The Peak Women We Love

10 women, 10 inspiring stories, 10 successful businesses- The Peak Women We Love conquers women empowerment in our June issue.
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Dr Anjhula Mya Singh Bais

Founder / Director of Fourth Dimension Consultancy. Chair, Amnesty International

Text by Farrah Darma

Dr Anjhula sits on her bed, calmly stroking her cat that she brought along with her to the Peak’s Women We Love shoot. Named after Tai Lung (a Kung Fu panda character), the cat appears just as calm and collected as Dr Anjhula.

Having gone to school and worked all over the world, Dr Anjhula talks about how her royal family in India had quite an interesting influence on her childhood. In many ways she considers her upbringing to be normal, but always felt an undercurrent that was different. Coming from an ancestral background where service is extremely emphasized, she is grateful how that factor managed to contribute and influence the work she does today. She draws reference to other royal figures who also represent a modern-day representation of royalty in activism.Dr Anjhula’s work is primarily involved at the intersection of human rights, mental health and climate change, all through the lens of feminism.

Having been scouted for modelling at the tender age of 14, she thanks her elder sister for advising her against taking up the offer at such a young age. Her parents have always empowered her to make her own choices as long as the education side of things do not suffer. Dr Anjhula went on to prioritize her education and managed to bag her first campaign at 18, modelling for Banana Republic in New York. In hindsight, she feels it was the right step – “If the world of fame came too early, life could be problematic. I was given the chance to develop my personality without that external influence.”

With education as an anchor and key principle in life, Dr Anjhula went on to pursue her undergraduate in India. After also completing her Masters in London and Doctorate in New York, she moved to Malaysia with her husband who has a third generational family conglomerate spread across the region. Retrospectively, she is also thankful for her independent thinking and own take on life, where she knew the entertainment industry was not a long-term goal for her. Rather, it would serve and amplify other things she’s meant to do. Specifically, her advocacy around mental health and human rights.

Dr Anjhula is a champion of fair treatment, especially in empowering women. She recalls with disgust how she turned down a major brand deal with a multinational lingerie brand when she was handpicked to front their campaign. Her priorities were clear – when she found out that the payment terms did not align with the so-called “rebranding” of the conglomerate, she walked away
from the deal. Driving home a point, she says with conviction, “Anything I endorse will be thoroughly vetted and evaluated, and hopefully this could serve as a model of what can be.”

When asked if there was a certain driver to her passion to fight for injustices, she pauses before elaborating, “I have been simultaneously the most privileged in the world and also discriminated upon”.

Dr Anjhula Mya Singh Bais

BrilliantC UltimateTM dangling earrings, solitaire diamond ring & encircle closed ring; BrilliantC Wave necklace On her right hand: BrilliantC Love bangle; BrilliantC UltimateTM three stones diamond ring.

Her awareness of such injustices existed even as a child. “The caste system is practised widely in India. Although my father and grandfather were feminists and egalitarians in their own right, I couldn’t understand why a domestic helper in India could not sit on my bed” she explained before reiterating the importance of purity in children. She also sees this in her practice as a psychologist.

“If you want the truth, talk to a child. They are uncomplicated and spiritual. As a child, even I remember in my hearts of hearts thinking: that is wrong.” For Dr Anjhula, it’s more than just what she has seen and experienced, it’s a higher calling.

Speaking on her role as global Chair of Amnesty International, Dr Anjhula has persevered through the benevolent sexism she experienced and challenged uncomfortable discussions. “As female chair of the Board, I’ve been expected to take on a more ‘motherly and nurturing' role. When the need to confront a team member was raised, I was told my job was to bring out the best of this person, instead of calling them out for hardly logging into their computer for 6 months.” She clarifies that the benevolent sexism here is apparent in assuming her role as a women leader should be a collaborative and empathetic approach, instead of a more direct one.

“If it were a guy, he would’ve been allowed to tell that team member to shape up or ship out, with no issue,” she compared. “I see it all the time, I could even write a book.” she laughed. Hitting us with one more example, she explained how comments initially circulated on her looks rather than her capability. “When I stepped into the chair role of Amnesty, within the first week, someone already had a comment on how I looked – that maybe I’m too pretty to have the position.” Showing no signs of being intimidated, she defends herself by saying, “Yes it’s both, pretty and powerful.”

And of course, with being the chair of an organization that deals with the most pressing human rights issues, the art of managing anger and disappointment is a skill that comes with experience. For Dr Anjhula, it’s not that complicated, “Eat healthy, work out and meditate. No drugs, no smoking, maybe wine sometimes,” she jokes.

She reminds that one also need to be strategic in their thinking. “For me, it’s lose the battle win the war. If I were to call out every single guy every single time, my focus will not be on setting the organization’s strategy, I would just be firefighting.” There’s a shrewd importance of not always being in that firefighting mode. “If I can let it slide, I will. But if there’s a teachable moment, I do
teach. I have subtle ways of doing it. I don’t call individuals out; I tend to just say it generally and they see themselves.” The idea of a respectful approach and not to name and shame people is something Dr Anjhula practices in her day-to-day leadership style. “Choose your battles and choose them wisely,” she reemphasizes.

Diving in more about her role in Amnesty, she says that in a way it’s like having the weight of the world on your shoulders. Amnesty is the world’s largest human rights organization, a Noble Peace Prize winner, with over 72 national offices and a movement involving 10 million members.

Dr Anjhula as chair of the Board, governs the whole organization. Her experience thus far has been an honor of a lifetime where she has met people who she calls “so brave and courageous”, calling out authorities when necessary. Amnesty toughest decisions are literally on the world’s biggest human rights issues. “I’ve spent hours just thinking what the Board’s decision on Ukraine would be. How we would report and verify news that half a million people are about to be slaughtered in another country across the world. That’s just an average day.”

Knowing well the sensitivity with governments and the life-or-death decision-making needed, Dr Anjhula does not hold back. “I absolutely do not hold back, what a disservice I’d be doing.” She adds, “My biggest preoccupation is not to be the typical Asian that’s so concerned about being a good descendant. I’m more concerned about being a great ancestor. Decisions I make will impact what happens to my potential children, their children, my friends’ children, I need to leave the world
better for them.”

Addressing strength in advocacy, Dr Anjhula does not believe that there is one specific way of doing things. She does not encourage people to compare themselves with her. “I don’t think anyone is brave 100 % across the line. As long as someone is trying to be better and strengthen themselves, then you’re exactly where you should be. My journey is not your journey and that’s absolutely fine, that’s how it should be. You’re going to influence exactly where you are at, and I’ll do the same.
Everybody has room.”

As such a powerful leader, people may not see Dr Anjhula’s shy and goofy side as opposed to the strong and elegant Chair-of-Board-side we always see. As an ambivert, she is equally at ease being both an introvert as well as an extrovert. “I speak to people all the time, in Amnesty, as a therapist and playing on the world’s stage. But if you really get to know me, I can be shy sometimes.”
Though there are days where her introvert side kicks in or where she may not be feeling the best, she manages herself well enough to continue feeling motivated; simply by applying design thinking principles.

She emphasizes the importance of acknowledging that okay-ness of having days that are not great and building that into your schedule. “And I don’t judge myself,” she adds. “If I have an off day and I don’t want to talk, that is okay.” Part of her leadership approach is her unwavering belief of hiring people that are smarter than you.

“It’s about developing people on your team so much that if something happens to you, they’re ready to go.” Contrary to traditional leadership practices, empowering others is a feminist leadership principle that Dr Anjhula lives by. “Power is not meant to be concentrated its meant to be shared. I cannot tell you how proud I am of some of my Board members!” she exclaims. Looking back when she first started her advocacy journey, she wishes she practiced more intuitive leadership, that is, following her strong sixth sense.

Decisions in today’s world are usually made with a very left-brain approach, evidence-based and full of rationale. Acknowledging how important this is, Dr Anjhula also believes that intuitive leadership plays a complimentary role. According to her, “It does not have to be one or the other.” She continues, “Before, I always knew, but I didn’t want to sound crazy.” Hence, she did not take
decisions that she felt she should’ve. She waited much longer. “I was always right, but I could’ve been right faster.”

“And so now I’ve cultivated a culture where my Board members know I’m an out-of-a-box thinker. They know I’m spiritual and may talk about tarot cards one day and Harvard research the next.” Ultimately, her Board trusts her and she them. She brings her track record of decision-making that hasn’t been proven wrong. She also pointed out how much women tend to second guess themselves compared to men.

Within Malaysia’s advocacy space, Dr Anjhula is proud to see significant milestones. Though there remains a lot more that can be improved upon, she wishes for seismic changes in Malaysia through the power of civil society that has been growing from strength to strength. The legacy she wishes for herself is quite simple, “It’s not about whether you’re a housewife or winning the Noble Peace Prize, I want to be known as someone who did as much as I could at every moment, serving and evolving, trying and giving my best. Because that’s the rent I pay for being alive. Within my sphere of influence, I did as much as I could so that I leave the people and place I found a little better than I found it.”

She summarizes her thoughts of what a female entrepreneur should always possess in 4C’s: Calm, courage, compassion and challenge what you already know. She’s looking forward to Amnesty’s Global Assembly (a second to the United Nations General
Assembly) that will see 72 countries and their standing representatives come together – she looks forward to being in the firing seat and addressing accountability questions on powerful issues.

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