Zaid Ibrahim knows all about fighting the odds. When he was 7 and growing up in rural Malaysia, his walk each way to school took an hour. As an outspoken member of Malaysia's long-ruling, United Malays National Organisation, he has run into trouble as he pushed for more human rights, judicial reform and greater democracy. So it came naturally for him to help the people facing perhaps the toughest odds in the country, the disabled.
Zaid, 57--a member of parliament and also the majority owner of Malaysia's largest law firm, the 140-lawyer Zaid Ibrahim & Co. in Kuala Lumpur--set up the Kelantan Foundation for the Disabled in 1998. Kelantan state is home to a high proportion of disabled people, he says, "9,000 officially, though I suspect it's closer to 13,000," and little was being done to help them. His law firm and political career were taking off and he was in a position to step in.
The foundation now has a full-time staff of nine and operates on $78,000 a year. It offers counseling, physiotherapy, transportation and home visits for its 2,400 clients suffering from Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, blindness and other disabilities. Family, friends and law clients supply most of the budget, and Zaid has hosted golf tournaments and film premieres to raise funds. In months when there's not enough money to meet the operating costs, Zaid covers the rest from his pocket.
The much-talked-about book is also raising awareness of the foundation. The introduction boldly draws parallels between his country and the disabled. "I am frequently moved to reflect on who is really disabled in our society and how. … In what ways might our thoughts and movements be confined?"
Zaid also has been a vocal critic of Malaysia's race-based political landscape, which has enshrined the divisions between the country's three main ethnic groups: the majority Malays, the Chinese and the Indians. "We have superficial unity," he says. "It has bred enmity. I think we need to start over." Talk like that has made Zaid an inspiration for Malaysians who wish to see the country transcend its ethnic divides.
Zaid grew up taking little for granted. Raised in a farm family outside Kota Bharu in the far northeast corner of the country, Zaid started skipping school around age 11 because he couldn't afford some of the fees. Hearing of this, the schoolmaster recommended him for a scholarship that came with a 15-ringgit monthly stipend, allowing him to continue on to secondary school. He studied law as an undergraduate and then qualified as a barrister-at-law in London.
Recently Forbes has recognized him as one of the Asia's philanthropy list. Forbes Asia has released its first Heroes of Philanthropy list in its March 10 issue business magazine in honour of some of Asia's most generous and interesting philanthropists.
The other three generous Malaysians are businessman Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar Albukhary, 56, retired Sarawakian politician and businessman Leonard Linggi Tun Jugah, 67, and Hishamudin Ubaidulla, 52.