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NHRI people profile: Dr Jessie Cheah Swee Neo, SUHAKAM


Each month, we profile a committed staff member from one of our member institutions.

Name and role:

Dr Jessie Cheah Swee Neo, Secretary of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM).

Could you tell us a bit about your role?

I lead the Secretariat to support, translate and implement the decisions of the Commission in line with its mandates under the SUHAKAM Act 1999. I work closely with a team of senior officers, to supervise divisions, offices and officers in carrying out human rights projects, activities and programmes across Malaysia. 

In my role, I work to build and strengthen working relationships with government agencies and ministries, external partners and stakeholders (both international and local), in the interest of furthering the human rights agenda in the country. 

I also oversee and ensure the proper, accountable and proficient conduct of finances, human resources and administrative procedures as would be expected of a well-functioning and responsible National Human Rights Institution (NHRI).

What do you love about your role?

The role has such a wide range of responsibilities and functions that there is always something interesting or challenging to look forward to each day. No two work days are the same – they require varied approaches and responses depending on the situation. I appreciate the impact I am able to have upon peoples’ lives, which gives me the motivation and determination to keep on doing what I do. 

What's the most challenging aspect of your role?

Often times, there just isn’t sufficient time each day to take on and complete all the work at hand. In addition, given the sensitive and controversial nature of human rights issues, which require constant vigilance and quick responses, as human rights defenders one has to be available most times, if not all the time, ready to take action depending on the severity or urgency of the issue. 

Why did you decide to work in human rights?

Coming from a health and humanitarian work background, human rights was a natural fit with my personal interests and motivation to serve my community and country. I wanted to use my skills and efforts to contribute, in some way, to the betterment of human lives, towards a more just and peaceful society, and to live in a sustainable and environmentally conscious biosphere. 

It is an honour to be given the opportunity to carry this role with SUHAKAM, to contribute, even drive it, to deliver its mandates and functions. 

What is your proudest achievement?

I was most proud when the SUHAKAM 2018 Annual Report was, for the first time ever, successfully debated by the Members of the Malaysian Parliament in December 2019. The debate of its report demonstrated the government’s commitment to the improvement of human rights in the country, as it brought much-needed attention to the challenges in the various areas of human rights, but also underlined the solutions and possible steps to be taken to remedy the problems. However, it was a one-time occurrence, and has since not been repeated by subsequent governments. 

I was also lucky to be involved in the successful defence and international recognition of the ‘A-status’ of SUHAKAM in the 2020-21 reaccreditation process.

What is your favourite book?

I generally prefer to read biographies - one that I found most riveting was by Samantha Powers entitled ‘Chasing The Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World’ from 2008. Another memorable read was ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ by Nelson Mandela.

Date: 31 January 2022