This IS our way
MAY 11 — As a student, I joined a few peaceful rallies to support various human rights causes during my few years in Australia. None was met with such a reaction as what had happened in Kuala Lumpur on April 28. Regardless of who was at fault, I still feel the police used excessive force on the protestors. What happened at Bersih 3.0 cannot simply be swept under the proverbial carpet.
I remember the first time I was invited to go to a peaceful rally by my Australian-Armenian friend Shabia. It was during summer and I wasn’t doing much. We were hanging out and she suddenly asked if I would be interested in going, to show some support. I asked what the rally was about. She told me it was to object the unfair treatment of the Palestinians by the Israeli government.
Hmm, sounds political, I thought. I immediately declined and said that wouldn’t be wise. She gave me a funny look and asked if I thought the Palestinians deserved what was happening to them; the sanctions, the constant bombings, having their land being taken away bit by bit. I shook my head and told her I totally agree that those were not right.
“Then walk the talk,” she said.
I told her I would think about it. I was torn. I wanted to go but then again, as a scholarship holder, I was told not to join such things so I was worried about the repercussions if my sponsors found out. We were told not to join demonstrations but strangely, if one is a member or in the organising committee of the Umno Students Club, that’s considered okay. Hmm…
At the time, I was living in a studio apartment that was right smack in the city. It was located not too far away from the main streets, which meant that every time there was a peaceful rally going down those streets I could hear the chanting and singing by the protestors pretty well.
My favourites were the ones with the bagpipes. Hearing the haunting music being played out of the blue in the midst of busy Brisbane city usually meant there was a peaceful rally going on. I would quickly throw open my window so I could peek at the protestors walking in an orderly fashion along their pre-marked route.
I had always wondered how it would feel to be able to walk and express my unhappiness with whatever issue and not having to worry about being arrested. Growing up in Malaysia, I had always been told it is not our culture to do that, that we are civilised and have better ways of solving problems instead of taking to the streets like goons.
So out of curiosity, I called Shabia and told her I would go with her to the rally. She whooped and said she would be happy to pop my peaceful rally cherry. Oh-kay, I said, and told her I was feeling a little bit nervous about attending such a thing. What if something happens?
She pooh-poohed my worries and told me not to be silly. It was not her first peaceful rally so I was glad to be going with her. Shabia had experienced discrimination and racism due to her looks even though she was born and bred in Australia. A true-blue Aussie, she has had people calling her a fob (fresh off the boat), pulling her hijab off her head while in public as well as telling her to go back to where she came from.
“I was born here. Where else can I go?” she asked exasperatedly. This had led her to being very passionate about human right issues and always at the ready to exercise her right as a citizen and protest against an issue in a peaceful manner.
She told me to wear something comfortable, a good pair of shoes, and bring a bottle of water. “Hydration is very important!” she said. I laughed and we made arrangements to meet the next day so she would take me to the meet-up point.
It was quite an experience, being part of a peaceful rally for the first time in my life. I was even more surprised to see it had a carnival-like feeling to it. Some of the protestors were wearing colourful wigs and masks, carrying banners and placards condemning the unfair treatment of the Palestinians.
When I saw there were police officers there, I got a little worried. I whispered to Shabia about feeling uncomfortable seeing the police there. She rolled her eyes at me and said that the police officers would be accompanying us, to monitor as well as ensure our rally goes on smoothly.
Also, they were there to keep the protestors from misbehaving. “Some people get a little bit too excited at this kind of things,” she said. It was good to have the police there. We were able to go down the designated route, chanting and singing and not having to worry about being run over. I saw passers-by stopping and looking at us.
The police officers were professional, very efficient and quite friendly too. Some of the protestors even took the opportunity to have a Kodak moment with the police officers happily obliging and even smiling as they looked into the camera. They were there to do their job, to protect both the protestors and the rest of the public.
Although I was a foreigner, nobody treated me any differently that day. Maybe they thought I was just another Australian sheila. But that aside, we were all walking for the same cause and that was all that mattered. After a short speech in front of the majestic City Hall, we dispersed and went for lunch. There was no drama, no tear gas, definitely no water cannons deployed.
I suppose it was then, seeing Australians of different colours and backgrounds walking, chanting and singing together all in the name of one cause that got me thinking about why Malaysians can’t do that.
The truth is we can. It is a right we are often told we do not have. We’ve always been told that we shouldn’t take to the streets to voice our dissatisfactions. It’s “not our way” apparently and that we should go through the proper channels to get them sorted out. But did our ancestors not do just that as a sign of protest against the British government?
They took to the streets, carrying banners to show their dissatisfaction with the government. Let us not forget the awesome “hartal” that took place in 1947 where businesses were closed for days as a sign of protest. I bet if that were to happen today, the mall rats who complained about the rally being a hindrance to them going to the mall for ONE weekend would definitely die. I must say though I have never heard of anyone dying from not being able to go to the mall.
We gained independence in 1957, all thanks to the one-mindedness of our ancestors. Regardless of race, they believed in the same thing and fought for it. So to say demonstrating and holding peaceful rallies are not part of Malaysian culture is not only false but is a mockery to the esprit de corps displayed by our ancestors more than half a century ago.
Quite honestly, I think those who are against Bersih don’t really understand what it stands for. I also wonder why the federal government is so worried and against a clean and fair electoral system. If they are as transparent as they say they are, and since our prime minister is the “Transformer”, isn’t now the best time to show that he means what he says and give us a clean and fair election?
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.