Respected academic Azmi Sharom is probably best-known for his self-deprecating wit, love for The Beatles and football, and tireless efforts campaigning for the improvement of human rights in Malaysia.
But there’s more to Azmi than sedition charges and a somewhat pathetic allegiance to Tottenham Hotspur.
Behind the thick glasses and scruffy ponytail lurks a fierce intellect and a steadfast belief in Malaysia’s potential.
“I hope that 10 years down the road we have a two-party system and the people of Malaysia will be able to elect governments that come and go peacefully.
“I hope that we once again embrace pluralism and the democracy necessary for a country like ours,” he says at a recent interview ahead of the launch of his book next weekend.
That said, he would never go into politics, not having the stomach for the public exposure.
“I don’t like the politics in the country, where the personal becomes intertwined with the public. I’m a private person and I don’t want to be exposed in that way.
“But more importantly, I’m not sure I can play by the rules – being an independent candidate, to me, is not a realistic option at this time and in this country. And if I joined a party, I don’t know if I could play nice with the other boys and girls!”
Despite being protective of his personal life, the 46-year-old Penangite (from the island, he is quick to add) refuses to stop contributing what he can.
“What one teaches and what one writes in scholarly journals, people don’t care about,” he says.
“When academics step out of their ivory towers and talk or write about things which happen in society, that’s when we get into trouble. But we aren’t here just to teach students, we’re also reaching out to the wider community. When I write for journals, nobody reads ’em. My students are asleep. But once you step outside that, that’s when you encounter problems.”
Azmi, who has taught human rights and environmental law at Universiti Malaya for 25 years, is currently busy with the Law Faculty’s Human Rights Research Group, a “very busy” team of four working on several research projects and organising seminars – “We do very worthy work, and I’m proud of it,” he says.
What else is the be-slippered, jeans-and-jersey-wearing associate professor proud of?
“The other week I swam 45 minutes nonstop, does that count? If not… I guess it’s the fact that my students don’t despise me.
“After 25 years, I still enjoy teaching very much… and the students like my class, they have a good time, they learn something from it and I don’t think they despise me – so the fact I haven’t burnt out is a small source of pride.”
Azmi champions the importance of a dignified life, fighting for human rights, pluralism, secularism and rule of law.
Heavy issues to take on, especially in today’s climate. But he underlines the importance of fighting just because you can and should.
“Whether I make a change or not doesn’t matter to me because its important that we say what needs to be said, over all else,” he says.
“As a human being you have the right to live your life, as much as possible, according to how you want to live your life. You have the right to be free, to express yourself, to choose the kind of society you want to live with and live in.”
And in that context, speaking up, says Azmi, is important – even and especially when others tell you it isn’t your place to voice these concerns.
“Issues in this country, political, legal, societal, governance issues are so falsely linked to ethnicity that there’s a belief that unless something is taken up by all ethnic groups there is a lack of validity. Most issues are not ethnic-based, but because of the country’s political system, everything becomes such.
“Unless we can get rid of this mind set, we’re screwed,” he says frankly at our interview in Merdekarya, the hip and happening “cafe dan lain-lain” place in Petaling Garden, Selangor.
Tackling weighty issues
Merdekarya is also where, on Aug 15, Azmi will be launching his book, a collection of newspaper articles and columns from 2007 until this year.
“It’s a ‘cheat’ book – as some people have said – a collection of articles I’ve already written. But they’re not from one place! It’s a collection of work from The Star, Sin Chew Daily, The Selangor Times, The B-Side and Off The Edge magazine. They’re from various places over several years, so hopefully there’s stuff in there which people haven’t seen.
“I would like to think that when people read and like my stuff it’s because I’m reflecting what they think, hopefully in a way that’s concise and funny.”
Entitled Brave New World (also the name of Azmi’s fortnightly column on law in The Star), the book’s funky Smash Hits magazine reminiscent cover will be sure to draw eyes – but its unique selling point is a CD that comes with it, containing two protest songs written and performed by Azmi.
“The CD is a laugh. I had these songs I wrote when I was much younger and I thought why not put them in to give the whole thing novelty value,” he explains, adding that the songs – Brave New World and Doesn’t Really Matter – are his “sad little attempt at trying to do a (Bob) Dylan”.
“Please write down that it’s a sad attempt! The patheticness of my attempts must be made clear.”
We had an exclusive chance to listen to the two tracks, and we were pleasantly surprised.
Brave New World (he really likes that Aldous Huxley book), written when Azmi was 23, is workmanlike but grows on you – just a tiny bit catty, pointed and somehow friendly despite it all, suggesting that perhaps it’s not too late to fix everything.
“I was still studying, doing my Masters (in Britain), and I should have been writing my dissertation, but instead I was messing around.
“It was written from the perspective of a young man who feels that your life is mapped out for you. It’s a song about seeking freedom.”
Doesn’t Really Matter is more straightforward, looking at things that “I think are wrong and saying, a little bit sarcastically, that we let all this crap happen to us.”
The book itself weighs in at 272 pages and covers topics such as religion, law, race relations and the Constitution (as one of Azmi’s fans noted, the book could be used for a drinking game: “Take a shot every time you come across a reference to the Constitution!”).
He tackles weighty issues like academic freedom, legal reform, freedom of expression, as well as, er, a strange Angry Birds-type game called Flight Of The Hamsters, and (of course) football.
When it comes to the gentleman’s game, Azmi loses all of his reason and intellect – and is proud of it.
“The Spurs are the best team to support if you’re someone like me in Malaysia, someone who is up against the system. It teaches you patience, to enjoy the small moments of victory you get, it teaches you to be stoic in the face of seemingly endless failure. If you are fighting for democracy and human rights in this country, those are the characteristics you need.”
Leavened with humour
Of course, the book isn’t all depressing court rulings, depressing affairs of state and depressing league positions.
There are also “intermissions”, lighter pieces and satirical takedowns of the various political and social imbroglios Malaysia has to deal with: a hard-boiled private eye trying to help a mysterious beauty get rid of the corrupt servants on her estate; the trials and tribulations of Adnan Dol, a beleaguered civil servant (a send-up of the wildly popular Adrian Mole book series by the late Sue Townsend); a side-splitting sequel to Babe, the banned little pink pig which sees him turn detective and search for his kidnapped friend, a duck named Ferdinand (hint: the poor mallard was abandoned outside the offices of a certain news portal).
Of particular note is “Mat Rock Asli Berwibawa”, ostensibly about a local band called Blues Treats (formerly Slow Train), but simultaneously an exquisitely written love letter to music that seizes you by the throat and twists in your stomach, full of gut-wrenching, weary optimism on slow burn. There’s nostalgia in the air and hope in our bones, and Azmi manages to capture this passion.
It’s his favourite of the lot too, because “it was fun hanging out with the band for a month, learning their stories!”
Since 2014, Azmi has been hanging out at law courts quite a bit, too: he was charged with sedition then, making him the first academic to fall prey to the colonial-era law. However, he claims he wasn’t scared.
“I didn’t say anything seditious. We’re now waiting for the Federal Court to decide if the entire Act is unconstitutional. But I’m so humbled by the moral support shown by my faculty, students, friends, civil society and even strangers. My family has been stoic, and my lawyers have been brilliant.”
Although some thought that the case would be the turning point and we would see the vocal academic quietening down, Azmi did just the opposite, according to prominent human rights lawyer Malik Imtiaz Sarwar who is one of Azmi’s closest and oldest friends, and who wrote the foreword for Brave New World.
“I was taken aback at how aggressive he became in highlighting the Sedition Act and how it was being used, attending protests and getting even more vocal,” says Malik.
“Once we were speaking at a book launch after he’d been charged, and despite his legal team advising him to be more constrained he did the exact opposite.
“After the event, we were walking back to the car and I must have had an annoyed look on my face because he suddenly put his arm around me and said, ‘I’m sorry for being such a difficult client’.”
But that’s Azmi Sharom for you – when he was first charged, he begged Malik to speak to his father and explain the situation: “He said he was too scared to speak to him! I had to explain to his dad that Azmi hadn’t done anything stupid.
“After so many years, Azmi has never lost his childlike perspective on life.”
Brave New World (SIRD Centre) will be launched on Aug 15 at Merdekarya (No. 352, 1st Floor, Jalan 5/57, Petaling Garden, Selangor; merdekarya.com), at 7pm. There will be performances by Azmyl Yunor, Brian Gomez and the author. The book is currently available at Gerakbudaya (2, Jalan Bukit, 11/2, Petaling Jaya, Tel: 03-7957 8342 or visit gbgerakbudaya.com), Kinokuniya in Suria KLCC and Borders outlets.