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After infighting rocks WAO, ousted executive director urges immediate fresh polls to avert disaster

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR, April 1 — The Women’s Aid Organisation must urgently elect a new leadership to replace interim appointments made in the wake of mass resignations, said a former executive director who warned that failure could lead to the group’s deregistration.

Sumitra Visvanathan told Malay Mail the current exco was formed against the advice of the Registrar of Societies (RoS), and after she had tried to convene a general assembly of the WAO in order for the fresh polls to take place.

She acknowledged that the RoS’ involvement meant the women’s group was now at risk of being deregistered, but insisted that she was acting in preservation of the group and its core mission.

“I believe it is critically important that WAO goes through a reform process that is able to ensure its sustainability and that it can continue to perform and impact,” Sumitra said.

The former WAO executive director is close to the current storm surrounding the group. In January, seven members of the group’s executive committee resigned en masse, leaving only its vice president in place.

Sumitra argued that the VP’s role effectively ceased upon the resignation of the president, and alleged that Tan Hei Zel both remained in the position unconstitutionally and acted beyond her authority to appoint a new executive committee instead of calling for fresh polls.

The RoS advised against this and warned that it could lead to the WAO being deregistered under the Societies Act, she added.

When asked to explain what sparked the mass resignation, Sumitra said it stemmed in part from her efforts to overhaul the group’s fundraising model to resemble that of a trust rather than a traditional non-governmental organisation.

She said she had initiated these to ensure the group’s sustainability, after noting that the WAO has essentially remained static since its constitution was written in 1983.

However, Sumitra claimed her vision was misunderstood, and had caused concern that it would disempower or disenfranchise WAO members, and concentrate control within the central leadership.

What pushed things over the edge was extremely poor fundraising for WAO, in particular, and non-profit groups generally for 2023, she added.

Sumitra said that while she worked to address the fallout within the organisation, she had also faced numerous disruptions related to staff management, governance standards, staff treatment and financial management.

“That is what sparked a lot of the resignations that happened. So, I would say that in a nutshell, the situation that is going on now, is not the best situation for an organisation like WAO,” she said, before saying the group had maintained a positive balance sheet during her time.

Sumitra said that while she worked to address the fallout within the organisation, she had also faced numerous disruptions related to staff management, governance standards, staff treatment and financial management. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin
Sumitra said that while she worked to address the fallout within the organisation, she had also faced numerous disruptions related to staff management, governance standards, staff treatment and financial management. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin

Sumitra said that while she worked to address the fallout within the organisation, she had also faced numerous disruptions related to staff management, governance standards, staff treatment and financial management. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin

Sumitra said the WAO was urgently in need of a new leadership, alleging the exco now lacked management experience or a complete understanding of the group’s current nature.

The WAO’s current co-opted interim excos comprises Tan; Ivy Josiah, Sumitra’s predecessor and WAO co-founder; former WAO president Meera Samanther; Maria Erica Van Wynen; Divvyananthini Manoharan; Majidah Hashim; and Shoba Aiyar.

They insisted in a statement previously that the appointments and subsequent decisions were made based on legal advice given to the WAO and to ensure the group’s immediate continuity.

It also said it would convene an annual general meeting “as soon as possible”.

Sumitra disputed this, however, saying that all actions subsequent to the mass resignations were inconsistent with the advice she obtained from the RoS.

She further alleged that she had been suspended repeatedly without justification prior to her resignation, and claimed any WAO staff found to have kept in contact with her were warned of disciplinary action, including possible termination.

Sumitra alleged there was no justification for her suspension other than that she had tried to call for the AGM to elect a new exco, which she was told was beyond her authority.

After six weeks, she said she formally resigned as WAO’s executive director last Wednesday to protest.

“So, if they had a problem with my performance, we have a process. Put me through the process. I don’t understand.

“There is still a way to save the situation and members need to come together for that,” Sumitra said.

The WAO was founded in 1982 and is among Malaysia’s most active and prominent civil society groups. Its stated aim is to advocate for women’s rights, with a specific mission to combat violence against women.

Note: In a statement sent to Malay Mail later in the day, WAO said it was not being investigated by RoS and an AGM has been called for April 28, 2024.