Text by Susan Tam
Photo by Kamal Sellehuddin
“I’m a nobody, really I am no one. I like to be nice and I wanted people to be nice to others.”
Syed Azmi Alhabshi shrugs off any compliments about his leadership skills, as a young person motivating others to do good.
This Petaling Jaya resident’s first community project was an awareness campaign on how to be a good neighbour.
“I work in Johor and my parents live in Kuala Lumpur, and I thought if anything happens to them, the first person to help them would be my neighbours. I wanted to spread the word about being a good neighbour.” This initiative began as get-togethers, hosting pot lucks and cleaning shared areas in the Taman Tun Dr Ismail where the family lives.
He moved on to organise FreeMarket in early 2014, a place where people can donate their pre-loved goods to the needy, such as single parents and hardcore poor families. The FreeMarket Facebook page has over 3,000 members and is growing, with FreeMarkets being replicated by communities in states outside of Selangor. No money changes hands and no barter is made, goods are simply donated to those who need them.
Syed uses Facebook effectively to publicise his projects. But he was surprised how quickly his work went viral, with more than 4,000 likes captured on his own page, possibly influenced by his humble and down to earth nature. Syed doesn’t reveal his age, only to say that he is close to 40, because he wants others to continue serving the community without feeling out of place regardless of whether they were young or old.
His philosophy is simple. “People think you need to be in a society or have funding to do charity. But no, we wanted to change that. You don’t need a single cent to start a drive.”
In Malaysia, the cost of setting up a welfare society is low at RM30 per application, but there are at least 20 forms to complete along with fulfilling other legal checks by the Registrar of Societies (ROS). The ROS is strictly governed under the Ministry of Home Affairs, to prevent abuse in the social sector.
Syed’s work may not be officially regulated, but he and his friends form a group called the Rakyat 4 Rakyat initiative, (Citizen for Citizen) a platform where everyone is considered a leader and offers an honest, rather grassroots approach to charity.
“We’re not a formal organisation, and we’re from different backgrounds. We disagree and we are free to express our opinion. When we disagree we find a solution to make things better,” Hayati Ismail explains, a 41-year-old mother of three who is one of the core members.
In late 2014, Syed’s work became controversial when they organised the “I want to touch a dog” event offering Malay Muslims a chance to pet dogs, a practice considered taboo among Muslims. The event received criticism, as well as support from Muslims and non-Muslims. Syed’s phone was inundated with over 2,000 messages, some hate messages targetting him and his family, including death threats.
But, Syed and friends didn’t stop their charitable work.
“We’re stronger now than before, we’re more careful with what we do. We try to do less controversial things. We keep to the sensitivities of Malaysians,” explains Hayati.
Syed’s simple response to such backlash was to regroup and examine why they didn’t work hard enough to educate communities on the cause, and strive to work harder at the next project.
Anytime they hit a roadblock, they’d return to the cause. Hayati and Syed shared the same point. “The cause is bigger (in importance). We’re not doing any of this for fame.”
“But, everytime there is a challenge, it means we create tension. When people are criticising it means they are reading and learning about our cause,” Syed adds.
Hayati points out that Syed forms the public face of the group. It’s his large following that allows his campaigns to get the massive support it needs, so much so he had to convert his Facebook profile into a Public Figure page to accommodate everyone’s requests.
She agrees with Syed that Rakyat 4 Rakyat was made up of ‘low-profile’ individuals wanting to make a difference, adding that Syed’s ideas and energy has helped fuel the projects to greater heights.
Syed admits he never sees himself as a role model, because he feels that there are critics who think he is a show-off. “Every challenge is an opportunity and I tell those who bash me to do better community projects and I will be their follower.”
But for 22-year-old accounting student Intan Diyana, she says Syed is too modest. “I am inspired by Syed and want to do projects that will positively impact communities. Usually young people do community work as part of their homework. But when you do it on your own, it’s different. It’s more satisfying and you feel more inspired.”
She is impressed with Syed’s energy, and how one individual’s actions could change the lives of others. Intan is even toying with the idea of working in the social sector, rather than as an accountant.
Another Rakyat 4 Rakyat member Athirah Al Tarmidhi knows that planning and running a charity campaign is not easy. “Syed inspires me to do many things. Working with the team makes us very close. Syed is really funny, at the same time he is serious and very clear about the project’s purpose.”
Athirah, 25, is driven to launch her own initiative after witnessing the impact of Syed’s work in the community. Athirah’s full-time job is at a gourmet food company, but is committed to host a cycling for charity initiative.
Syed is modest, a lesson learnt from his father. “All those in the team are leaders, and everyone inspires me. My team mates are my role models.”
At the same time, he is happy to offer advice to those wanting to recruit volunteers, “Be genuine, be honest about the cause. It’s really nice to be nice to others.”
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