Adillah Zaki, fondly known as Dell, is an upcoming final-year student at the Faculty of Law, University of Malaya (‘UM’). Apart from her innate ability to light up any room she strolls into, Dell is well-known for her compassionate leadership and active involvement in youth activism. After ending her time as the Public Relations Officer for Monsters Among Us (‘MAU’), she is currently juggling four roles simultaneously — the President of MAU, the Vice President of the Training, Exchange and Development (‘TED’) Department for the Asian Law Students’ Association (‘ALSA’) National Chapter Malaysia, a Public Relations Officer for Undi Sarawak, and a Podcast Editor for the National Human Rights Society (‘HAKAM’) Youth. Through these platforms, she has championed various causes, ranging from children’s rights to political literacy and youth development.
Do not be fooled by her petite stature, for Dell is Wonder Woman in her own right. Selflessly, she strives to place herself in others’ shoes to bring light to their struggles. From our conversations with Dell, her keen interest in making the world a better place has led her to explore various pathways — shaping her into the person she is today.
Was reading law a long-time plan of yours, or was it a decision that came to you naturally?
‘Nope, it was not, mainly because my “nenek” (grandmother) used to warn us (her grandchildren) against being lawyers.’
On her mother’s side, Dell has a very close-knit family that embraces their traditions to heart — making her grandmother the matriarch of the house. Due to such unspoken rules, her grandmother’s advice is no laughing matter to the family.
Back in high school, ever since Dell tested the waters of the Accounting stream, several doors had come to close from then. As she did not take any Science subjects, she consequently failed to meet the requirements for most of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (‘STEM’) courses. Initially stepping forward with the idea that accounting-related fields might be easier and more conventional to pursue, she gradually stopped to reconsider. Unable to imagine herself in such professions, she decided to take up the Teaching English as a Second Language (‘TESL’) Programme for a better fit.
Somewhere along her journey, Dell’s grandmother had a change of heart regarding her grandkids studying law. Gradually, her parents also came onboard with the idea. Although she has yet to finish her studies, she believes that her enrolment in law school is organically reconciling the wariness her family harbours towards lawyers.
When asked about her experience in law school, Dell confessed that the trials and tribulations are — albeit unbearable — part and parcel of the general picture. To nonchalantly claim that reading law is a perfect match for her would only be evasive. Still, recent events, notably with Undi Sarawak, has made her more appreciative of her ability to read law.
Dell with her cousins and late grandparents
What sparked your interest to join and strive for youth advocacy?
‘I believe that there is too much to be done, and I intend to contribute as much as I can towards all these organisations.’
Interestingly, each of Dell’s involvement in advocacy stemmed from her genuine interests. Acknowledging that sparks die out of inaction, she channels them to guide her steps.
For instance, her day-to-day interactions with her younger siblings and her overall experience as a facilitator have led to the development of a soft spot for children. She firmly believes that these innocent souls require guidance and deserve to be protected from all worldly perversions. This strong sense of responsibility was later materialised through her involvement with MAU — a youth-led non-governmental organisation that advocates for child rights and confronts sexual violence against children in Malaysia.
Her participation in Undi Sarawak, on the other hand, came from a more sombre place. At the tender age of sixteen, Dell made the huge decision to leave her beloved hometown behind to pursue her studies in Malacca — a state located over 900 kilometres from Kuching. She vividly remembers how challenging the first three months were for her, as she struggled to communicate in the Malay language. As waves of time passed, she gradually found her rhythm and harmonised with her new surroundings.
Even as things went uphill from there, she felt somewhat disconnected from her roots. Thus, when Undi18 announced their Undi Sarawak campaign, she signed up unwaveringly — launching her into a trajectory of working closely with exceptional Sarawakian youths. Such engagements filled her with genuine optimism as they are living proof of the budding potential within Sarawakian youths, just moments away from taking shape. Similarly, she joined HAKAM Youth to campaign on human rights-related issues.
Ultimately, Dell aims to be part of something bigger than herself. To her, there is no better way to find meaning in life than to give meaning to the life of others. The gratification of knowing her efforts have positively affected people is what keeps Dell going, and she certainly has not shown signs of slowing down.
Dell and the speakers for HAKAM Youth Family Frontiers Webinar
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when engaging in youth activism, and how did you tackle them?
‘It is simple, but we tend to forget this — while we are fighting for our causes, we should care for ourselves too.’
One of the significant hurdles that she went through involved creating effective advocacy initiatives. Today, content can be found in every nook and cranny of the Internet. In fact, there is an array of platforms that can be utilised to display such content to the general public. However, the bigger question is: how can event organisers ensure that their target audience benefit from the initiatives? There is also the issue of how some workshops focus more on the theoretical aspect of advocacy without emphasising real-life situations. As a result, participants might face predicaments when applying the knowledge gained.
To deter such situations, Dell suggests joining capacity building programmes to initiate impactful advocacy initiatives. Besides that, it would also be great to get in touch with connections in the same line of work. Albeit unnerving, one can learn a lot from another’s successes and shortcomings. An alternative would be holding regular discussions with specific target groups to gauge their interests in curating better programmes.
Another challenge that she faced was inclusivity. With personal knowledge confined within the borders of upbringing and exposure, there is bound to be a world of unfamiliarity outside one’s comfort zones. For Dell, she barely has any experience looking after children with disabilities; as such, she lacks the necessary expertise to meet their needs. Without understanding the sensitivities of each vulnerable group, it goes without saying that one would face a tough time when offering aid whilst ensuring their safety.
To become a better activist, Dell urges everyone to gain as much exposure — training, reading, or seeking advice from experts in said areas — as possible. On the other hand, direct communication with said vulnerable groups would offer valuable insight into their adversities. Admittedly, some means are more effective than others, but the essential thing to note is that effort comes in all shapes and sizes!
If she could sum up her experiences, it would be in the form of these three main takeaways. Firstly, do not beat yourself up for things that you could not have known. It already takes a lot of courage for one to admit their lack of understanding, which is why it is crucial to be kind when educating the public. Secondly, the issues faced by our target audience are their daily realities. We should not view their lives and struggles as mere content, or worse, means to gain traction. Thirdly, when designing new initiatives, one cannot ‘syok sendiri’. A good way to go about it is to treat the initiatives as policies. If policymakers engage with their target audience prior to formulating the frameworks, event organisers must do the same.
Dell and her fellow MAU members following a session on Lapor Predator — uplifting one another through it all
Does your legal knowledge complement your involvement in advocacy-centric ventures?
‘Yes, because it provided me with an avenue to see the law in play.’
In law school, students are given the opportunity to study various fields of law. Nonetheless, it should be noted that formative learning in universities significantly emphasises the theoretical aspect of law. For this, Dell shared that the practical element derived from her involvement in youth activism has complemented her understanding of the substantive classroom content.
As an example, MAU has Lapor Predator, which is a child-friendly automated chatbot tailored to receive reports on online child sexual exploitation and abuse. Under this initiative, Dell was required to engage with multiple government agencies — the Royal Malaysian Police (‘PDRM’) and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commissions (‘MCMC’). Her experience with them has deepened her insights, and consequently helped her raise more practical questions during tutorials for relevant subjects such as Cyber Law and Child Law. On top of attaining a deeper understanding of the subjects, her advocacy skills gradually improved as well.
Furthermore, she acknowledged that her legal background has proven to be an asset throughout her youth advocacy journey. Beyond curating content for her organisations, it is especially so when Dell and her team have to break down complex legal concepts or processes for their beneficiaries.
Dell with some of her strong-willed comrades that constitute Undi Sarawak
From your perspective, how can we encourage more people to take part in activism?
‘Do not be haste to demean anybody. Instead, use your knowledge and expertise to educate the underinformed and misinformed.’
Dell believes that it is crucial to have a nurturing surrounding when it comes to teaching and learning. Oftentimes, people feel discouraged or intimidated to try something new. Just like how warm gestures can go a long way, she encourages organisations and activists alike to be more approachable, and ultimately, champion the process of learning. This is very much in line with the underlying objective of activism — spreading awareness to those who are unfamiliar.
With regard to this, she was grateful for her working environment with Undi Sarawak and MAU. Dell feels particularly so for her programme coordinator in Undi Sarawak, Soon Wei Xen, who has always been patient when addressing his team members’ enquiries without ever establishing his superiority over them. Taking the time to address everyone’s enquiries encourages the spirit of learning — a wonderful way to spark one’s interest in activism. The same can be said about her time with MAU’s uplifting community. On that note, Dell calls for activists to ‘be firm yet empathetic and understanding. Who knows, your virtues might arouse interest in the cause you are fighting for.’
Additionally, she opines that we should have more platforms to empower our youths. When their opinions are heard and validated, it builds their confidence over time to create a ripple effect — getting others to follow suit as well. In her words, ‘if I can do it, what is stopping you from doing the same?’ Among others, she added that participation and representation are vital to achieving this objective.
In her opinion, this is what MAU does best. Recalling the days when she was only starting out, Firzana, the founder, provided her with ample opportunities to represent the organisation. Beyond participating in panel discussions and partner meetings, she was also entrusted with creating content, particularly to address the privacy violations that arose from the #Justice4Bella campaign. Naturally, these responsibilities have enriched her with the courage and skills necessary to take on bigger roles in the scene.
One of the #Justice4Bella posters that Dell curated content for
From the plethora of organisations and causes to choose from, what would your advice be for students who are keen yet unsure of which one to take part in?
‘Before you choose to commit to any organisation, pick your cause first.’
Prior to doing anything, it would always be wise to revisit the basics. By doing one’s due diligence — reading up, obtaining insights from those who have walked a similar path, and tuning in to round tables — one will acquire a more realistic picture of what the cause entails. Dell clarifies that the idea is not to be an expert but rather to know enough to understand why you are fighting for the cause. Keeping in mind that activism can be mentally, emotionally, and physically draining, it is pertinent to set your heart on a purpose. When venturing deep waters, she recollects her motivation by reminding herself why she took the first step.
Following that, Dell suggests choosing an organisation that best serves the cause you resonate with. If one’s personal goals align with that of the organisation, it is more likely for them to flourish there. Another factor worth considering would be the organisation’s working culture. Speaking from her experience, newer organisations tend to be more flexible and open to exploring opportunities, but they might lack resources. Conversely, well-established organisations are more rigid yet equipped with plenty of resources. Undoubtedly, aspiring activists can take an excerpt or two from Dell’s journey to help them determine their entry point into the realm of activism.
Dell and a few members from MAU having a laid-back Fun Night session
Would you describe yourself as a natural-born leader, or was it a tendency you acquired through time? We would also appreciate insights into your leadership journey.
‘To be honest, the only thing that I was born with was short-sightedness (which may be the reason my family wonders why I constantly bump into things as a toddler). In other words, I was not a natural-born leader — I had to work extremely hard to sharpen my leadership skills.’
Dell credits the development of her leadership skills to her time with the University of Malaya Law Society (‘UMLS’) 2018/2019. She recalled the time when she was entrusted to spearhead the Faculty’s Sports Week. Throughout her management of the event, her High Committee never dictated her moves but rather kept an eye on her from a respectful distance. This approach of theirs significantly boosted her morale, and she expressed her hopes for more leaders to afford such trust and opportunities for their members. Subsequently, Dell went on to assume higher positions — Head of Bureau for the University of Malaya Moot Club (‘UM Moot Club’) and Vice Director for an event under the University of Malaya Convocation Festival (‘FESKUM’).
Throughout her journey over the years, it was her directorial role in the TED Department of ALSA Malaysia that marked her breakthrough. It unravelled in her a whole new perspective on leadership as it involves a broader network and a more diverse talent pool. The programme provided a platform for her interaction with more people, whilst making the best out of the learning opportunities provided. In fact, this is the experience from which she sourced her confidence to step into external ventures.
Using her own story as an example, Dell explained that not everyone is gifted with leadership skills. However, that does not mean that those who are not born with it can never rise to the occasion. Be that as it may, Dell underlines some of the attributes that a leader cannot neglect — resourcefulness, an understanding nature, strategic planning, as well as great communication and negotiation skills. Endearingly, she shares that it is equally important never to forgo one’s humanity, just for the sake of productivity.
Dell with the Dean of the UM Faculty of Law, Dato’ Associate Professor Dr Johan Shamsuddin bin Hj Sabaruddin and the members of the UM Law Society 2018/2019
Could you share with us some of your experience while working with Undi Sarawak? In your opinion, why do some members of society — including youths — shy away from being involved with politics?
‘I am in awe of the other team members. It is because of people like them that breeds hope for Sarawak.’
To contextualise, Undi Sarawak is a fairly young campaign that aims to enlighten the Sarawakian public on political literacy, specifically its magnitude on their lives. Despite the fact that most campaigners comprise of youths who are relatively inexperienced, their high-spirits and open minds more than make up for it. When Dell first joined Undi Sarawak, she too lacked a clear understanding of political literacy due to the dearth of discourse concerning this issue. To ensure that she can reap the most from her time with Undi Sarawak, she took it upon herself to utilise their programmes and educate herself whilst educating others. To date, the campaign has conducted various webinars and workshops that covered a plethora of topics, from policy-making, the election process to Sustainable Development Goals (‘SDGs’).
Perhaps what Dell treasures most about Undi Sarawak is how it remains a safe space for youths to band together regardless of their political affiliations. Even in heated sessions, everyone remained professional, for they acknowledged that disagreements are sine qua non of debates. When all is said and done, the camaraderie and laughter shared always brings them all back together.
It was not all sunshine and rainbows though, as she noticed a concerning trend amongst Malaysian society — more individuals slowly losing interest in local politics. Through their research, the two main reasons are the lack of representation and the growing apathy. Given the small handful of women and youths presented with a seat at the table, these groups may feel as though they do not belong there. In addition, when issues are swept and left under the rug, such individuals are left questioning the power of their voice.
Nonetheless, Dell expresses her hopes for them never to forget their inherent right to be heard and that their opinions matter. She is optimistic that with more people involved, Undi Sarawak’s efforts will resonate with the masses and gradually shift their outlook on politics.
Dell as a speaker during a webinar for Undi Sarawak
How can we encourage more people to keep abreast with the latest political developments?
‘One of the ways is to inform them and to speak their language while doing so.’
There is an art to spreading awareness — something Dell is still learning the ropes to. Circling back to her point earlier, there is a fine line between being helpful and patronising when getting the point across. As such, she hopes that everyone can be mindful of their conversations with others.
Besides that, the approach employed should also cater to the intended audience. ‘Speaking their language’ may be taken in its literal sense, e.g., using Sarawakian Malay when speaking with Sarawakian youths. By accommodating with the language that they are most comfortable with, the issue of language barriers can be mitigated. Another way to look at it is to tailor the tone and medium accordingly. When engaging with youths, they might not enjoy conversations resembling lectures. On the other hand, more visual and interactive methods might appeal better to them. It is indispensable that one’s ability to read the room would be of much help in these instances.
Recently, you have displayed a stellar performance at the ALSA Conference Myanmar 2021 and ALSA Forum Laos 2021. What were the preparations that you have made and the hurdles you have faced?
‘This was my first time joining an ALSA Conference; it was extremely enlightening. Challenge-wise, there was not much besides my busy schedule. The entire event was lovely, and I recognised a few familiar faces!’
In contrast to other oratory activities, Dell opines that the Table Discussion and Mock Governing Council Meeting (‘GCM’) held during ALSA Conferences require a unique blend of skills. To illustrate, delegates would need to come up with a Position Paper presentation during Table Discussions. For GCMs, on the other hand, delegates would need to play the role of ALSA National Chapters and resolve the disputes amicably. To succeed in both, one would need to master a myriad of skills — debating, researching, presenting, and even negotiating. The end goal would be to resolve the matter collectively, rather than to emerge as individual winners. Notwithstanding that, she has also garnered an impressive string of achievements at ALSA Conference Myanmar 2021 and ALSA Forum Laos 2021 — bagging the Best Speaker Award for Table Discussion, receiving the Outstanding Delegate Award, and taking home the Best Speaker Award for Mock GCM.
In hindsight, Dell feels fortunate for she has developed the necessary thought process in law school through ample exposure. In her words, as dreadful as tutorial sessions can be at times, they have tremendously improved her argumentative skills. Her time carrying out the Research Project has also come in handy. Thanks to her developed researching skills and concise writing, she was able to get through the Position Paper in a breeze.
Knowing that the training undergone would translate to transferable skills, Dell hopes this bit would provide law students with some sense of comfort — provided that they have truly grasped the essential know-how of the skillset.
Dell was elated to receive the Outstanding Delegate Award at the ALSA Forum Laos 2021
Kayaking is a rather niche sport. Do let us know how you came about such a rare interest!
‘I am not going to lie and say that I had a hidden talent for it because I really did not. In fact, I took longer than my teammates to even kayak straight.’
In her first year, Dell was assigned to Tuanku Bahiyah Residential College, popularly known as ‘KK2’. With their reputable kayak team, her interest was piqued. What initially started as an undertaking just for kicks soon evolved to be a commitment. Despite the waves that rocked her boat, she kept her spirits up and paddled through because of a personal mission to participate in the Sukan Mahasiswa Universiti Malaya (‘SUKMUM’) for kayaking. Apart from that, kayaking also appealed to her, given its rigorous training and the necessary teamwork that goes behind it. The vigour of it all was evidenced by how her eyebrows started falling off due to her skin drying out under the sun; she jokingly added that the whole experience was definitely worth losing her eyebrows for! Eventually, she got paired with Izzah Fatin, and from there, they kayaked their way to the gold medals for two years in a row.
Dell and her kayaking partner during SUKMUM 2019
Were there times when things got too overwhelming for you? In those occurrences, what were your coping mechanisms?
‘No matter how well you plan or how early you start your tasks, things can get overwhelming especially when issues occur, and deadlines overlap.’
As humans, there is only so much that we can do. Acknowledging that work performance fluctuates according to numerous factors — our mood, satiety levels, or even the occurrences in our lives — the best thing to do is remaining in tune with our body, for it always finds a way to tell us how it feels.
To unwind, Dell usually orders her comfort food or amuses herself with the latest fads on TikTok. Should those methods fail, she would confide in her close friend, Deshan Ravi. As a last resort, she would request for a break from all her commitments for a day or two. Dell disclosed that such an instance was during the passing of her grandfather due to COVID-19. After taking some time away from work to gather her thoughts, Dell managed to get back on her feet.
Dell’s candidness illustrates the importance of conversations on mental well-being. No one should just slap a smile on their face without addressing their struggles. To draw a parallel with external injuries, they will only get worse if left unattended. A similar approach may be adopted with regard to internal wounds. However, it is worse since they are not as apparent. Thus, people should not hesitate too much before asking for time off lest the irretrievable damage.
Dell and her buddies during their senior buddies’ graduation
If given the opportunity, what would you have done differently in law school?
‘Everyone messes up, but what differentiates a person who merely lives with regret and another who grows from it is how they decide to bounce back up from those mistakes. I assure you, no matter how lethal it seems, you can redeem yourself.’
Although Dell has had her fair share of mistakes — including those that haunt her to this day — she has no regrets. She is a firm believer that the twists and turns in life are necessary to mould us into better versions of ourselves. Besides, she is at peace knowing that whatever is meant for her will not pass her, as long as she has given her all.
Nevertheless, if she could turn back time, she would tell her younger self to tackle examinations differently. The technique that she had employed up until her Foundation years had led to her eventual crash and burn in first year — memorising and regurgitating can only get you so far in law school. She now invests more time and energy into sharpening her arguments-crafting skills. She would also encourage her younger self to connect with more people. It is understandable that networking with professionals may seem discouraging. However, as they were once in our place, they would most likely be more than happy to pay it forward. With that said, always be well-prepared and courteous, as the impressions you emanate leave lasting effects on people.
First-year Dell would have been so proud of the person that she had become
What are your plans for the near future?
‘I have not decided for sure yet because I would like to see how the rest of the year fares. In the meantime, I am looking forward to more capacity-building workshops to better equip myself as an activist.’
With regard to her future endeavours, Dell is open to any opportunities that knock on her door. Maintaining that life is fluid, she is confident that her adaptability will help her survive and thrive, come hell or high water. Regardless, to keep herself on track, she chooses to set broad personal objectives without strict timelines. As a short-term goal, she aims to get through her final year. Beyond anticipating it to be tear-inducing, she has a hunch for fresh beginnings waiting to take place.
If given a chance, she intends to expand MAU’s outreach and solidify its visibility in East Malaysia. For Undi Sarawak, she envisions bigger initiatives, since the movement has been gaining momentum as of late. In terms of career options, she is now looking for openings that focus on child protection or human rights in general. The issue of whether it takes her into litigation is something that she intends to find out in due course.
At a glance, it is easy to conclude that all of Dell’s achievements are due to her sole efforts. However, she admitted that she could not have accomplished everything alone without the unfaltering support from her family members and friends. Foremost, she owes it to her parents who ensured that she grew up happily without needing to worry about anything outside academics and self-development. Speaking of family, she is also indebted to ‘Bokintan’ (her mother’s older sister) for all her sacrifices which sculpted Dell into the person she is today. She would also like to thank her closest friends, Deshan Ravi and Aina Tsuraiya, who are always there during her darkest and lowest points. She also expresses her gratitude to her dearly missed buddies — Nilam Ruhaizad and Afiqah Sapiee — for their companionship through time. Last but not least, Dell is thankful to have crossed paths with everyone who has been a part of her journey thus far — including her friends from MAU, Undi Sarawak, and ALSA Malaysia.