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Sumitra Disputes ‘Unlawful’ Suspension As ED, Claims ROS Probing WAO

Sumitra Visvanathan disputes her “unlawful” suspension as executive director of the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), besides claiming that WAO is now under ROS investigation over the appointment of a new “non-existent” exco that violated WAO’s Constitution.

Women's Aid Organisation (WAO) executive director Sumitra Visvanathan speaks at the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women 2023 launch event organised by UNFPA Malaysia on November 24, 2023. Photo by UNFPA Malaysia.

KUALA LUMPUR, March 12 — The leadership upheaval at the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) threatens to throw the organisation into chaos, after Sumitra Visvanathan insisted today that she is still the executive director.

In a statement released with the WAO letterhead, Sumitra said she had consulted the Registrar of Societies (ROS) following the resignation of seven of eight executive committee members in January and was made to understand that a new exco would have to be elected by members.

“In this regard, the single remaining exco member – the vice president – also ceased to have any authority or power as an office bearer/exco member of WAO,” Sumitra said in her statement.

“Under the WAO Constitution, the vice president’s role was only to ‘…deputise for the president during the latter’s absence’, and since the president had resigned, the vice president no longer had any role.”

Sumitra said she was also advised by the ROS that an interim committee should be formed only to convene an annual general meeting to elect new exco members, adding that the interim committee was not to exercise any powers that would have any financial impact on WAO.

“The Registrar of Societies further advised that no steps should be taken by WAO that would be contrary to the Societies Act 1966 and the WAO Constitution, as this could result in the deregistration of the WAO under s. 13 of the Societies Act 1966,” said Sumitra.

Although the ROS had not authorised or sanctioned the formation of an interim exco, the vice president from the previous exco has unilaterally continued to hold that position, she said.

Sumitra did not name the exco member who remained, but in a statement released by WAO’s new “exco” on March 9, the statement identified Tan Hei Zel as the vice president and sole exco member who did not quit in January.

The vice president appointed an assistant secretary, co-opted members of WAO to serve on the “non-existent” exco and carry out the day-to-day activities of WAO, including but not limited to, accessing donor funds for WAO, according to Sumitra.

“The above-mentioned steps were in violation of WAO’s Constitution and/or Terms of Reference and are therefore in breach of the Societies Act 1966. The Registrar of Societies is aware of these violations, and this is now with the Investigation Department of the Registrar of Societies at Putrajaya.”

Sumitra said she was suspended by the vice president pending investigations last February 2, after she attempted on January 30 to call for an annual general meeting (AGM) to elect new exco members as advised by the ROS.

“The suspension was clearly unlawful as the vice president did not have the authority or power under the WAO’s Constitution and Terms of Reference to suspend me. The spurious action taken by the vice president smacks of unfair labour practice,” said Sumitra. 

“I have challenged the decision to suspend me and intend to assert all my legal rights to protect and preserve my right to my livelihood.”

Last Friday, Sumitra told Ova that attempts were being made to suspend her, accusing her predecessor Ivy Josiah specifically, and that she would legally challenge the appointment of the interim exco. 

WAO’s “exco” released a statement – also with the WAO letterhead – the next day stating that Sumitra was suspended effective February 2 this year and that legal advice had been sought on how to “reconstitute” a new exco as per the organisation’s constitution.

Based on legal advice, Ivy Josiah, Meera Samanther, Maria Erica Van Wynen, Divvyananthini Manoharan, Majidah Hashim, and Shoba Aiyar were “invited or co-opted” into the exco, along with Tan.

In their statement, this exco said the mass resignation of previous exco members was “precipitated by the breakdown in the working relationship between the exco and WAO’s executive director, Sumitra Visvanathan.”

However, Sumitra maintained that there will be a resolution to the turmoil plaguing the country’s oldest women’s NGO.  

“The resignation of the exco of WAO and the uncertainties occasioned by it will be resolved by WAO and all our stakeholders/donors working with our usual good faith, integrity and partnership,” she said.

“WAO will overcome the situation currently faced and our sterling record for good governance will prevail so we can continue to support women in Malaysia to achieve equality and non-discrimination.”

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