MALAYSIA - Now 56 years old himself, the former Bar Council member and long time Parti Keadilan Rakyat vice-president has watched Malaysia take many interesting twists and turns through the years.
"Perhaps we must start off by asking how old Malaysia is" he began, only half-jokingly during our interview. "Is it 56 or 50? Because while Malaya became independent in 1957, Malaysia itself was created in 1963. I am certainly proud to have been part of a movement that successfully campaigned for September 16, 1963, which is Malaysia Day to be a national holiday. "
While national days tend to be occasions of pomp and circumstance, Sivarasa feels we need to look at our nation with a critical eye. And yet he considers himself a patriotic man.
"I may not defend the way Malaysia is run, but I will defend the people and this land anytime. I notice this happens especially when I travel. I talk about the country and I feel proud of its people. Every time I look around, I am impressed by the rich diversity of cultures that makes this place a lot more interesting than most countries."
Unlike many of his generation who migrated to the Klang Valley, Sivarasa has resided here since birth. "I've actually always been in this area. At first it was in KL in Jalan Beserah, in the Titiwangsa area near Jalan Pahang. I attended primary school there. Then we moved to Section 14, PJ in 1967.And of course I attended Universiti Malaya. Funnily enough, these particular areas haven't changed that much over the years, although the Federal Highway was smaller then. It was just a dual carriageway."
"There is no question that there have been dramatic changes all over Malaysia. From the late 80s to 1997 the sheer pace of economic growth was reflected all over the country. And it's not just KL, you can see it in Melaka, Ipoh, or Sungai Petani. The development is there although sometimes it feels like every little bit of spare land is grabbed by somebody who has put a tall building there."
Sivarasa describes his early years and influences as quite normal for people of his time. "I had some Malaysian heroes. I used to listen to the Blues Gang and Hamzah Rahmat, but really it was Western music that I grew up with … Deep Purple and Cream. We had Western-influenced, English-speaking interests. Indigenous explorations come when you're older."
"When I was young we also used to look up to sports heroes. I think of the Malaysian badminton team in the late 60s with Punch Gunalan who went to Indonesia and came back with the Thomas Cup. In some ways I'm disappointed now. With the Olympics you see small nations taking on the big ones and winning, I'd like to see that with us again."
"When you are older, you get more open-minded and there is a shift of course. So now when I look back I respect the many unnamed unsung heroes of what was then the Malaysia/Singapore independence movement. Ahmad Boestamam, Said Zahari, Lim Chin Siong and many others are true heroes who opposed not just colonial oppression but post-colonial exploitation."
Sivarasa is seventh in a family of 7 boys and a girl. Four of his siblings eventually emigrated to Australia, and when you take into account that he attended Oxford in the 1970s, Sivarasa would seem to have been a prime candidate to leave the country.
"The question of migration was never a concern," he explains. "I did spend 6 years abroad getting a second degree, and then working and travelling, but Malaysia is my home. I believe we should deal with what problems there are."
"If you look at my field of law, any lawyer will tell you that post 1988 it hasn't been the same. The legal system that we inherited calls for the judiciary to be independent of politics, and I fear that's not the case. It's really been downhill all the way.
At the moment, sad to say, serious concerns about the independence of the judiciary remain. 12 High Court judges just struck off election petitions with high punitive costs and a swiftness that did not inspire confidence in the process.
And soon after in the Altantuya case, the Court of Appeal let two men go. The impression in the public domain is that of a manipulated judiciary. But I think sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. I am an optimist and I believe they will get better. "
"I look with envy at our neighbours Thailand and Indonesia. Granted Malaysia (and Singapore as well) are doing better economically, but we are streets behind in terms of political culture. There is still corruption there, but they have a more robust, even-handed press, and a more independent judiciary, especially when you consider the baggage of the past. In those countries a Minister will resign to take responsibility for his actions. I regret to say that Malaysia is still politically backward."
"Of course you can't look at the past and say it was always better. For example ... there were more ISA detentions under Tunku Abdul Rahman than under any other Prime Minister of Malaysia. In terms of human rights, we are not last in the class. I thought we would always be better than Myanmar but even they ironically are making huge strides now. I think they have more progressive peaceful public assembly laws than us now!"
"One thing is for sure, the culture of political accountability is still stronger in other countries throughout the region. Ministershave resigned for their failures. Indonesia and Thailand jailed members of their election commission for corruption. They are not afraid to go after high level politicians and bureaucrats while in office . In Malaysia we wait until after they leave office to put them in the dock. I think our people deserve better than what they have."
Having said that Sivarasa has witnessed many encouraging changes in the last five years. " I think over the last two general elections, the country has witness some phenomenal changes.
It started with the 2008 elections which took us all by surprise when the opposition broke the government's two-third majority and took over five states. In 2013 this was further extended in terms of the popular vote, whereby more people voted against the government than for it.
This has entrenched the reality that there is a two party system now, and serious political competition forces both sides to perform.
There is the government of the day and a government in waiting, which augurs well for the future."
He also feels that while technological changes have helped many, not all Malaysians become more aware of socio-political issues.
"The media situation in Malaysia mirrors a global trend, whereby control of information is no longer dominated by the mainstream tv and newspapers. Today thanks to the Internet and independent media, Malaysians have much more access to different points of view.
However, there still remains a substantial number of people, particularly in the rural areas who are denied access to this. This is a major obstacle for further social awareness and nation-building."
Sivarasa is married to schoolteacher/actress Anne James. Does he feel the country has progressed in the field of arts? "I think we certainly have moved in terms of volume of creative work. In terms of the theatre, I think it's a reflection of the increasing education level and the interest of people. There are more art galleries, there are more theatre productions. But it's still well behind what's going on in some neighbouring countries."
There are a number of areas in which Sivarasa in unequivocal about Malaysia's supremacy.
"I think you have to start with food. There isno country that can compare to us. We have Malay, Indian and Chinese cuisine. We've even adapted Western food to our style. You can find it all here in abundance".
"We are also lucky with our natural beauty, you can take your pick of locations, the islands, the highlands, the jungles. If you just look at the Kota Kinabalu area, the mountain, jungle and beaches are all within an hour's reach. Where else in the world can you get quite that combination? At its best it's like paradise. Our coral reefs also are some of the best in the world."
Sivarasa did however conclude with some sobering words. "For me, the real Merdeka is yet to come … a time when we have a truly democratic, open Malaysia. I have to say that I think there is retardation in nation-building.
I feel there is a greater distance between the races than there was 25 years ago. I saw it at university level, but now even it is present even in primary school. I think we now have a society that lives in co-existence where we tolerate rather than respect each other's culture. I think there is a concerted effort to play up ethnic and religious tensions.
Instead of trying to promote understanding and harmony, you have leaders who inflame tensions. That makes me concerned for future generations."