November 5, 2010, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia —

Reaching across the aisle to dialogue with government officials is not an inconsequential task when handling sensitive social issues. Activists can get ostracized, lawyers asked to step down from committee seats, and government officials reprimanded with swift punishments. Just ask 2010 JusticeMakers Fellow Dato’ Yasmeen Shariff, who, in 2000, started reaching out to and collaborating with authorities in support of her juvenile justice reform efforts. Subsequently in 2002, she lost her re-election as Chair of the Kuala Lumpur Bar Committee, and the Juvenile Justice Task Force she helped create withered away under the new leadership.

However, this experience has not deterred Dato’ Yasmeen. On November 5, she sat down with Ahmad Razif bin Mohd Sidek to discuss plans for collaboration on her project to implement juvenile diversion. Razif was a former legal advisor for the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development in 2004, but changed agencies in 2008 and is currently the head of the Human Rights and International Affairs Unit for the Attorney General’s (AG’s) Chambers.

As Dato’ Yasmeen frequently preaches, it is important to find the right people, at the right time. “Before Razif came to AGs Chambers, there was hardly any communication between NGOs and that agency. Some NGOs believed that government officials didn’t fully grasp the needs of the people, and people from AGs Chambers were convinced that NGO advocates didn’t appreciate the necessary formal procedure to get things done. Each side was convinced that the other had an opposing agenda.”

“When Razif transferred agencies, he really opened the door for dialogue. He came from a background of social work and involvement in child and family issues from his time at the Ministry, and sympathized with social causes.”

Razif concurred with Dato’ Yasmeen’s assessment, and highlighted his time working with the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development as a critical factor in shaping his views towards NGOs.

“The idea put in my head during my initial stint with AGs Chambers was not to trust NGOs. We saw them as the enemies. Some government officials still have a traditional way of thinking that these organizations were just out to bash the work of the government.”

“But coming from the Ministry I knew the goals of NGOs and realized their advocacy is a translation of the will of the people. I worked with the Department of Social Welfare under the Ministry to assess societal needs and concerns for families and children. I went to the streets of Chow Kit [Kuala Lumpur’s red light district, and crime-ridden] to really learn why our kids are turning to crime.”

Razif began to convert AGs officials to, if not accept the views of NGOs, at least sit down across the table and listen. He preached a progressive way of thinking that recognized in most cases, NGOs were merely representations of the public, and promoted changes the public wanted. Thus gradually over several months, he helped dispel this mutual distrust between AGs Chambers and NGOs by including NGOs in internal trainings and workshops within AGs Chambers.

And with this transformation, Razif brings along his advocacy for juvenile justice reform. He has participated in revising the 2001 Child Act (CA) to get it more in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and is frequently asked to give opinions on legislation related to family and children law when serving the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development.

He, like many other people Yasmeen has met with, sees a major problem in the lack of training for government officials.

“When I worked for the Ministry, I saw that social welfare officers needed help understanding the CRC. Here at the AGs Chambers, the same problem persists. There used to be no formal training in the Child Act for Deputy Public Prosecutors (DPPs). The training curriculum did not have a specific juvenile course or education on child psychology, and did not encourage the new prosecutors to understand children’s issues. It was a more of a ‘learn as you go’ approach. Only recently has this begun to change, as we have started to gradually include child-specific criteria into the training content.”

Without this training, Razif argues, DPPs do not fully utilize alternatives to institutionalization. There is no specialization in the Child Act procedure, and thus an inadequate understanding of the various options available for children that come into conflict with the law.

But with more child-specific training in AGs Chambers, and more advocates like Razif across the aisle, the traditional and prevailing philosophy towards juvenile justice is transforming. Razif unabashedly insists that diversion should be made a formal procedure in the Child Act. “By putting the child behind bars or in any formal institution, you are not giving a child a chance to truly understand the effect of his crime, repent and give back to the community.”

And this commitment will play a crucial role in the later stages of legislation reform.

“AGs Chambers plays a very vital role in new laws pertaining to legal matters,” states Razif. “Whenever a recommendation is put forth to the Ministry, they consult the AGs Chambers for expert analysis. And because I have a background in the Child Act and the CRC, the Ministry will surely ask for my recommendation when the question of juvenile diversion inevitably arises.”

Indeed, sometimes swimming in unfriendly waters can be a dicey game to play. You risk alienating your own base, as well as comprising too much of your core beliefs. But Dato’ Yasmeen has found a way to walk a tight rope in developing these relationships.

“It’s not just about creating partnerships with any government official or government agency, because surely there are still people who will strongly disagree with what you have to say. But what I have done is build smart partnerships, ones involving specific people in particular agencies at crucial moments in time.”

It’s not just about reaching across the aisle, but reaching across at just the right spot to just the right people.

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