Paul Sinnappan, a widely recognised and respected community organiser, trainer and activist championing justice and human rights for the poor, recently passed away leaving a huge vacuum among the many he touched, including us.
The following is to record our appreciation of his life and work, especially his tireless commitment to women’s rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment.
Unforgettable encounters with a man of joy
Many of us first met Sinnappan – and Pappathiamah (or Pappathi as we fondly call her), his loving life partner and collaborator – at Batang Berjuntai, where he and other leaders had set up credit unions and cooperatives. A few met him more recently when his reach as a gender equality trainer extended to many other segments of society.
Regardless, the abiding image that remains with us today is one of a man of great joy, generosity and deep humility.
I first met Paul Sinnappan when I joined the National Office for Human Development (NOHD) in 1980. He was a jovial, fun-loving, down-to-earth grassroots leader from the rubber and palm oil plantations of Batang Berjuntai. What struck me most was his humility. To be humble is not to think less of oneself, but to think of others more. This was how Sinnappan lived his life.
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– Chin Chin
Sinnappan always had a smile on his face; he exuded excitement, energy and joy.
He had so much to share, which he never hesitated to do, generously, all the time.
– Heng Leng
My memories of Paul Sinnappan are best summed up by Matthew (20: 28), “I have come not to be served, but to serve.” I first met him at his kampong, Batang Berjuntai. I remember a humble, simple, dynamic community leader, lovingly and caringly welcoming us to his home, family and community. He talked about the values of service, of changing mindsets through empowering programmes. He walked the talk by embracing these values in every aspect of his own life. Sinnappan always wore a smile, and I believed it radiated from an inner source of his Life. He was gentle in spirit even though he fought courageously for human and women’s rights and the rights of the poor and marginalised.
It was such a joy to meet this very warm and loving couple, as well as the other credit union leaders such as Soosamary, Jeyamary and Sinnappan’s twin brother Rayappan. From the beginning, Sinnappan came across as a jovial person, who had this very boyish laughter and sparkling eyes that reflected his joy and commitment to working with the people. He also had a special place in his heart for women’s empowerment and gender equality, the outcome of which were the women’s groups mainly initiated by Pappathi, Soosamary and Jeyamary.
I heard so much about him before I met him. When we did finally meet, I instantaneously took a liking to this mild-mannered, warm, humble and endearing man whose presence radiated calm and kindness.
Critical connections with the poor and women
It was not surprising that many knew of Sinnappan even before they had met him, and when they did, he left a marked impact.
As a university graduate in the 1980s, I had heard about Paul and the community work he was doing as a staff of NOHD. His focus was the poor and marginalised, and through setting up credit unions and cooperatives, his mission was always inclined towards teaching them how to fish and not simply giving them fish. I finally got a chance to work with him in 2013-2014 through the Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC). One easily felt and experienced Paul’s deep sense of commitment and the desire to be of service to others.
Paul Sinnappan was who I set out to meet at Batang Berjuntai to arrange an exposure for Catholic undergraduates in 1978. Thereafter, the warmth and enthusiasm to help with any requests, freely sharing the depth of his experience and knowledge, never diminished. He responded to any group.
Paul’s willingness to be changed by new ideas was remarkable. He learnt about gender equality via a gender sensitisation workshop in the early 1990s, and this fundamentally shifted the way he thought about community organising. Thereafter, the feminist lens became pivotal in his navigating through life. He changed the entire structure of the Batang Berjuntai Credit Cooperative, which had been overwhelmingly male in its membership, to include 50% women. Perhaps more remarkable was Paul’s inner journey. Once when I visited him and Pappathi, I found Paul in the kitchen doing the laundry and putting clothes out to dry. He rescheduled PSO [People’s Service Organisation] and BBCC meetings to take place at a time that suited women managing households and allowed men to perform reproductive work. Paul submitted himself to a lifelong journey of embodying feminist values, and this was reflected in his words, behaviour and actions.
Trainer par excellence
Several of us saw him in action at workshops, which he conducted with much gusto and love. He provided training for all sorts of groups, from urban settlers and kindergarten teachers to men’s groups and local councillors.
He developed and conducted training programmes and workshops wherein the community could discuss their issues through the use of creative methodologies like role play and drama. He was also gender-sensitive and incorporated gender programmes in his training, especially for the men.
– Chin Chin
Fondly remembering him for his session on “Who Am I?” through his unique group dynamics, several Persatuan Guru-Guru Tadika Malaysia [Malaysian Kindergarten Teachers Association] educators whom Sinnappan had worked with shared how he deeply touched their lives.
Sinnappan composed the song Pennay, Unaku Viduthaley (Woman, You Are Free) to bring awareness to PGT’s community kindergarten educators of the power within them to achieve big goals.
Poraadu, Poraadu (Battle, Battle) the conditions at home, in the community and bring change; the days of being confined to the home and not stepping into the outside world are over. The song extols the woman to follow PGT’s path to bring struggling plantation children out of their difficulties. It ends with Sathanai, periya sathanai (Achievement, big achievement). This song was sung at the end of every PGT training, brought back to the plantations by the training alumni and sung by all the women during Women’s Day celebrations in their respective plantations.
As shared by Puspa, president of PGT, Sinnappan used to regularly break out into song in these workshops – singing three or four empowering songs. Sinappan’s quiet demeanour with PGT teachers allowed them to open up to him in a way no other trainer did and Sinnappan, in turn, would deeply listen with tears glistening in his eyes.
He was a wonderful trainer – genuinely warm, so full of humour and so non-threatening to the participants at the workshop organised by the Women’s Centre for Change, Penang, for a group of men, who might have been expecting a lecture on violence against women and gender inequality. Instead, they got Paul. I remember he surprised them when he broke into a song during the training. He taught us the ‘fruit salad’ energiser, which was ridiculously funny. He helped the participants to open up and share their thoughts. Paul showed a generosity with his time, training materials and methodology. He was simple and grounded in his approach. Above all, he shared with us a kindness, of being human and real.
At a workshop on development and gender, he provided a clear and profoundly useful framework for understanding power – power to, power over, power within, power with – explaining that power is never static, that it can be oppressive and yet can be changed to be empowering. It was an eye-opener when he reflected upon his personal experiences working with the estate workers and getting them organised as a cohesive pressure group.
He was an endearing feminist too. In one workshop he made the men carry bricks the weight of an unborn child, so they would feel what it was like for their wives to carry their child and do the house chores. The men turned around and started helping their spouses to wash clothes, sweep, etc. When one man watches this, the other men too ikut (follow). He taught his own children to share their gifts with others. A great trainer, and wonderful grassroots activist and a handsome bloke! He never, never gave up his ideals until his last breath.
At a PWDC training on community engagement for the local councillors of Majlis Bandaraya Seberang Perai (Seberang Perai City Council) and Majlis Bandaraya Pulau Pinang (Penang Island City Council), you can see from the pictures how down to earth his sessions were, and how he was able to encourage these government officials to bring down their guard. All in all, Paul left an indelible mark — cherished by us all!
With all his virtues, it was not surprising that Sinnappan became a role model for many.
I did not know that Paul was unwell, and only found out about this illness at the time of this death. Thus, I was never able to tell him this. Paul was one of the most refined human beings I have known -he offered a rare quality of compassion, listening and grace to whoever had the good fortune to make his acquaintance. His dedication to uplifting the dignity and humanity of others was unwavering; through his lifetime, he made non-violent, compassionate, and loving service to others perfect.
… from my student days, Sinnappan has been the yeast in the dough, and counts among the “highly respected in their days and honoured by the people they lived with” (Sirach 44:7). Each of us, touched by his life and abundant generosity, must do him justice by being true to what he has imparted.
He was the one who taught me that with RM2, you can teach anyone how to start a business and return life to a person in dire need. Through this approach, he not only reached out to the plantation communities but also to the poor Malay and Orang Asli communities throughout Malaysia. It was this idea that remained with me when I started Cookies for a Cause in Petaling Jaya, as a parliamentarian.
Sinnappan wanted to bring us ‘old timers’ together to reflect upon our lives and to question where we are heading in this globalised world. Sadly, that did not come to pass.
We miss you, Sinnappan – our brother, friend, comrade and fellow sojourner – and thank you for your time with us. May your soul rest in eternal peace and may you continue to watch over your family and the communities you built.
Contributions from Aloyah Bakar, Cecilia Ng, Chee Heng Leng, Henry Loh, Judith Koh, Lim Chin Chin, Maria Chin Abdullah, Prema Devaraj, Suguna Papachan, Susanna George, tan beng hui and Veronica Retnam (with Pachama Muniandy, Daivaigi Menon, Puspam Pitchai, Janaki Sandhu and Puspa Krishnan)