara. After all, if we don’t show up in our own lives, why should anyone else care?

– “Showing up” isn’t enough by itself. There is no incentive for the marginalized to want to be mainstreamed if they are treated as invisible when they “show up” or when their “showing up” isn’t acknowledged. Larger society must be willing to view the marginalized as people who are not merely problematic, as a group whose values and culture add something to the greater whole.

Saleemah is right. We are all in need together. Growing up relatively protected in an middle class family, I was intrigued by the freedom Saleemah was given as a child and the choices she was given. To a very large extent, her seemingly dangerous unguided childhood produced the balanced resourceful and compassionate woman I have the honour to call friend.
As Saleemah says:

Be aware that you, a single solitary you, can make a bigger difference than you think.

Show up, in your own life and that of others.

Be present and see, really see, the value that other people are bringing to your life… even the seemingly most insignificant and marginalized people.

What is one thing you can do to be more present in your own life? What can you do to make a difference in your community? Let Saleemah and I know. LEACE A COMMENT.

Below are some links Saleemah has provided for her projects… I am not sure if they’ll work as I’m posting these from London.. but hope srpings eternal –

Cambodia Projects


Aceh Project

8 Responses to “A Singaporean Identity – A Singaporean Malay Muslim woman shows up to make a difference”
  1. What a remarkable woman and how blessed you are to have her as a friend! I “show up” as an advocate for Compassion which is rescuing children from poverty by partnering with local churches in the developing world, and by serving as a blogger for 58, a group of organizations dedicated to serving people threatened by extreme poverty, trafficking, lack of water and sanitation. You inspire me!

  2. Audrey Chin says:

    Kathleen, how blessed I am in all my friends… including people like you who encourage me to write about what is closest to my heart … that interface where social action and spirit meet.

  3. Audrey what a beautiful inspiring post about a true hero. I love your call to action and your honest story telling. I show up for my children mostly. They are everything to me. Thank you for this post

  4. Audrey Chin says:

    she’s great. click on some of the YouTube links to see what she’e was battling.

  5. An inspiring post – thank you for this one Audrey 🙂

  6. Audrey Chin says:

    Thanks Ken. And if you would like to reblog any part of this as a way to dispel negative stereotypes, you’re welcome to.

  7. Akbar says:

    What a truly inspiring story! We can all learn from Saleemah’s experiences. Wish her continued success

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