Change Agent

24 October 2016

Social activist Syed Azmi Alhabshi proves that kindness always wins.

Syed Azmi Alhabshi is not your average workaholic. On a typical day, he replies all e-mails by 7am, then spends an hour having breakfast with his family before going off to work. He describes his days as “a lot of meetings, interviews, phone calls and planning.” Night meetings are a common occurrence, some of which tend to stretch on until late. To Syed, there’s always something to see, read and think about. Helping others isn’t a nine to five job.

When we meet the social activist, he’s trying to adapt to a more balanced lifestyle for the sake of his health. About a week earlier, he was in the hospital for "chest pains" but continued to fulfil his commitments for the coming weekend anyway: being a panellist on two forums in Johor Bahru before coming back to host FreeMarket Damansara Damai and man a booth at Art for Grabs, among other things.

When you're seen as Malaysia's unofficial hero for social change, it's hard to slow down when there are always people to help, issues to discuss and stories to tell. Some of you may only know him as the co-organiser of that infamous dog-petting event for Muslims in 2014, but you should know that Syed’s contributions to society are less about just challenging the status quo and more towards highlighting key issues, promoting volunteerism and spreading the simple act of being kind.

To date, Syed’s community projects include helping the homeless, the blind and the deaf, old folks’ homes and senior citizens, refugees, cancer patients and sexually abused children. Some of the more notable initiatives he’s involved in are the aforementioned FreeMarket (a regularly held market where you can give away and/or take things for free), UmieAktif (a group of empowered underprivileged mothers in Chow Kit who produce unique handmade products for sale, the proceeds of which go directly to their welfare) and Pit Stop Community Café (a social enterprise to feed the urban poor and homeless, with a pay-as-you-like concept for its dinner service).

Syed also recently joined local humanitarian organisation SOLS 24/7 as head of volunteers. On top of that, he’s been actively involved in campaigning against child sexual abuse, and is part of a Malaysian child sexual crimes task force that’s set to table the new Child Sexual Crimes Bill in Parliament this October.

"It’s a highlight for me to know that there’s a bigger impact [beyond] Facebook,” says Syed, who actively uses the social network to spread his causes to over 113,000 friends and followers. “I think that it’s important to know that the government actually acknowledges participation in combating these issues. I’ve also been giving a lot of talks and [joining] a lot of forums [on child sexual abuse], so I guess that’s how I know that the contributions are real.”

Despite taking on multiple projects, Syed himself pays equal attention to everything he champions, although he admits that helping old folks has been a long-time passion of his. Currently, he’s considering starting a new initiative based on the concept of time banking to benefit old folks and their helpers.

“Let’s say, if [an old folk] plays piano, then he can give free piano lessons [to the volunteer], or if he’s good in teaching Quranic readings, he can help to teach that. You won’t have any monetary value – you’ll have service value. It’s been done in Australia and Japan, but until I can find a way to start here, then I would still think about it,” adds Syed.

One takeaway from getting to know Syed is that he’s passionate about helping those in need, in whatever way he can (in the past, he even sublet his own house to Syrian refugees). While he’s seemingly accepted his role as a public figure, he remains extremely humble about his fame.

“I don’t like the feeling that I’m more special than anybody else,” reveals Syed, who discontinued his Facebook fan page because it made him feel “big-headed”. He now only maintains a Facebook profile page on which he describes himself as “just a nobody” because “you can do so many great things even though you’re a nobody”.

Maybe anyone can do good deeds, but if there’s one thing that sets Syed apart, it’s his ability to empathise and lend an ear to the many people who message him on Facebook seeking advice, often opening up to him about their most intimate secret. It’s an interesting phenomenon that even Syed admits he doesn’t encourage because he’s not an expert, but he understands why it happens.

“I’m sure they’ve tried [talking to] people they trust but it didn’t work – I’m not the first person they seek,” remarks Syed. “They do it because of the trust and connection... knowing that I understand and wouldn’t judge. Sometimes sharing is therapeutic for them. So whatever you can do as a citizen to help someone else, I think we should do that.”

When we ask if he’s okay with random people confiding in him, Syed replies simply, “People have things to say and my job is to hear what people have to say.”

It sounds like a lot of pressure for one individual, but Syed doesn’t see it that way. “The more I do it, the more it’s embedded in me to be nice,” he concludes, adding that he remains calm even when dealing with haters and harsh critics. To him, these things are “worldly”; hence, temporary.

“They [the critics] just wanted to say what they wanted to say and I appreciate everyone speaking their mind. You don’t like it a lot sometimes, but that’s how they roll. And your action [afterwards] plays a more important role. Every action you take is education for yourself and also for others.”

It’s this resilience that got him through the backlash of the controversial dog-petting event in 2014, where he was the target of hundreds of hate messages and even death threats. “I guess that’s why I’m always up and down instead of just down on the ground all the time after being bashed.”

With all his extraordinary qualities, it’s easy to surmise that the world would be a better place if more people were like Syed Azmi, but the activist doesn’t think so. Instead, he believes people should practise their beliefs because “there’s no religion that doesn’t teach good ethics.”

As for Malaysians, Syed thinks it “would be awesome” if more of us were less judgemental about things, but concedes it’s a lot easier said than done. A simpler but powerful thing to do is to be more observant.

“If people are a bit more observant about their surroundings, they can actually see problems that they can solve. That’s how I started, by being observant.”

By Syarifah Syazana
Photos of FreeMarket Damansara Damai courtesy of

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