Interview: Activist Syed Azmi talks about the power of individuals

“Small Lamb” Syed Azmi Alhabshi shares what drives him to help others and how others can do it too.

“Being observant, being critical, and asking questions. If you can do that, then you can do it on your own.” — All photos by Teoh Eng Hooi

Inclusivity advocate Syed Azmi Alhabshi is a familiar face in mainstream media for his participation in child’s rights activism and charitable activities.

He became a household name following his involvement in the “I Want to Touch a Dog” event in 2014, which gained him both intense praise and criticism that sparked a national discussion on the treatment of animals and cultural sensitivities.

Syed speaks to EPIC Journal on what community means to him, how he deals with criticism and the power of individuals:

Q: Where do you think the need for you to help people comes from?

Despite my active involvement with children, the cause that is closest to me is elderly care. But that’s not a very popular cause.

I used to work in Muar, Johor, with my father staying in Kuala Lumpur. And if anything happens to him I would feel sad. So I always felt the need to get a community to take care of one another including my father. Then we won’t have to just rely on our children, the police or ambulance services. The neighbourhood can take care of itself, which I think is the ultimate goal.

Also, I see it being a big problem for people like me —  single. I’m 41 now, so I only roughly have about 15 to 20 years before I’m in that kind of loop. But it feels like I cannot win people over with elderly care, so I’ve been focusing more on other things.

Q: With the huge number of people asking you for help, how do you decide on which cases to try and help?

It’s a very personal thing because I don’t charge people anything. So I go by my gut feeling. I wish I had a more concrete answer.

But I believe that if I see something, and I feel like waiting, then I know it’s not urgent. Then my feelings will say, “just wait tomorrow” and sometimes I forget about it and that’s it. Sometimes the cases end up being fake, even. But the ones that I do get involved in, they’re usually very obviously urgent.

Q: Does it get overwhelming?

I don’t really get overwhelmed anymore. I just go, “okay” and then I’ll calm down, or take a shower first, and then I take a look at it again. It’s a wisdom passed to me from older people. They tell me to relax because “they’ve been that way for five years. You jumping into it doesn’t make a difference immediately.”

But for cases involving children, the urgency would be a bit different.

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“Being observant, being critical, and asking questions. If you can do that, then you can do it on your own.” — All photos by Teoh Eng Hooi

Q: What is the story behind calling yourself “Small Lamb”?

Small Lamb was a nickname given to me by someone close to me who passed away. I was close to her and her family and she would always say, “you’re my small lamb” while asking me to look out for her family after she goes. It originates from “Mary had a little lamb”. I’ve stuck with it, and it reminds me that time is short, and that you just have to be real about things.

Q: You’ve mentioned in reports that you are leaning more and more towards “inclusion activities”. What does inclusivity mean to you?

I focus on inclusion because I believe that every human being has a different quality or potential, so you want to bring the best out of their potential.

It’s a big issue for me because it seems like people only like the same type of people. Like for me, I’m a bit of a “weird” person. It’s not “weird” like I’m saying I’m exclusive and unique, because I’m not. But in school, I would be identified as weird. I would have friends but I’m never accepted in any particular group.

I don’t want people to get left behind. So when I say “inclusion”, there are no boundaries. It involves everyone.

Q: You have had your fair share of criticisms. How do you decide what to take in and which to ignore?

First of all, I don’t like to debate. Meaning that if I’m wrong, I would just apologise and explain “Oh, okay. I forgot about that.” then I’ll just correct it, and I’ll thank the person criticising.

So how do I pick and choose these comments?

Basically, I don’t read all of them. My personal assistant does most of it, and might notify saying that “Syed, I think this one is serious”.

But it generally doesn’t get to me because there’s no time. By the time I have some space to feel down about a case, something else pops up. Then it’s time to move forward. That actually happens.

Q: What is this concept of NGI (non-governmental individual) that you’ve been pushing?

I think it started here with the 2014 flood relief work in Kelantan. People wanted to help in small ways. At the time I felt I couldn’t donate money, but I had a space where we can coordinate people who were buying supplies. So we did that as individuals and we coordinated with NGOs to pass the supplies to them.

The power of the people is the biggest potential because people are critical as individuals. If you are in a group, you have to support everything other people are deciding. But as an individual, you can make your own decisions.

Basically, there are three things — being observant, being critical, and asking questions. If you can do that, then you can do it on your own.

Q: Have you been able to move on from the “I Want to Touch a Dog” ordeal?

I cannot run away from that. And I don’t even have the energy or the time for that actually. People can say whatever they want on this, and my only response is I hope everyone had something that they learned from it.

The whole idea was to create awareness for the treatment of dogs. And I’m very very proud of that event. It was a free, zero cost event and has been very good exposure.

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Syed primarily disseminates information and mobilises volunteers using his personal Facebook page. You can follow him here.

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