Reflections and An Awakening
Author: Ju Li Khing, Elaine Fernandez
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 12/24/2012
Reflections Away from the Fray.
by Ju Li Khing on Sunday, 10 July 2011
For the first time in my life, I stood up to be counted.
I’d jumped on the chance to be involved ever since I saw the Facebook announcement of a Bersih rally in New York, happily coinciding with a three-day weekend from work. But I was in the middle of Connecticut, far away from Malaysia and no knowledge of any other Malaysians in the vicinity of New York. Doubts and excuses flooded my mind for days. How did one demonstrate for one’s country in a foreign country? Was it even legal? How effective would it be, on a Saturday when most of the consulate was probably on break? Should I just focus on my job? How did I go about getting to New York City and back to the middle of Connecticut without a car?
As the excuses piled up, so did my anger and frustration at my own helplessness and cowardice. There were Malaysians at home braving threats and very real violence from all sides, yet were made more determined than ever to move on. Me? I was 9000 miles away, cushioned by my American degree and my American job; an apathetic overseas Malaysian who was the least of the government’s problems. The contrast was humiliating.
Driven by this realization, I threw all caution to the wind (not that there was much to be cautious about). My roommate drove me to the train station, and I spent the night in New York with a former college roommate. Throughout the night, I watched Twitter like a hawk, increasingly despaired with each new post about police beatings and arrests, but uplifted by other posts helping to warn about roadblocks and recommending alternative channels to KL. I surmised with relief that my friends at home had probably made their way to the capital the night before so that they didn’t have to face the roadblocks, where police were arresting just about anyone with a yellow shirt.
Sleep was reluctant to come because I wanted to know what was happening. I could not find any live news streams about it; maybe I just wasn’t looking hard enough.
Morning came. I rode the R train to Manhattan, clad in the only yellow top I had, made ratty from years of use. My spirits lifted as I crossed 3rd Avenue and saw a large group of yellow-clad people. Compared to the pictures of rallies I saw in Kuala Lumpur and Melbourne, this group was miniscule — about 100 people. We were a mellow bunch.
It was indeed heartening to see so many Malaysians coming out of the woodwork, but I felt disoriented and out of place. All prior nervousness and apprehension had disappeared. The reality of small demonstrations like this one was that our significance lay in our association to a bigger cause. We held banners and sang Negaraku, our national anthem. I belted out the anthem like a gospel hymn, each line reminding me more and more of the essence of Malaysia.
Mid-song, I smiled inwardly. Rakyat hidup bersatu dan maju [The people live united and progressive]. This line encapsulated the spirit of the Bersih rally, juxtaposed against the government, who with all due irony did not and still does not realize the beauty and unity of its people.
I wondered if the government was antagonising its people on purpose. In the weeks leading up to the rally, nowhere did I recall any attempt to directly address the demands made by Bersih; neither to acknowledge nor to mitigate them. Instead all energies were put towards the childish knee-jerk reactions of villainizing Bersih and intimidating everyone involved, which probably attracted more people to the cause.
No tear gas or water cannons assaulted us. The only police was Detective Frank from NYPD who was there to keep an eye on things. As we stood facing the UN building, taxis and other vehicles honked and beeped their support, punctuating our conversations and sharing. One car sped by, yelling “Go back to your own country!” We laughed incredulously. If only the driver knew that we’d go back in a heartbeat if it meant an end to passive aggressive subjugation and constant illogical reminders that our citizenship and basic rights were generous concessions made by the benevolent majority.
By 1 pm it was all over. I rode back to Queens, tanned from the sun and contemplative about what happens next. In itself, the rally in New York probably had next to no impact. But we weren’t standing by ourselves. We were standing in support and memory of courageous Malaysians at home who risked police brutality to make a point. Maybe now the government will realize that Bersih is not an errant coalition designed to take the government down (though it deserves it). Maybe it will take the brain drain more seriously and realize that there’s a wealth of skills abroad that can be put to good use in developing the country, if only it will get off its high horse and stop trying to construct its self-fulfilling prophecy of ethnic violence.
May 13, 1969 is to be mourned, as are the numerous other ethnic-driven clashes in the last 40 years. But surely it is a memory to be learned from, not tainted by being used as indirect threats. Race in Malaysia is now merely a politician’s dirty word, and the good people of Malaysia can attest to this. Yes, we still harbor prejudices. Yes, we still look vastly different from one another.
Malaysians have moved on. It’s time the government did the same.
Awaken from Thy Slumber – My Bersih 2.0 Experience
by Elaine Fernandez on Tuesday, 12 July 2011
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but lies instead in acting in spite of fear.”
I’ve heard numerous variations of that quote, but never have I seen it put so plainly into action with my very own eyes.
It was the 8th of July, and even as I was leaving the office that evening, I was still weighing whether or not to risk attending the rally the next day.
After all, I have “so much” to lose.
Thousands of ringgit spent on plane tickets for a much-anticipated trip to Europe that I can barely afford.
Possible blemished record making my chances of scholarships or even university placements overseas shrink to nil.
My life? The possibility – while far-fetched – still existed.
It wasn’t until meeting up with a like-minded friend that night that it really hit me: what was the use of all the talk, if I was too chicken to walk the walk?
A mutual friend tried to dissuade us – it’s too dangerous, he said. What if something happens to you? What then?
It was at this point that I knew I was going. His words struck fear in me, no doubt – why wouldn’t they? They were the truth.
But I realized then that this was EXACTLY the reaction all the scare tactics were trying to elicit.
My resolve strengthened. There was no way I wasn’t going now.
I woke up early on the morning of 9th July. I couldn’t sleep much: most likely the adrenaline. My cousin and I quickly packed all the essentials (goggles, water, vinegar, cloths, etc.) and made our way to Bangsar where we met up with a group of young professionals, exactly like ourselves. We looked like we were about to go hiking, not exactly the kind of outfits you’d expect a group of yuppies to wear into KL!
So much for being inconspicuous. I tried not to think of the possibility that we’d get arrested upon stepping off the train.
Arriving at Pasar Seni at 10am, the atmosphere was the first thing I noticed.
There was an eerie silence, even though there were a number of people miling about. Then I saw the police trucks. Huge ones, parked outside Central Market. The tension in the air was palpable – everyone was on edge, wary of each other, but secretly hoping we were on the same “side”.
Walking through Chinatown to find somewhere to eat brunch and wait, we passed by Aunty Annie Ooi and I remember thinking: “Wow, she’s SO brave!” and feeling mildly ashamed of my own cowardice in not bringing along ANYTHING remotely yellow.
And So It Begins
At 12.00pm, after pigging out on awesome beef noodles, we went back out onto the street to see if anything had started. In the distance, I saw the FRU start to move, and just beyond them, I could see a large group of people already marching.
My heart started to beat faster. There was no need to find something to do til 2.00pm. It had started. This was really happening!
Our group decided to join the crowd gathered at Petaling Street as no one had a clue as to how to begin marching, or even if we should. Other people there seemed similarly lost, but there was a buzz building in the air that was both exhilarating and frightening at the same time.
And then we heard it.
Chanting; faint at first, but growing louder by the minute. Around the corner from Kota Raya marched a group of people chanting “Hidup Bersih!” [Long Live Bersih] and “Hidup Rakyat” [Long Live the People]. They were greeted with roaring cheers from the people lining the sidewalks, and as if on cue, people started walking with the group.
By the time we reached the first police blockade, the group, which had previously been a few hundred strong, now filled the entire street from end to end. Jumping up (I was too short!), all I could see was a sea of people, all chanting, cheering and generally in high spirits.
Around me I saw everything that made Malaysia Malaysia: Malays, Indians, Chinese, Punjabis, Orang Asli (West and East Malaysian), Unidentifiables (like myself!) and even some foreigners. Young, middle-aged and old, we were all represented, even in the small cross-section of the crowd that I could clearly see. Young men were exchanging jokes, old makciks in tudungs were urging observers to join the throng… the atmosphere was nothing short of a carnival, and it very much depicted what I’ve come to recognize as being very Malaysian in spirit: carefree, fun-loving and open.
The decision to turn back and head to Pudu was met with no fuss from the large crowd, and the throng moved in an orderly fashion towards Menara Maybank, still chanting, still cheering, still in good spirits.
The Plot (and Air) Thickens
I couldn’t believe my eyes when Menara Maybank came into view. I had thought our group was big: here, it seemed, the crowd had multiplied tenfold!
Some in the crowd must have had memories of the first Bersih in 2007, though, and word was soon going around to prepare for tear gas. Not long after, the crowd was abuzz with the news that the water cannon trucks were in place. We all knew what this meant: we were about to be attacked.
By our very own police force.
Still, when the first sprays of the water cannons filled the street, people still cheered, and some were even laughing good-naturedly, calling out “Mandi Bersih!” in response to the police’s unprovoked use of the chemical-laced water.
Seconds later, though, we heard cracks, like gunshots, and suddenly the air seemed to disappear. My lungs burned and all around me I could hear people choking and gasping – no one had the lung power to scream.
For a moment, as we were being crushed against the wall by a sea of people blinded by tear gas, I thought: this is it. This is how it ends.
But a desperate scan around me (the goggles were a GODSEND!) revealed an almost empty street and I dashed across to Puduraya, half-sliding, half-jumping down the slope to the basement of the city’s main bus station. My cousin found me there, and we shared our baking soda solution with a Malay uncle who begged me for water to wash his face (the solution worked TONS better, though!).
We barely stopped to catch a breath when a shout of “Lari! FRU datang!” [Run! FRU coming!] came from the entrance to the basement, and without stopping to think – we RAN, back up the slope, onto Jalan Pudu where we rejoined the part of the crowd that had run deeper into Jalan Pudu to escape the tear gas (the other half had run back towards Petaling Street). All around me, people – regardless of race – were passing around water, salt, calming each other down, fanning those who’d fainted from the gas…
Was THIS the vicious mob that the Powers that Be had been painting all week long? If it was, it certainly didn’t fit any description of a mob that I’ve ever encountered.
Caught in the Middle
The police and FRU kept on advancing, pushing the crowd deeper into Jalan Pudu. Another round of tear gas was fired at us (don’t ask me why, the FRU were at least 50 meters away from the front of the crowd!) and we were forced further down the road.
As we attempted to recover from the second volley of gas, the call went around the group to sit down – a universal sign of a PEACEFUL protest.
The huge crowd, of over a thousand people, sat down accordingly, because we had come in peace and no matter what, we would remain peaceful.
That’s when the police fired tear gas AGAIN. This time, into a crowd that was SEATED DOWN!
The crowd moved back again, and many started marching away from the FRU blockade… only to realize that the end of the street – the ONLY possible exit – was blocked off by yet ANOTHER police blockade.
We were, in no uncertain terms, trapped.
By the police.
Whose sole intention of using the tear gas and water cannons seemed to be to make an example of us – there was NO WAY we could disperse if we’d wanted to!
After more rounds of tear gas, many of us decided to walk around the shop lots, where we discovered a hospital situated on a slope – the now infamous Tung Shin.
Suddenly, we saw a large portion of the crowd running up behind us and without stopping to think, we ran too – up the slope, into the Tung Shin compound. It has to be noted here that men were letting women and children go first, and many were helping people climb up the steeper bits of the slope.
Just as everyone had gotten to safety, a group of FRU officers marched into the area below the hospital compound. And then, with NO warning, a canister of tear gas landed not 10 feet away from where I was standing.
The fury of the people was almost a tangible thing: “How can you tear gas a HOSPITAL?!” More so than the tear gas itself, the police lost even more credibility in that moment.
A flurry of tweets, texts and phone calls flew around the compound. All around me, I could hear people exclaiming indignantly to friends/family over the phone that the police had been stupid and cruel enough to tear gas a HOSPITAL.
Till now I wonder how the government can explain the number of almost instantaneous eye-witness reports from so many sources on the ground, who have little or no connection to one another.
The Trap and the “Great Escape”
40 minutes passed, and it seemed we’d been granted a respite. Word from the street came up to the crowd waiting patiently outside the Tung Shin’s traditional medicine wing: the police were willing to negotiate a dispersal and had agreed not to attack us.
A collective cheer went up as people moved back out onto the street, where we saw others already waiting on the street. In our joy, we urged all those who were still in the hospital compound to join us.
Boy, was THAT a mistake.
10 minutes later – after the crowd had cheerfully sung a round of “Negaraku” and had playfully chanted “Buka jalan!” [Open the way!] at the police, a shout came from the front:
By then, we knew that when we heard “Lari!”, we should act first, ask questions later.
So, back into the Tung Shin grounds we ran. Looking over my shoulder, to my utmost disgust and dismay, I saw people who had been closest to the police were being sprayed by the water cannons.
It looked very much like we’d been lured back onto the street just so they could subject us to their “dispersal techniques” yet again. I felt sick, even as I ran with the crowd to the hilly slopes behind the hospital. How could they be so despicable? It didn’t bear thinking about.
The escape up the slopes behind Tung Shin will remain in my mind forever: young Malay men (some were just boys!) stood aside, allowing the elderly, women and children to climb up first. I saw three young Malay men help an older Indian man who was struggling to climb up the steep, muddy slope. People were pulling each other up. At the top, more young men used their towels as leverage to haul people up to the top.
The way we were forced to escape shook me. We were like fugitives in our own country, the country we loved enough to come out to fight for.
Looking down into the compound, I saw those who had allowed others to climb up first out of the goodness and nobility of their hearts, get beaten and arrested by the police.
I had never experienced such a wave of gratitude and sadness in my life. Gratitude for the sacrifice those young men had made, and sadness because they had done what the police – the protectors of the people – had failed to do: protect us.
Walking back towards the main road, we soon discovered our small group of stragglers had been well-separated from the larger crowd. By then it was close to 4.00pm, the stipulated time for dispersal.
Deciding against trying for Dataran Merdeka, we headed towards Jalan Sultan Ismail, calling our friends to see if they were okay. That’s when we learned that the larger crowd had already reached KLCC.
Knowing we were too far away, we made our way to Dang Wangi station to wait for our friends. By the time we got there, it was after 4.00pm, when Bersih 2.0 had officially ended.
We were exhausted, drenched, and covered in the smell of vinegar, but over it all was a deep sense of peace.
In spite of all the police had thrown our way, in spite of being treated no better than animals, we, Malaysians had remained strong, remained together and clung to our purpose:
To march peacefully to at least create awareness amongst our people that to TRULY be a democratic country, a free, fair and transparent election process is paramount.
And not just that: Bersih 2.0 had succeeded in doing in 4 hours what the government had failed to do for 2 years: Malaysians of every race, religion and creed had stood united for a common purpose – despite dire warnings of a May 13 repeat – and had shown the world that we are truly one people, one nation and we are willing to fight for the land that we love.
As the buzz has died down a little over the past few days, people have been asking, “What’s Bersih’s next move?”
But I believe the question we should be asking is: “What is OUR next move, as Malaysians?”
Two simple steps I believe ANYONE (regardless of political affiliations, or lack thereof) can take:
- If you haven’t already, register to vote! More so than in a street rally, votes can count towards concrete change taking place.
- If you’re already a voter, or too young to vote, you can help by keeping abreast of current issues and making sure that the people you know are, too. And make sure you cover all sources – mainstream and alternative – to get all sides of a story before making judgments.
July 9th, 2011 should go down in history as the day Malaysians finally realized that we need no longer keep silent. The day Malaysians of all walks of life stood up to be counted. The day where all the lies of racial discord were exposed and the people showed that we understand what it means to be MALAYSIAN, first and foremost.
We are not traitors. We love our country. And we will keep fighting for her, for her future, which is our future.
Maka kami, rakyat Malaysia, berikrar akan menumpukan seluruh tenaga dan usaha kami untuk mencapai cita-cita tersebut, dan berdasarkan atas prinsip-prinsip yang berikut:
Kepercayaan kepada Tuhan
Kesetiaan kepada Raja dan Negara
Kesopanan dan Kesusilaan.
[We, the people of Malaysia, pledge our entire energies and united efforts to fulfill these ambitions, based on the following principles:
Belief in god
Loyalty to king and country
Nobility of the Constitution
Sovereignty of the law
Courtesy and morality]
We love you, Malaysia!
Bio: Ju Li Khing is an MA candidate at the University for Peace, and Elaine Fernandez is an MA candidate at the University of Surrey.