Mohd Azan Safar may look like a typical Malay student, but at 24, the recent graduate of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia has been arrested not once, but twice, because he stood up for his beliefs that Malaysians deserve better and that his voice should be heard.
He counts among the growing number of young Malaysian activists who are driven by the belief in their entitlement to stand up for their rights, and who prefer to be in the frontline of public protests and so-called illegal rallies – at the risk of being detained or even roughed up – to voicing their dissent from behind computer keyboards.
The Kuala Lumpur-born activist, however, only discovered his interest in activism after his high school education in Darul Quran in Kuala Kubu, Selangor. From there, he left for Syria, where he earned his Diploma in Arabic Language and Syariah Law. Life after high school opened his eyes to a different world. He started questioning his lot and that of others.
"It started after my high school when I stepped into a different world. A world of freedom and openness, which sparked my activism spirit," Azan told The Malaysian Insider.
"I used to socialise a lot before entering university. I joined many activities and if you flip through my stack of certificates, you will see I have a lot.
"But after I entered university, I finally understood the meaning of being a student. Are we there just to study or do we have a bigger role? In UKM I learned that being a student was not just about taking care of our own welfare, but also the welfare of other people who hope for nothing more than for a group of intellectual students to help them out," he said.
Having graduated and tied the knot, Azan keenly feels the effects of the rising cost of living.
He describes his family as in a normal socio-economic group: not too poor, yet not rich either. But as a young husband expecting his first child, he understands the needs of young people as well as other Malaysians who wish to start a family and those who have families to support.
Faced with a slew of price hikes in goods and services that have kicked in since last year, including petrol, electricity tariff, and food and other basic necessities, all pushing up the cost of living,
young couples like Azan and his wife are struggling to make ends meet.
Frustrated and discontented, Azan together with his friends from Gabungan Mahasiswa Islam SeMalaysia (Gamis), organised a New Year’s Eve rally called Gerakan Turun Kos Sara Hidup (Turun) to protest the increasing cost of living.
"I have to cope with the price of housing and decrease in petrol subsidies, and the cost of living did not allow us to live comfortably as all we could think about was money. This was happening even before the 13th general election,” he said, referring to the May 2013 election.
"After the election, the prices of goods and services increased, from sugar to petrol and electricity tariff, so this issue had to be highlighted to stress on its importance. I believe that the New Year’s Eve was the best time, and it was held at the right place too," he added.
He described the rally as a success as 20,000 Malaysians came together to protest the price hikes on the last night of 2013 at Dataran Merdeka.
However, a week before the rally, Azan was detained, allegedly over his links to another movement to topple the government.
"Can you believe that they linked me to them? I look like a good man and yet they thought I was the mastermind of that," he said with a laugh.
That was not Azan’s first brush with the long arm of the law.
He had been arrested in April last year, before the general election, when he joined some 500 other students at a rally in front of the official residence of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak under the movement Gelombang Anak Muda Tolak Umno/BN (Tolak) which he had founded. He was released the same day.
"I think being arrested is becoming the price for speaking out on real issues. Special Crimes Unit personnel arrested me when I was having lunch. I was just sitting around and eating when suddenly the police appeared and arrested me. They said they had been on standby since early afternoon.”
But being arrested did not dampen his spirit. "On the contrary," Azan said, “it actually motivated me even further.”
He acknowledged that some people do not have the courage to speak out even if they are affected. So as an idealistic youth, Azan feels it is his responsibility to champion issues that affect Malaysians.
Azan is fortunate to have received the full support of his family and friends during his run-ins with the police.
When he was arrested for Turun, his friends waited for him at the Dang Wangi police station from the day he was locked up till his release seven days later.
"More friends started to look me up instead of running away from me," he said with pride.
While he is thankful for the support from his family and friends, especially his wife who is in her third trimester, there were obstacles in circulating the real intention of Turun as the mainstream media were wont to twist his words and criminalise his activities.
"When Turun was broadcast by the mainstream media as a movement to topple the government, I thought to myself, how many Malaysians out there are deceived by the words of these government mouthpieces, as our original intent and message was being manipulated," he said, adding that he is excited over the grouping of journalists from news portals, despite being competitors, to support press freedom through the formation of Gerakan Media Marah (Geramm).
But it was not just government-owned media that twisted Turun's message. Azan felt the police and even the Perak mufti, Tan Sri Harussani Zakaria, tried to divert the attention of the people from more pressing issues.
Harussani had issued a fatwa on January 3, declaring it "halal" (permissible) to shed the blood of the participants at the New Year's Eve anti-price hike rally.
The Perak mufti had issued the edict based on the "bughah" concept which refers to an armed revolt by Muslims against a just ruler or government in accordance with Islamic law.
To the Perak mufti, it was permissible for the student activists to be killed as they were traitors.
"It is a lie if they say that they are not affected by what is happening in our country. We are here to defend them too. No one is left out, even Umno and BN officers. So, I don’t see any reason for them to manipulate our message,” said Azan.
"I understand that it is their job. But they should not use it as a shield for the government who are supposed to listen and reply to our claims," he said.
Driven by a concern for the welfare of the people, Azan hoped that student movements can be relevant again in mobilising Malaysians into standing up for their rights.
"I hope to relive the days like in the '60s and '70s when student movements were a huge part of Malaysians' voices."
On a personal level, Azan's immediate activism plans are focused on Turun.
He revealed that the group would be holding discussions with other non-governmental organisations on the rising cost of living issue.
Azan has also been an active participant in other rallies such as those organised by Bersih, which called for electoral reforms, as well as Geramm.
By his own reckoning, Turun has changed his life. Despite losing his father to complications from diabetes a few days after the launch of Turun, the movement has made him a stronger activist with different goals.
"My life used to revolve around myself and my family. But today, I feel that has changed as I have started to think about others.
"I have to think about how the students today are affected by the current situation and I also have to think about other Malaysians," he said. – January 12, 2014.