Introvert turns international award-winning activist

The Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4 Centre) Founding Director Cynthia Gabriel was recently conferred the Anti-Corruption Champions Award 2022 by the US State Department in recognition of being an Anti-Corruption Champion.

Jan 06, 2023

Cynthia Gabriel receives the Anti-Corruption Champions Award 2022 from the US Secretary of State, Senator Anthony Blinken in Washington DC, USA on December 9, 2022.


By Gwen Manickam

The Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4 Centre) Founding Director Cynthia Gabriel was recently conferred the Anti-Corruption Champions Award 2022 by the US State Department in recognition of being an Anti-Corruption Champion.

According to the C4 Centre website, this year’s award was given to eight honorees who demonstrated “leadership, courage, and impact in preventing, exposing, and combating corruption”. The award ceremony, held in Washington DC, coincided with the International Anti-Corruption Day, December 9.

Cynthia received the award from the US Secretary of State, Senator Anthony Blinken. In a Twitter post, the department said, “Despite harassment by the authorities, she remains undeterred and continues to expose corruption and corrupt practices, including in government procurement, environmental exploitation, and political financing.”

“It’s a proud moment and a big honour to be recognised globally. It is a boost and I hope this award motivates younger people to come forward and get involved. I also hope they realise doing non-profit work is not a bad thing. It’s not just about scrambling to climb the corporate ladder to be successful, but to be a successful Malaysian citizen,” said Cynthia, who was also nominated for the 2022 International Women of Courage Award by the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

An SMK Assunta alumni, Cynthia first graduated with an engineering degree in analytical chemistry but soon shifted gears. As she became interested in issues related to human rights, society, justice, anti-corruption, and people, some 20 years ago, pursuing a law degree seemed like a natural progression, and she has not looked back.

“I worked with non-profits for a long time, and it has been a different journey, compared to my friends who opted for the commercial world. However, it comes with a lot of growth and development in my personality.

“From a shy, quiet girl in school, unprepared for any form of public speaking, my work compelled me to become bolder and more confident in addressing various issues. It was not possible to sit behind a computer and hide behind these issues, as it required a lot of confidence and courage to stand and speak up for our rights.”

Cynthia said several defining moments triggered her to take on this line of service. While working with the human rights group Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM) some 30 years ago, she almost lost her life during a critical, fact-finding mission in Sarawak, was one such moment.

“The boat we were on capsized and our colleague drowned. I almost drowned too. Over time, I believe that calamity gave me a sense of purpose and I felt I’d been given a second chance. I was drawn to do something more useful.

“I learnt to look at life from a different perspective, to celebrate and not to take things for granted.”

As work got more intense, Cynthia realised fighting for justice and human rights can’t be done by sitting in an office.

“It made me see things for real – injustices, abuse, violation. We also became victims when we were tear-gassed and arrested during protests.

“Going through the many cycles of Bersih protest made us realise there is nothing wrong with going out there and making a position. But it seemed like the authorities and police were trying to make us look like enemies of the state.

“It was daunting, and so frightening at first, but after a while, when you recognise what is at stake, you understand the power and mechanics of people in power, and how they violate the rights of citizens to stay in power.”

Cynthia said that it is a vicious circle – power is linked to money, and power is linked to structures in which they can hold on to more money and resources, which in turn, gives them more power.

As an activist, Cynthia sacrificed her security and material wealth. But she says it’s not about making money and becoming rich. It’s having a bigger objective and living a more purposeful life.

“I have nothing to regret, my work made me more actualised. It also enabled me to travel and learn that it isn’t just Malaysians struggling, but people in Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, and other continents as well,” said the married Kelana Jaya resident.

Cynthia said, along the way, she’s built solidarity with international counterparts. “It is gratifying to have friends in other communities who are also struggling for the same courses.

Her other defining moment was serving in the Petaling Jaya town council (MBPJ) as a non-politician in 2008, under the then-new local government.

This anti-corruption activist was directly exposed to how the government’s administrative functions. She witnessed many issues of poor governance, lack of law enforcement, poor transparency, a lot of secrecy, and sometimes blatant corruption. It was one of her motivating factors behind setting up the C4 Centre.

“Being on the inside I was exposed to the real challenges. I learnt where the system failed the people and where and how it needs to be strengthened.”

“It’s taken me on a different journey of how money and power lead to bad values of greed and poor integrity. It taught me about corruption. How to follow the taxpayers’ money and learn why it was so easy for ‘them to steal’ taxpayers’ funds for personal gain.”

Home-grown corruption became difficult to contain as it was cross-bordered and transnational, similar to how the 1MDB scandal unfolded – and, 1MDB is not an isolated incident, it’s just one of the bigger ones exposed.

There are many, many others, said Cynthia. “There are currently many scandals and instability in government but it’s not only up to activists and civil society to pick it up but the responsibility of all citizens. We have to demand some degree of accountability. We are paying taxes so we should have answers as to how tax monies are utilised. Every Malaysian should be asking, ‘Are we getting better public transport, better hospitals, better schools?’”

In the 20 years Cynthia has been an anticorruption activist, the lawyer said the situation in the country has gotten worse.

Besides Malaysia, Cynthia is involved with different international groups and works on anti-corruption at a global level.

“I am involved in the world economic forum think tanks to inform them on governance issues.”

A Church of St Ignatius parishioner, Cynthia said without the strength of God and her faith, she would not have come this far.

“Only the hand of God has brought me to this point. The work of exposing corruption is hazardous. It gets you into trouble all the time.

“I’ll never claim to have any strength to sail through all this without strong faith. It is something I am very grateful for.

“However, it is also important not to bring religion into work as it may create animosity. It is something that should embolden and strengthen us in everything we do, but should not be brought into societal issues.”

Cynthia added we should live on the values of Christianity and Catholicism in the work that we do, by walking the talk, as the faith challenges us to do. But we should not threaten anyone with another ideology or type of reasoning that may make someone else feel uncomfortable. It is important to have mutual respect and space for different faiths to be present, but it should not be the centre of what the cause is about. The cause must be something that unites.

For more information on C4 Centre, visit https://c4center.org

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CradlelCatholic
A hypocrite true and true, who knows whom to take cheap potshots at. Probably learnt those traits from that nasty Ivy Josiah. Those who have had the misfortune of coming into contact with these two, would testify. Herald, be careful!