Activist Dr Hartini Zainudin speaks about her experiences as a mother

Love beyond blood ties and boundaries

“Not at all. Are you kidding? Everyone thinks I fell naturally into it,” said Dr. Hartini Zainudin, her fingers clasped around (a now) empty cup of espresso, when asked if motherhood came naturally to her.

Known in philanthropic and social activism circles for her many contributions in dealing with marginalised children, Hartini is also founder of Yayasan Chow Kit, set up in 2007, a crisis centre which primarily focuses on providing such children with basic needs and protection services.

HEART of a mother

“I have seen children go without food, without sleep, shelter, health access or education because they didn’t have papers and couldn’t prove they were Malaysian. And I saw children getting raped, beaten, sold, and it just went on and on. I never thought I’d have to come home and work with children in Malaysia; I always thought I’d be working with children abroad, in refugee camps,” shared Hartini.

Seeing the atrocities was a humbling experience for her, and for two reasons which she says were: “Firstly, knowing that I was wrong and there were poor, marginalised children in Malaysia, and that I had a duty, an obligation to apply what I learnt abroad, here”.

Hartini’s close links and association working with children began during her college days in America where she worked with different organisations and across time, eventually ended up with New York-based not-for-profit organisation Publicolor. There, she had the chance to come into contact and engage with high-risk students from the five city boroughs.

Her experiences have no doubt given rise to the setting-up of Yayasan Chow Kit, initially a children’s programme under charity organisation Nur Salam, which saw Hartini thrust into the world of child activism and resulted in the doctor adopting her first child, Zaid.

“His (Zaid’s) mother said she was going to put him up for adoption. I was trying to find a family for him but he didn’t have a birth certificate which made it difficult for anyone to legally adopt him,” she said.

Now a 14-year-old, Hartini shares that it was while changing his diaper one day that she got so frustrated, thinking, ‘How do I advocate for adoption when it’s so difficult?’ And that was when she decided to adopt him.

As fate would have it

For the unaware, Hartini is a single mother; has always been and still is. At the time of Zaid’s adoption, she was living alone and attempting to make ends meet. With Zaid, then just a baby, Hartini realised she might have gone a little overboard thinking she could manage.

“I called my mum and said I needed help. She (mum) had not met him (Zaid), so I decided to dress him up as cute as I could to win my mother’s heart, as she didn’t know she was going to be a babysitter. I brought him over to her and said, ‘Hi mum, here’s your grandson. I need to go to work’,” Hartini shares and bursts into laughter recalling the episode.

Hartini relates her “bad mother” days. “I was so hopeless at feeding him. It took me a while to figure out the ratio of water to milk powder. Then I saw somewhere that babies like frozen grapes, but nobody said you had to cut the grapes. So I gave Zaid the whole frozen grape and later, he literally pooped it out in whole. I must say I wasn’t the best of mums.” Even though the doctor worked with children in America and Malaysia, the actual experience of taking care of one as a mother presented a whole new ballgame that brought with it new encounters and challenges.

You could say Zara, the second child Hartini adopted, has helped the good doctor “grow” in many ways, beginning with the little one’s rather dramatic, disturbing entry into Hartini’s life - the baby was rescued by Hartini from child traffickers.

“I didn’t plan to adopt her at first. Zaid was just three then and Zara was two-months-old and asthmatic. Between my workload and the abandoned babies that seemed to be almost falling onto my lap (heading my way), I admit I didn’t have much time to take care of Zara for a while; it was my mother who did. I would put Zaid in daycare, go to work, come back, pick him up, and go see Zara on the weekends. I was really trying not to traumatise the children and myself, and easing my way into motherhood. I think things got better when Zara turned two,” Hartini reveals.


As someone had to take care of the two children, Hartini says she really thought she was the best candidate, even with all her flaws. “For me, as in many other cases, it wasn’t because I chose to, it was and is because of the situation, where these little ones needed protection and I was there.”

While any mother worth her salt will know the feeling, the only response Hartini knew was to take on the responsibilities that came with being a mother, even if the child was not hers. And she credits her own mother for this (and a little of that which pulled at her heartstrings).

“My mother is very good with children; I used to watch her. This year she’ll be 80. It’s been two years since I last brought home children, and my mum would help me take care of the babies until I found adoptive parents for them,” says a mother with a huge heart about her big-hearted mum.

Her affinity for children and caring nature are surely traits Hartini picked up from her mother. She says that her mum even plays with the kids better than she does, and the children end up having more fun with her mum.

“My mother once said to me, ‘You decided to be a mother and take on the responsibilities; your priorities have to be that your children come first’,” - to which in this case is living testament to the adage, the apple does not fall far from the tree.


Since Zaid and Zara, Hartini went on to adopt another four. “I raised two since babies, and four as guardian to. They are all legally adopted. Four of them live with me; two have special needs; one is already 22; and another lives with his father-figure,” Hartini informs.

Among the challenges she faces - waiting for Zara’s Malaysian citizenship application to be approved. “I’m a little sensitive about this. It’s so frustrating. I don’t know what to tell her and she’s getting older. This is the year. It has to be,” Hartini replies when asked on the status of the application.

She then shares of the eldest of her children, Salim, who has “gone missing” in the last three years, owing to his drug dependency. “When I first came across Salim, he was caught doing drugs in Bukit Bintang. I decided to adopt him and put him in rehab. He’s been in and out, eight times in all and finally, we had to let him go because he kept running off. I don’t know if he is alive or not today,” says the mother in despair.

Still, despite the obstacles she has overcome and the continuous hurdles she faces as a mother, Hartini remains unwavered in her determination. Playful by nature, she shares good news that she is about to adopt another child and that her mother will find out soon enough, if she reads this article.

“Motherhood isn’t a bed of roses, it isn’t an easy job, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything else. It has made me who I am and kept me grounded. I think there are blessings even in the difficult times,” Hartini surmises. “I don’t think we express enough appreciation for our mothers though,” adds one who has found huge respect for single, working mums.

Clickable Image
Clickable Image