Monday, 23 May 2011


Nisha is the Transgender Program Manager at the Pink Triangle Foundation (PT Foundation). Each week she leads support groups or counsels individuals who are going through extremely difficult times due to their gender and sexual identity, as she did in recent years.

Nisha is confident and beautiful, and she is open to speaking about her own painful personal experiences as a Mak Nyah, or male-to-female transsexual, if it helps others find the strength to accept themselves and live their lives fully. Before she begins to recount how she came to PT Foundation, she adjusts her long hair so the curls cascade down her back. Even though she looks glamorous for any office setting, she still hopes that our photographer won’t take any candid photos.

Nisha was arrested in her hometown of Melaka for cross-dressing while spending the day out with a group of friends. Cross-dressing is against sharia (Islamic) law, and a religious officer apprehended her. Subsequently, she was sentenced to a two-month prison term.

“The doors were like Jurassic Park,” Nisha recalls of the intimidating entryway to the prison.

Prison was an even more dangerous and traumatic experience than Nisha could have ever imagined. Sex change operations are banned in Malaysia, but in the months before she was arrested in Melaka, Nisha had gotten breast implants to help her look the way she always felt – like a woman. In prison, her long hair was cut off and she was forced to strip naked and walk in front of the inmates as they made vulgar remarks.

“I will never forget the rows of cells. I was asked to show my breasts to each one. I tried to remain calm, but I was crying on the inside.”

Just for trying to be herself, Nisha was persecuted and sexually abused.

“I kept asking ‘why is this happening to me?’”

A warden offered to guard Nisha from other inmates, but he demanded sexual favors in return. Without other options, Nisha fulfilled his desires in exchange for physical protection.

The only ray of light Nisha felt was when her mother came to visit her in prison and they experienced a breakthrough in their relationship. Seeing the torment Nisha had been put through, her mother finally understood that her child was not choosing this lifestyle, but really felt like a woman on the inside. She accepted Nisha for whom she is and even fulfilled her request to bring a wig for her to wear on the day of her release.

Nisha loves her job in PT Foundation as the program officer for the Transgenders' Program.

After spending two hellish months in jail, Nisha started working in the nightlife industry. While this work provided her with money to pay her bills and more, Nisha still felt deeply unhappy and knew that she wanted other options. She came to PT Foundation to gain a sense of empowerment and to find inspiration from others who had been through similar situations.

PT Foundation influenced her life in such a positive way that she started to volunteer with the organization. Now, six years later, Nisha is the Transgender Program Manager. In her new role, Nisha is able to shape programming and advocacy strategies to combat gender and sexual identity misconceptions. With the rise of boot camps in Malaysia to “correct” effeminate schoolboys, Nisha’s work is essential.

“In Malaysia, transgender people are not recognized. Society doesn’t know about it. They think they can change (effeminate) kids, but they can’t. It just lowers their self-esteem or they run away from home.”

Fortunately, these boys have a support system waiting for them in Kuala Lumpur. They can always turn to Nisha and the PT Foundation for guidance and understanding.

Maria Skouras, The Advocacy Project


Sulastri started working with the Pink Triangle Foundation (PT Foundation) in 1992 and over the years has been promoted to the Manager of the Sex Workers Program. Initially, she was searching for a place that would foster and accept her sense of individuality; she found what she was looking for at PT Foundation.

“I wanted to find the freedom to express myself. I am so happy I can wear what I want and be myself here. I’ve gone through a lot of difficulties; being on the street is not easy.”

While Sulastri knows the range of barriers transgender and transsexual people face; disapproval from their families, discrimination from employment opportunities, disparaging remarks from strangers; she is hopeful that more people will become tolerant with time. She also finds that younger people who are coping with difficult situations are better equipped to handle them.

“The younger generation is more open, educated, and curious to get information they’ve never heard of before.”

And when members of the Mak Nyah (transgender) community come to PT Foundation with questions and concerns, Sulastri is happy to provide assistance.

“I am a role model for my community. They might think they are weird or doing something wrong, but it is different here. We tell them to be proud to be transgender—to be proud of who they are.”

Sulastri loves her job in PT Foundation as the program officer for the Sex Workers' Program.

As someone who has dealt with discrimination, Sulastri can identify with those who seek guidance from PT Foundation.

“I can relate because I have been through all of that. I can read their body language and know what they are feeling.”

Even though Sulastri empathizes with those who seek guidance from her, she admits that it isn’t easy counseling members of her own community.

“There are many different issues and different circumstances – homelessness, drug users, sex workers. Prevention and counseling is not that easy. The problems are complex and can be shocking.”

To assist her clients best, Sulastri listens attentively to their concerns.

“We are not here to change them. We are here to help them help themselves – just to guide them.”

Nisha, Sulastri’s colleague and Manager of the Transgender Program, chimes in, “We don’t play God here.”

Maria Skouras, The Advocacy Project

Friday, 20 May 2011

Visiting Jenny Pong Seow Chin

Last month, I traveled with another eH volunteer to visit Jenny Pong Siew Chin. We went to interview Jenny and videotape portions of her daily life for a documentary on inspiring Malaysian women called “Portraits of Perseverance” directed by the Executive Director of eHomemakers (eH), Chong Sheau Ching (Ching Ching).

Prior to meeting Jenny, I knew that her legs were amputated over twenty years ago and that she moved around her house by pulling herself on a trolley. I wasn’t sure what to expect though and I was a bit nervous to meet someone who was living under such extreme circumstances.

When we arrived, Jenny welcomed us in with open arms. She was extremely hospitable, upbeat, and open. I was in awe of how much positivity she exuded in the face of all the unfathomable circumstances she’s lived through.

Over the course of the day, I learned more about Jenny’s road to recovery and daily life. She is one of the most extraordinary women I’ve ever met.

Jenny shared how after her legs were amputated, she entered a different world with new challenges. When bathing, ants and insects would often bite Jenny’s stumps. It was only when her mother discovered the bites that Jenny realized she had been attacked. Feeling frustrated and distraught by her body’s immobility and loss of sensitivity, Jenny experienced a range of emotions and her temper often flared. Her anger towards her disability was compounded by her disappointment and confusion over her husband’s decision to abandon their marriage during the time she was in a coma.

With her mother’s support, Jenny started overcome her anger and depression. She committed herself to developing ways to live with independence and pride. Her mother taught her how to do her daily chores in new ways; now Jenny cooks simple meals, like eggs, on burners placed on the ground, washes her hair using a hose in the kitchen, and pulls herself from the trolley to her bed at night.

Eager to become more self-sufficient and earn an income, Jenny was referred to the eco-basket project. She attended trainings, but weaving the baskets required too much arm strength and was too strenuous for Jenny. eHomemakers provided her with computer training as well, but looking at the screen for too long made Jenny dizzy.

Instead, Jenny found work making Chinese funeral shoes, which people buy as a customary offering to the deceased. Jenny has been putting together the paper shoes for over 20 years and recently received a raise from .12 Malaysian cents per pair to .18 Malaysian cents. When she feels healthy, she can make up to 150 pairs of shoes per day, which earns her about $9 USD.

While Jenny’s income is meager, she is grateful she has a job. Unfortunately, her ability to work fluctuates as she is in and out of the hospital for check-ups and treatments. She has leukemia, kidney problems, diabetes, and chronic pain in her spine. At only 43 years old, she has also had a heart attack.

Jenny has serious health and economic concerns, yet she hardly acknowledged them when we went to visit. Rather, she smiled from ear to ear as she discussed the work she does as the voluntary President of The Hope Era, a society for special citizens, in Ipoh, Malaysia. She spends hours organizing meetings, planning events, and working to improve the quality of life for the Society’s 100+ members. Jenny is under doctor’s orders to reduce her stress and to relax more, but she continues to work hard to help the Society’s members. In her view, her own health and well-being is equally important to those of her society members.

Over the years, Jenny has developed a relationship with Ching Ching. Ching Ching has used her eH network to find furniture for Jenny’s house and raise funds for her medical expenses. Ching Ching’s biggest aspiration has been to find an engineer to develop a hydraulic chair to help Jenny move around her house more easily. In 2011, an engineer from Singapore offered to build the chair. He has been waiting for Jenny to recover from a recent surgery in order to determine how he can best assist her.

In the meantime, Jenny remains focused on her work with The Hope Era. After meeting Jenny, I am sure her society members have learned invaluable lessons from her enduring optimism in the most extreme circumstances. I know I have.

Maria Skouras, The Advocacy Project

Jenny Pong Seow Chin - Overcoming Tragedy

Jenny was born on January 3, 1966. Along with her 6 brothers and sisters, she was raised in a small village down a long dirt road in Ipoh, Malaysia. Ipoh is known for its limestone hills and beautiful women. Jenny is one of these women.

Living a country lifestyle, Jenny’s family grew their own vegetables and tended their own chickens. Their house was built by family and had dirt floors and no electricity or running water until about 10 years ago. The house requires constant repairs to fix the roof and walls; the day I visited Jenny a severe rainstorm had blown a large part of the roof off of her bedroom and needed to be repaired.

Jenny learned responsibility early in life and by the age of 7 she was helping her mother grow and sell vegetables to support her 7 siblings. Like her mother, she stopped going to school when she was 12 years old to assume additional responsibilities for the family. She washed dishes at a local restaurant and worked in a karaoke bar as a teenager to earn income to supplement household expenses and provide food for her siblings.

When Jenny was 18 years old, she married her sweetheart. Less than a year later, she was pregnant and excited to be a mother. She went to the general hospital in Ipoh give birth, but the baby was stillborn and she required an operation to have it removed. Heartbroken, Jenny returned home to recuperate physically and emotionally.

A few days later, Jenny was feeling exceptionally weak from a post-natal viral infection. She got up in the night to urinate but collapsed. When her mother found her in the morning, Jenny told her that she needed to use the bathroom but couldn’t get up. Her mother told Jenny that she had already urinated on the floor. Jenny had no idea because she had lost sensation in most of her body.

Her parents brought her to the ICU at the hospital where Jenny fell into a coma. As the days went by, Jenny’s mother stayed by her side and was confident that she would regain consciousness. After 2 long years, Jenny awoke but she still did not have feeling in her arms or legs. She remained immobile in the hospital for those two years.

During this time, Jenny waited for her husband to visit her, but he never came to the hospital. He moved out of the house and Jenny has not seen him since. While it pains her to think about the happy times they shared and whether he has a new family, she has no intentions of looking for him.

Jenny’s mother continued to provide emotional and physical support to her daughter. She encouraged Jenny to try to squeeze a rubber ball and after a few days she was able to make slight movements with her arms and hands. While Jenny strengthened her arms by pulling buckets of water up from the local well, her legs never regained feeling. To move around her house, she used her arms to pull herself on the ground. People in Jenny’s village called her “the mermaid” because of the way her legs dragged behind her.

With her doctor’s diagnosis that her legs would never function again, Jenny had them amputated. After the surgery, Jenny discovered that the incision was uneven and prevented her from sitting upright. She continued to drag herself on her stomach along the dirt floors in her house to do her daily chores until her 11-year-old brother advised that she use a trolley to prevent her clothing from becoming soiled and her stomach from being injured.

With her brother’s help, a trolley was constructed for her to get around more easily in the house. Jenny lies on her stomach and pulls herself along with her hands. Learning to get used to her new vantage point of the world, which is about two feet off the ground, has been a difficult and emotional journey. With time, Jenny has been able to see her circumstances and the world in a positive light.

She shared more about her road to recovery and daily life with me when I visited her last month. To read more, click here.

Maria Skouras, The Advocacy Project

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Chee Siew Lian and Auntie Chee - An Easter Story

The moon was still dangling above Kuala Lumpur when I woke up at 4:45 AM to attend Easter Sunday Service with Siew Lian, an extraordinary volunteer turned staff member at the SLE Association. Emerging from my state of slumber, I searched around in the dark for the top and candy-colored skirt I had laid out to wear the night before. Once fully awake and dressed, I was excited to spend the day with Siew Lian and my friend, Sasithon Pooviriyakul, a talented photographer from NYC who is traveling through SE Asia.

Siew Lian is one of five women Chong Sheau Ching, the Executive Director of eHomemakers, is featuring in a documentary called “Portraits of Perseverance” that she is filming with a grant from the Krishen Jit Astro Documentary Project. The individuals selected are sources of inspiration for C2 in her efforts to assist women who have endured hardships due to health problems, disabilities, economic hardships, lack of education, gender, and discrimination.

I had met Siew Lian when she came to the office to learn more about how to use the video camera and lighting for the documentary. “Portraits of Perseverance” will empower the participants to engage in citizen journalism, an active form of reporting and spreading information by members of the public. Each woman will film her own video journals and discuss her life, inspirations, and the issues that fuel her each day.

Siew Lian invited Sasi and me to join her on Easter because the Full Gospel Assembly Kuala Lumpur (FGA) is a central facet in her life and we were interested in learning more about what inspires and motivates Siew Lian in her work with the SLE Association. She started coming to this charismatic Church in 1989 after undergoing treatment for a severe SLE relapse.

Siew Lian credits her recovery to her doctor’s good care along with prayer and her faith in God. She has been attending the Church ever since.

At 5:30 AM, Siew Lian pulled up to Chong Sheau Ching’s house and Sasi and I climbed in the back seat of her car.

“My mother was so excited for today, she couldn’t sleep last night,” Siew Lian shared.

Siew Lian’s 78 year-old mother, who goes by the name “Auntie Chee,” was sitting in the passenger side seat eagerly awaiting our arrival at “Alive Together,” the FGA sunrise service.

As is common in Kuala Lumpur, we got a bit lost due to the lack of road signage, but before long the desolate highway was populated with cars and we knew we were in the right place. We had arrived at Sentul Park near the near the KL Performing Arts Center, where the festivities would be held.

And festivities they were. It was the most elaborate and celebratory Easter service I had ever seen.

We entered the park and walked among throngs of people towards a huge concert stage. Over the loud speakers, a song called “How Great is Our God” played. Young and old congregation members raised their hands in the air and sang along to the lyrics flashing on two stadium-sized screens on either side of the stage. Siew Lian and Auntie Chee joined in, singing in unison with their fellow FGA devotees.

Songs of praise and adulation were interspersed with skits pondering the greater meaning of life and urging audience members to look beyond money and status for greater fulfillment. A hush fell over the audience as the crucifixion scene from Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” played on the big screens.

The Church leadership, Elder Dr Ng and Elder Dr Ang, welcomed the crowd of over 3,500 for attending “Alive Together” and praised the Lord for the beautiful weather and the generosity of those who made it possible for the service to be held in the park. After a brief sermon on Jesus’s death and resurrection, the stage was handed back over to the performers who rallied the audience with drama and dancing.

The pinnacle of the service was when individuals from the congregation climbed on stage to express how God had given them the strength to overcome drug addictions, reform after committing crimes, and recover from disabilities and illnesses thought to be life threatening.

The festivities closed with the distribution of red ribbons, religious banners, and national flags to members of the audience. Some individuals shut their eyes and lifted their faces to the sky while singing God’s praises while others welled up with tears. Children danced in the aisles as grandparents looked on approvingly. One silver-haired woman even took out a massive, hollow animal horn and fervently blew into it. As the music tapered off, people exchanged Easter greetings with their neighbors and proceeded to the complimentary breakfast provided by FGA.

Over breakfast, Siew Lian and Auntie Chee caught up with friends and swapped stories, still buzzing with excitement from the energetic service. After an hour of conversing, the sun’s rays became more intense and the congregation members trickled out of the park and towards their cars.

It certainly was a great day to be alive and in the presence of Siew Lian, Auntie Chee, and my friend Sasi.

By: Maria Skouras, The Advocacy Project

Nisha and Sulastri Photos