Cover Photo: Rid Burman

The chair of the international board of Amnesty International on her calling for human rights work and the women who inspire her the most

Dr Anjhula Mya Singh Bais calls it as she sees it. Formerly the youngest chair of Amnesty International Malaysia and recently appointed as the chairperson of Amnesty’s international board–the first Indian and first person in Malaysia to acquire such a position–she doesn’t mince words when discussing issues of global importance.

But beyond the realm of rhetoric, this internationally-acclaimed trauma psychologist lives to serve, as evident in her activism and her work counselling suicidal frontliners in Malaysia while herself recovering from Covid-19 in early 2021. 

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At the core, Anjhula cares more about people than living up to people’s expectations—perhaps this is the secret to her success as a leader, along with an ever-present willingness to learn from others.   

The daughter of an aristocratic family from Banswara in Rajasthan, this former Vogue supermodel and certified mental health practitioner speaks with Tatler about her definition of success and her role at Amnesty International.

For me, the brilliance of the mind and spirituality, anchored in rich cultural traditions is what defines success.
Dr Anjhula Mya Singh Bais

What do you find most exciting about your role as the chair of Amnesty's International Board?

I'm most excited about the influence that Amnesty International has in shaping policy and decisions in the global arena on some of the most pressing issues in world history. Amnesty International is a Noble Peace Prize winner and the largest human rights organisation in the world. In my role as chairperson of its international board, I speak to a variety of stakeholders, from the chairs of our local Amnesty offices worldwide to donors, funders, government officials, diplomats, and business leaders. I believe human rights is every person's issue. A lot of what I do requires a considered analysis of tons of documents and making tough human rights decisions about reports and issues in Ukraine or Hong Kong, for example.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your work at Amnesty International?

I sit on a board with very talented people. We have a retired senior media exec, an ex-diplomat, a feminist leader, a United Nations officer, an emergency doctor, a former telecoms chief, an activist who is on a dictator’s hit list, a lawyer and women empowerment coach and more. They are experts with deep knowledge and I learn from them every day.

Why did you decide to become a trauma psychologist?  

It's a calling. I have the ability to sense the depths of what is happening in a person’s life and that's immeasurably helpful when people have trouble communicating, which is quite often the case when one is traumatised.

My ancestral history is one of governing and serving, and in modern times, that finds expression through trauma alleviation and human rights work.

Growing up, what influenced your definition of a successful woman?

In our erstwhile Rajput history, dignity is ingrained in our psyche. We abide by the saying (not literally anymore) 'Death before dishonour' and 'First amongst equals'.

For me, the brilliance of the mind and spirituality, anchored in rich cultural traditions is what defines success. A successful woman doesn’t need a knight in shining armour but carries her own sword of enlightenment.

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What’s your source of strength in the face of adversity?  

The same energy that results in the sun setting and rising every day for millennia is what we are all part of, it’s a matter of tapping in and staying connected to that source. I am connected to all, attached to nothing. I take the long view and my Buddhist practice and understanding of impermanence is a compass.

How do you make time for yourself given the responsibilities on your plate?

'No' is a full sentence. I know boundaries very well and calmly set them. I say 'no' to things far more often than I say 'yes'. The result is I'm left with a well-curated life that I don’t need a holiday from.

What got you through the most challenging periods of this pandemic?

We saw the whole country rise to the occasion. Pain sharpens focus and strength most people don't think they have comes to the surface. We saw this in the brotherhood and sisterhood Malaysia exemplified during Covid-19 and during the floods.

I feel our point on Earth is to serve and evolve, and the best way to do that is to reach out to others, because they serve as a mirror to yourself and are a great source of growth and knowledge. You hit a point where it's mind over matter and you ask yourself, 'What is it going to be?' I chose to keep going, hour by hour and step by step.

You've been described as 'a feminist who wears lipstick'. What is eye-opening about being a feminist in a country like Malaysia?

Feminist is a buzz word in Malaysia: it makes for a cool hashtag of keyboard warriors and the woke social media brigade. A substantive grip on actual feminism has not arrived in large spades in Malaysia.

This is exemplified by the atrocious things that come out of the government’s media machinery about how women should be treated and how they should behave, especially in relation to men.

Who are the most inspiring female leaders you’ve come across?

My friend Her Royal Highness Princess Esmerelda of Belgium. She’s a passionate eco-activist. Another inspiring woman is Dr Agnes Callmard who is the Secretary-General of Amnesty International–what a brilliant mind. She’s the former United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings and summary execution. 

Tell us your top recommended books to read right now.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. 

What kind of positive change do you want to see in the mental healthcare space in Malaysia?

I don’t think there is enough conversation about people who should never qualify as psychologists. We know there is a dearth of qualified psychologists in Malaysia (and the world), but there are some people who should never become a psychologist because they don’t have what it takes.

It is a fallacy to think that through qualification only, you are destined to help. It is as much of an art as it is a science. One’s lived experiences, philosophy, determination and cultural exposure go a long way in determining if one will be effective. Becoming a psychologist is not as simple as saying 'I took a course on LinkedIn', 'I had a mental health issue', or 'People like talking to me'.

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