8 Social Activists Making A Change In Southeast Asia

By Chong Seow Wei

From calling for equal rights for the LGBTQ+ and disabled communities to raising awareness about child abuse and sex workers, here are eight Gen.T honourees helping to make society a better place

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Photo: Getty Images
Cover  Group of protestors standing together holding hands in protest picket. Male and female activists protesting silently.

Millennials and Gen Z are most likely to call out social injustices and shun companies that pay lip service, according to a 2021 global survey by Deloitte. And as they accumulate purchasing power over the years, it becomes more difficult for brands, companies and governments to ignore their influence in society. 

These two generations believe that individuals can bring about change. That is why many of them are taking action—whether it’s donating to charity, sharing important content on social media, taking part in a public demonstration or starting their own movement. 

Read about eight activists from the Gen.T community who are championing different social causes, from equality for LGBTQ+ and disability communities to voting rights for youth.

Qyira Yusri

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Qyira Yusri, co-founder and education director of Undi18 (Photo: Khairul Imran)
Above  Qyira Yusri, co-founder and education director of Undi18 (Photo: Khairul Imran)

Qyira Yusri made her mark in Malaysia’s political history when her social enterprise, Undi18, successfully lobbied the country’s government to reduce the minimum voting age from 21 to 18. This effectively gave some eight million people the power to shape the future of their nation for the first time. 

“Voting is one way we can make our voices heard and hold our elected representatives accountable,” said Qyira, who is the co-founder and education director of Undi18. “By casting a vote, it sends a message to our politicians on the kinds of leaders and policies we want in place.”

Undi18 also works with NGOs, corporate partners and government agencies to educate Malaysian youth on political and civic issues.

Read more: This Young Activist Is Giving Malaysian Youths A Voice In Politics

Daryl Yang

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Daryl Yang (Photo: Darren Gabriel Leow)
Above  Daryl Yang, co-founder and advisor of Community for Advocacy & Political Education (Photo: Darren Gabriel Leow)

In 2014, a letter that Daryl Yang wrote defending government guidelines on youth sexuality, including LGBTQ+ topics, went viral. And that’s when his career as a campaigner began. Since then, he has spoken up and contributed to a range of other causes related to gender equality, disability rights and sexual violence in schools. 

At his alma mater Yale-NUS College, he helped establish the Community for Advocacy & Political Education, a student-run organisation that aims to promote political literacy and civic engagement in Singapore.

“There are many emerging social movements that are spearheaded by young people today, and I hope that we will recognise how all of our challenges are interconnected and work together to forge a future that is more just and equal,” he said.

Yang is currently pursuing a Master of Laws at Berkeley Law in California, specialising in public interest and social justice under the Fulbright Program. 

Read more: Meet The 2021 Gen.T Honourees Who Are Advocating Change In Singapore

Andrea Gunawan

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Above  Andrea Gunawan, social activist and founder of Elektra Intimates and Filmore

Social media activist Andrea Gunawan is determined to break the stigmas surrounding sexual health in Indonesia. She regularly and candidly shares to her 230,000-plus Instagram followers about the importance of sexual wellness, responsible sexual behaviour and body positivity. She’s also partnered with Unicef and Linkages, a US-funded HIV services project, to run several campaigns to encourage people to get tested for HIV.

Aside from Instagram, Gunawan started two women’s health and wellness brands—Elektra Intimates, which offers IPL hair removal products, and Filmore, a period and intimate care brand. And she runs a weekly podcast called Taboo Tuesday, covering a range of topics from beauty standards to toxic parents to inclusivity. 

Read more: Andrea Gunawan Is Crushing Sexual Health Taboos In Indonesia. Here’s How

Nalutporn Krairiksh

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Nalutporn Krairiksh was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) at nine years old, but she refused to pander to society’s flawed perception of disabled people. In 2017, she founded ThisAble.me, Thailand’s first media platform dedicated to disability issues. 

Prior to this, the journalist worked at a non-profit online newspaper Prachatai, focusing on promoting gender equality, and was also a founding member of the now-disbanded political party, Future Forward Party. 

Read more: How To Make Your Workplace More Disability Inclusive

Mukmin Nantang

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Above  Mukmin Nantang, founder of Borneo Komrad

Mukmin Nantang is the founder of Borneo Komrad, an NGO that provides education to stateless children in Sabah, Borneo. The NGO started the social impact project Sekolah Alternatif, which translates as ‘alternative school’, where these children are taught skills in areas such as mathematics, writing, sewing and cooking. It also educates them about real-ife issues often faced by Sabah’s stateless community, including child marriages and labour exploitation. 

In 2022, positively impacted by the efforts of Mukmin and his NGO, several students of Sekolah Alternatif co-founded Sekolah Pemulihan Gam in Semporna, a town in Borneo, to help other children in their community. The school has over 20 stateless children between the ages of seven and 15, teaching them basic literacy and hygiene as well as music and theatre.

Read more: Activist Heidy Quah Reveals The Most Moving Untold Stories About Malaysia's Refugee Community

Vanessa Ho

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Through non-profit organisation Project X, Vanessa Ho is trying to end the stigma, discrimination and violence that affect sex workers in Singapore. As the organisation’s tagline ”More Than Just Condoms” suggests, her work is wide-ranging, from educating about sex work to empowering communities to documenting human rights violations. 

Project X offers social, emotional, legal and health services to sex workers of all sexual orientations, gender identities and backgrounds. It also operates two community centres, which serve as safe spaces for the community, and organises outreach engagements with schools and offices to raise awareness about the sex industry.

Her career in the non-profit space began when she started reading about social movements and ways she can contribute to helping society. In a 2021 interview with Gen.T, she said, “I became conscious of the fact that I’m a citizen of this world and I have a part to play in making people’s lives better.”

Read more: Project X’s Vanessa Ho Is Demystifying The Plight Of Sex Workers In Singapore. Here's How

Noor Mastura

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Growing up, Noor Mastura lived on the breadline. She experienced homelessness, was bullied for her skin colour and was also suicidal. But amid all this, there was a determination in her to overcome her circumstances and help others. 

In 2013, she started her first non-profit, Back2Basics, as a Facebook Group, calling for volunteers to deliver free groceries to underprivileged families. 

Two years after that, she launched Interfaith Youth Circle as an avenue to dispel misconceptions about the Muslim faith, which was on the rise in Singapore due to the atrocities committed by the terrorist group ISIS. While she no longer works here, the charity now focuses on encouraging dialogue between religions. 

Her latest platform, Centre for Safeguarding Communities, previously known as Being Bravely Woman, provides women from the Brown and Muslim communities with a safe space online to discuss issues including sexual assault, domestic violence, misogyny and self-worth.

Read more: Noor Mastura: From Living On The Breadline To Singaporean Of The Year

Syed Azmi

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Syed Azmi, co-founder of Puak Payong
Above  Syed Azmi, co-founder of PuakPayong

Syed Azmi started his career in the non-profit space as a child advocate, helping their families through issues such as sexual harassment. In Malaysia, he’s known for his fiercely vocal advocacy of issues pertaining to child sexual abuse. Today, he runs his own organisation, PuakPayong, where he equips children with essential life skills while providing them with a space they feel safe and protected. 

The pharmacist-turned-social activist has also spearheaded community projects helping other groups in society, from the homeless, disabled and elderly to HIV-positive sex workers. 

In a recent interview with Gen.T, Syed described what inspires him to help others. “When people call me for assistance, I understand that it is not easy for them to ask for help from a stranger. It is this reason why I want to give them a chance and listen to their needs. Personally, I can't bear to let someone in need suffer.”

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