Sarah-Ann and Priscilla continue their Mother’s Day tribute with an interview with Dr. Hartini Zainudin, activist and mother.

If there’s one word to describe Dr. Hartini Zainudin’s motherhood journey, it would be “unconventional”. We had the privilege of catching this passionate lady on her “off day” to speak about her values and principles in raising her children.

Growing up as the oldest of four, Dr. Hartini Zainudin, fondly known as Tini, was always the ringleader and mastermind behind the naughty adventures with her siblings. Most times, she got away with it because, as she cheekily proclaimed, she has always been ‘daddy’s girl’.

“My mother, on the other hand, is nothing like me! She is organised and neat, and her hair is never out of place; whereas I’m always disorganised, with my hair hanging all over my face!” chortled Tini as she spells out the vivid differences between her and her mother. However, they both bonded over a mutual affinity for children.

Photo by Priscilla Chin

Tini pursued her education and completed a Doctorate in Columbia University, New York. At that time, she aspired to be an English teacher – an apt profession, considering her deep love for language and literature, and her passion for children.

However, she realised that the students she was teaching did not have any interest in learning… especially not when their stomachs have been empty for days. “I taught English to students in a school where their mothers were on food stamps and fathers were in jail,” she told us.

“This made me realise that I had to find a way to make literature and language fun and relevant to them. So, when I taught them Shakespeare, I drew on the emotions and madness of King Lear, about how he saw the world around him… and we also organised a play! This was my way of connecting to the kids and helping them to share and open up about what was happening in their respective homes.”

During her time there, she was already involved in plenty of social causes such as reaching out to the homeless community, children in foster care, serving food in soup kitchens – she has done it all.

Photo by Priscilla Chin

After spending more than 20 years in the Big Apple, she decided to return to Malaysia in 2001 partly due to her father’s illness, and partly because she was looking for a fresh start.

Soon after, her father passed away. “I was so distraught and traumatised at the death of my father – but I believed that something good had to come out of it.” It was from this, that Tini suddenly realised that she wanted to work and dedicate her life to champion for the rights of children and the underprivileged community.

This led her to be involved in Nur Salam, which translated, means ‘Light and Peace”, a charity organisation to help underprivileged children in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. Yayasan Chow Kit was birthed from Nur Salam in 2011. It was here that she began her child activism work, which involved rescuing and protecting homeless and abandoned children, and providing them with safe havens.

On motherhood, she stated with a bemused smile, “I fell into adoption, I didn’t plan it at all.”

She speaks fondly of her children: Zaid (9), Zara (11), Salim (21) and Khairy (11).

“Zaid was my first baby. Prior to adopting him, I took turns caring for him with his birth parents who were unable to keep him.” It dawned upon Tini that if she was already advocating adoption as a child’s rights activist, she might as well get first-hand experience with adopting her own children!

There was no trace of regret in this composed lady’s voice as she recounts the story of how Zara became her daughter.

Zara, came into her life after she unwittingly rescued the young infant from child traffickers in 2010.

As told to Al Jazeera in their documentary, ‘Malaysia: Babies for Sale, 101 East’, Tini was caught in the web of baby-selling by accident. One day, someone called to tell her that they had a baby up for adoption. She intuitively felt that something was not right, but she went ahead to meet the contact. Unfortunately, it was too late by the time she found out that the traffickers had tricked her into buying the baby. They had given her an ultimatum – to buy the baby for USD 3,000 or they would take the baby to Thailand and be sold to the black market there. Tini did not hesitate to make a decision there and then to rescue Zara. After taking the baby back to Kuala Lumpur, Tini reported the crime to the authorities but unfortunately, the traffickers escaped arrest.

She spoke about the plight of Malaysia’s stateless children, her forehead furrowed with frustration. It had taken her five years to obtain Zara’s birth certificate, and she has now been waiting for the past four years for Zara’s application for citizenship to be approved.

Frustrated at her children’s uncertain future | Photo by Priscilla Chin

Tini is distraught over Zara’s future because she is not a citizen of any country; her stateless status robs her of many basic legal rights and privileges. Zara has no access to public education and healthcare. She is unable to obtain a passport, step out of the country, open bank accounts, attend university, or even marry.

“I recently purchased a massive world map. I rolled it out on the floor before my children. I told them to look hard at it,” Tini recounted passionately. “There is so much out there in the world for them to see, and so many people to meet!”

“For me, it’s a race against time. I cannot imagine my sassy lil’ daughter not having the opportunities to go abroad, to get a job, to get married – all because she does not have the valid papers as a proper citizen of Malaysia.”

The kids couldn’t join mommy at Coldplay’s concert in Bangkok, so they made this for her| Photo by Priscilla Chin

Realising that she will not be able to protect or shield her children from the harsh realities of this world, Tini desires to instil a sense of curiosity and wonder in them. “My children, they all have dreams. As their mother, there is this innocence in their childhood that I need to protect, and there’s always this lingering fear that I will fail as their mother to do so,” she shared.

On how she manages to juggle three jobs concurrently with three young children in her hands, she enthused, “I have an amazing support system, and I’m so thankful for that. My mother and siblings are always there to lend me a helping hand to look after my kids when I have to run out for work.”

Despite being in a mother to these children in such unconventional circumstances, nothing fazed Tini, nothing dented her spirit. Through our conversation with her, one thing is certain – her children are the centre of her world. She believed they chose her to be their mother instead of the other way around.

Photo by Priscilla Chin

“If I’ve taken one child up with zero motherhood experience, and he has not died, I must be doing something right!” she half joked.

On a lighter note, Tini shares her one weakness – cake. “While eating a piece of cake, my cheeky daughter will innocently say, “Mum, what happened to your ambitious diet plans?” I’ll go, “What happened? CAKE HAPPENED!” she candidly says with an unabashed grin.

Of lessons learnt during this motherhood journey, she shared, “Life is never going to turn out the way you expect it to be. Never in a million years would I imagine being the mother to four children, without a husband by my side, in the toughest of cases and the worst of situations. Yet, if you ask me whether I would do it differently had I had the chance, my answer would be ‘No!’ There are just too many things I’ve learnt from this journey: to have a sense of humour, to take a break when I need to, that I’m not a total failure as a mother… but in spite of everything I am indeed a mother and I’m never alone.”

Dr. Hartini is a mother, child rights activist, philanthropist, and a fundraising consultant by day, an avid story teller by night.

She is the founder of Yayasan Chow Kit, a 24-hour crisis centre that provides among others, help and support for stateless, abused, neglected, trafficked and abandoned children.

Yayasan Chow Kit is driven by a simple philosophy – every child matters. If you would like to volunteer your time or contribute financially to YCK, please visit: for further information.

Sarah is a young lawyer by profession but a wanderer at heart. She is navigating through this strange and unpredictable journey called “adulthood” while dreaming happily about the seas yet to sail...

Priscilla Chin is humbly budding lawyer. When she's not bumbling about during the day trying to learn the ropes of life, she is a warrior princess battling dragons by night. Cheesy poetics are her favourite...

10 replies on “I Didn’t Choose Motherhood, Motherhood Chose Me”

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  2. Happy mother's to one of the most loving mothers who one can see how her love is so unconditional God bless you Dr.Hartini..God has put you on Earth for a reason.Keep fighting for your kids.God will answer your prayers..mrs.Pathma Nadarajah…

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