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A tribute to Irene Fernandez from a mentee and fellow activist

PETALING JAYA: She was the person he knew he could always turn to for undivided support.

She was also always there to provide a friendly ear and the wisdom as well as guidance from her years of experience as an activist.

For Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations (Fomca) president Datuk Dr Marimuthu Nadason, that is the Irene Fernandez he will always remember.

“If I could look to anyone for guaranteed support, that person would be Irene Fernandez,” Marimuthu told theantdaily.

Calling her his mentor, Marimuthu said he first met Fernandez when he started out in the consumer movement in the 1970s.

“She was the executive secretary for the Selangor and Federal Territory Consumers Association then and I was just starting out. I received a lot of support and guidance from her,” he said.

Asked what made Fernandez so special, Marimuthu said: “She was consistent. She believed in a struggle and just kept on moving until she saw results. For her, it’s about people, justice and fairness.

“She always told me to keep on believing in what I do until I achieve results, especially if it involved bringing about justice.”

Fernandez passed away on March 31 at the age of 67. She would have turned 68 on April 18.

She had been hospitalised at the Serdang Hospital for heart problems since March 25.

"Her organs were all fine but her heart stopped. The doctors tried their best to resuscitate her.

"Irene was very brave and courageous and as I speak to you now, I can see that her face is so serene, so calm," Fernandez’s sister Josie was reported to have said.

Fernandez’s husband Joseph Paul and their three children were reportedly at her bedside when she passed away.

The veteran activist was on her way to hear the findings of the coalition for clean and fair elections’ (Bersih) tribunal when she faced breathing difficulties.

Fernandez was a lady who wore many hats.

Besides being a wife and mother, she was the founder of migrant rights NGO Tenaganita, the chairperson of the Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific, a member of the Steering Committee of the Asian Rural Women’s Coalition, the Coalition of Agricultural Workers International, Asian Peasant Coalition, and the People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty as well as the director of Caram-Asia and vice-chairperson of the International Migrant Alliance.

Fernandez was also reportedly among the founders of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development and a former executive member of the Committee on Asian Women.

In 2005, she was awarded the Right to Livelihood Award which is considered to be an alternate Nobel prize.

This is in addition to other international awards to her name which included the Human Rights Watch Award in 1996, the Amnesty International Award in 1998, the International PEN Award in 2000 and the Jonathan Mann Award in 2004.

Not one to be cowed by pressure, Fernandez also gained international attention when she became the subject of reportedly the country's longest criminal trial after being charged with publishing falsehoods in a report on migrant detention centres in 1996.

In 2003, she was convicted and sentenced to a year’s jail but this was overturned on appeal in 2008.

In 2012, it was reported that Fernandez was once again investigated for her activism when a sedition probe was launched over an interview about migrant rights with an Indonesian newspaper.

Towards the end of her life, Fernandez was often wheelchair bound because of osteoarthritis but still never failed to attend meetings or events that were close to her heart.

The funeral service for Fernandez will be held at 3pm at the Church of Divine Mercy in Shah Alam on April 3.

As Marimuthu so aptly put it: “She is beyond words. It’s not going to be easy for another Irene Fernandez to be found. She will be sorely missed.”

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