Cecil Rajendra and his fight for human rights honoured at Oxford University

Source: The Star2.com

Renowned Penang-based lawyer and poet Cecil Rajendra looking through his latest book, Shakti Symphony, which was launched in Penang last weekend. Photo: The Star/Gary Chen

Prominent lawyer and poet Cecil Rajendra, lauded for his human rights advocacy and politically-conscious poetry, will soon add another highlight to his illustrious list of accomplishments.

The true blue Penangite’s work is being recognised in an academic paper to be presented in England’s prestigious Oxford University as part of a seminar on “Intellectuals and Independent Thought in Malaysia” from April 14-16.

The paper titled “From British Black Power to Malaysian Human Rights: The Transnational Formation of Cecil Rajendra” is by Prof Dr Ambikaipaker Mohan from Tulane University in New Orleans, the United States.

It is the first time a Malaysian writer’s work is accorded this rare honour, and Rajendra – who has helmed the Bar Council’s Human Rights and Legal Aid committees and named a Living Heritage Treasure by the Penang Heritage Trust – is deeply flattered.

His works, especially during his time in London, caught the attention of Prof Dr Mohan, who flew to Penang to meet him in 2014. It ended up being a six-hour interview.

He did not think much about that interview until his daughter Shakila, who is studying at Oxford, called one day to say that a friend had seen her father’s name highlighted for the upcoming seminar.

It all started in the 1960s, when the former student of St Xavier’s Institution in George Town went to London’s renowned Lincoln’s Inn to read law.

He lived in a hostel at Notting Hill Gate, a predominantly black neighbourhood.

There, he saw first hand the racism and injustices coloured people put up with. He aligned himself with anti-racist, black-conscious movements, becoming the first Malaysian to do so.

Rajendra’s work will be presented at the Oxford University as part of a seminar this week. It is the first time a Malaysian writer’s work is accorded this rare honour, and Rajendra – who was named a Living Heritage Treasure by the Penang Heritage Trust last year – is deeply flattered. Photo: Filepic
“It was quite shocking to experience the anger and venom. Racists don’t see reason. They only see someone who is not of the same race or ethnic group,” recalled Rajendra, 75, in a recent interview.

Rajendra himself often suffered verbal abuse as he walked the city’s streets. Already an avid poet, this gave him inspiration to write hard-hitting compositions about being black in a white society.

“I like to be in the moment and take it all in. When you live life to the fullest, the poems will write themselves,” added Rajendra, whose first book of poems, titled Embryo, was published in 1965.

As part of World Poetry Day last March, Rajendra’s literary career was celebrated with an exhibition at the Eastern and Oriental (E&O) Hotel in Penang. The event also marked the 50th anniversary of his first poetry book Embryo, which was published by London’s Regency Press.

Literary enthusiasts admiring the exhibition of books and paintings related to Cecil Rajendra’s work at the World Poetry Day celebration in Penang last March. Photo: Filepic

Elsewhere, the Personal And Profane: Selected Poems 1965-2015, a selection of some of his most renowned works, was also published last year (by Clarity Publications).

He has since gone on to publish 24 more poetry books, the latest of which, Shakti Symphony, was launched at Kim Haus in Campbell Street, Penang, last Saturday.

“It’s gratifying to be the subject of a paper, especially as most academics and institutions here have no respect for my work at all. They see me as a troublemaker,” he added.

He believes in speaking his mind and does not mince words, eschewing partisan politics. He takes pride in being independent and is not involved with any organisation.

Rajendra proudly showing off his certificate after becoming the recipient of the 2015 Penang Living Heritage Treasure by Penang Heritage Trust last August. Photo: Filepic

Rajendra, who was the first recipient of the Malaysian Lifetime Humanitarian Award in 2004 and an individual human rights award by Human Rights Commission of Malaysia in 2012, said only history can judge if what he had done was worthwhile.

“I’ve always stood up for justice and equal rights for all.”

In recent times, he felt something about the country’s multi-racial society changing.

“When I first left Malaysia, people of different ethnic backgrounds lived together. But around the turn of the millennium, I started seeing racial issues which had never existed.

“We have to transcend racial prejudices and avoid becoming narrow-minded and overly nationalistic,” he lamented.

 

* Cecil Rajendran is a Past President of HAKAM.


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