Committed to empowering women and girls in Malaysia, Deputy Executive Director and Advocacy Director for the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), Ren has been a women’s rights activist for close to a decade now and has pushed for various bills and laws such as the Sexual Harassment Bill and the anti-stalking law. In this interview, he reflects on his role in advancing the organisation’s initiatives and the criticism faced throughout his career. 

As of today, you’re the Deputy Executive Director & Advocacy Director for the Women’s Aid Organisation, how did you first get involved in working for women’s rights and human rights advocacy?

I was an undergraduate engineering student when the Bersih movement started. I watched news coverage of authorities using force against peaceful protestors. I knew this couldn’t be right, and started to read up on what I could do. I was inspired by women’s rights activists like Zainah Anwar and Irene Fernandez. I studied engineering because I wanted to help solve the challenges of our times. But the more I learnt, the more I was convinced that science and technology were already far ahead – what needed to change were politics and policies.


As Deputy Executive Director & Advocacy Director, what is your role in advancing each of the Women’s Aid Organisation’s initiatives?

WAO’s aim is to end gender-based violence and achieve gender equality. We provide crisis and post-crisis support for survivors, build capacities of communities to respond to gender-based violence, and advocate for better societal responses to gender-based violence. WAO is a foundational human rights organisation in Malaysia, which has touched so many lives. As Deputy Executive Director, I work on people and culture, accountability, and other organisational matters, as well as public policy advocacy.  The responsibility feels heavy, but I’m grateful to have supportive and competent colleagues. As a man, I am also very mindful of the role I have to play within the organisation, and as part of the broader gender equality movement. More than anything I feel extremely grateful to have been a part of WAO, for 10 years now. 


What is the one thing you love about the work that you do?

There’s a lot to love. I’ve been with WAO long enough to see through many of the public policy reforms we’ve been working on; improving laws on domestic violence, creating institutional structures to improve national domestic violence coordination, greater public funding for domestic violence services, for example. We also expect to see some initiatives through this year – like making stalking an offence, creating paternity leave, and introducing a sexual harassment legislation. I’ve also been with WAO long enough to see the organisation grow and change, and respond to challenges. Following COVID-19 and the MCOs, we saw a spike in reported incidences of abuse. This was a global trend. WAO almost doubled in size within a few months to ensure we could adequately respond to this worrying surge. Most of all, I’ve loved working with people from all walks of life—activists, social workers, civil servants, politicians, journalists, donors, lawyers, and of course survivors towards building lasting change.


Have you ever faced any criticism, insults, or threats due to the work you do? If yes, then how do you cope with it? 

In fields dominated by men, women often face barriers—being stereotyped, judged unfairly, and left out. In my case, actually male privilege still benefits me I feel. I recall an instance where I was working with a woman colleague to improve domestic violence laws. We were having a discussion with a male policy officer of a politician, and he remarked that my colleague was ‘emotional’. I’m probably a pretty emotional person, but I’ve never been labelled that by anyone. I also don’t face the same general challenges that women face in any field. Even something like wanting to stay back in the office was easier for me as a man. So for me, a lot of it is about being conscious of my own attitude and behaviour. 


Do you believe we have enough women empowerment in Malaysia at the moment? If not, then what can we do as a community to change that? 

By most measures, in various spheres; at home, at work, and in public life—women still lag behind in opportunities and outcomes, compared to men. This is the case in Malaysia and in virtually all societies. As long as this is true, we have not done enough. We have to change societal structures and community and individuals’ attitudes. Crucially, men need to change. If we talk about women empowerment, that means something has disempowered women. Even if a man personally has not perpetrated abuse or discrimination, men in general benefit in many ways from the status quo. We must acknowledge this, and be ready to build a fairer world. Of course, there are universal benefits to gender equality as well, for example in terms of economic growth and productivity. And ultimately, a more equal world will help every person live a more moral life and be a better person.

written by.
Melissa Foong
Born and raised in the beautiful city of Kuala Lumpur, Melissa is a writer that hopes to offer a fresh female perspective on the world of men's luxury fashion. When she's not busy chasing deadlines, you can find her tucked in a blanket rereading her favourite series of fantasy novels, Harry Potter.

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