JULY 11 — On Saturday, July 9, thousands of ordinary Malaysians thronged into various spots around central KL to demand a just electoral system. The government had tried its best to suppress the rally through various means, but ultimately failed to stop it from going ahead.
With the previous week’s cat and mouse game played by the government in agreeing to the rally and the roadblocks to intimidate citizens, the fact that the rally even materialised is a moral victory for the cause and major slap in the government’s face. Obviously shutting off the entire city centre and major traffic arteries failed to paralyse the movement of protestors into the city.
I decided to join the rally for a host of reasons. Primarily it was the cause; it is a cause I believe in and a cause worth fighting for. This was my way of showing support. The government’s attitude towards Bersih 2.0 and its obvious bad faith in handling the matter had raised the stakes from just electoral reform to everything else that is wrong with this country today.
This rally was fast becoming one of the most significant events in recent Malaysian history and I felt that this was a watershed moment in our nation’s history. I wanted to be a part of that.
Most importantly it is my right as a citizen to assemble peacefully, and demand justice and fairness; it is a right guaranteed to me by this country’s Constitution and no government has a right to decide how I may or may not exercise this right or how I may or may not express my legitimate grievances.
I had stopped believing in the “proper channels” a long time ago. If these so-called channels did work, there would have been no need for a rally in the first place. To me these “proper channels” are nothing more than the mythical pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.
I was with the crowd at Jalan Pudu near Tung Shin Hospital where several thousand were in tense standoff with the Federal Reserve Unit who formed riot lines at both ends of the street. I could smell the acrid stench of tear gas wafting over as the winds blew them towards our direction. As we were in a group that also included a woman friend, we decided to play it safe and move towards Tung Shin Hospital to avoid the cops charging and their tear gas.
Police helicopters were circling above us menacingly and I was nervous to say the least. It is one thing to be tear gassed and doused with chemicals, but my immediate concern was the safety of my friends with me. But as the crowd perked up facing the FRU and chanting, my spirits lifted up a wee bit. Then there was a rousing rendition of the Negaraku by the protestors that we proudly joined in (I have never felt that fired up before singing the national anthem).
The cops then moved in with more tear gas and we went deeper into the Tung Shin Hospital car park seeking shelter from the gas.
A hospital seemed a logical and safe choice to seek shelter, and lo and behold, I saw a canister headed our way and we started running towards the back of the building. We failed to see the second one coming until it landed about three to four feet away from me right in my escape path and we had to turn back and run uphill amidst all the chaos and confusion. The three of us held each other’s hands and ran into a dead-end and a virtual trap.
Choosing between arrest and tear gas, we decided to brave the gas instead and ran back towards the direction of the spot where the canisters landed still holding onto each other. At this point I accidentally inhaled the gas and exposed my eyes to it and found myself temporarily blinded and having difficulty breathing. “I am blind!” I shouted and my woman friend hung on to my hands and dragged me to safety in front of the hospital’s main entrance.
Running blind and barely able to breathe is quite the experience. For starters, you aren’t sure if you will make it, and secondly, it is disorienting and scary as hell. I swallowed a large pinch of salt (instant relief to the throat and nose) and washed my face with cold water we brought along with us just in case. It took us a few moments to reorient and regroup in order to get to safety with everyone accounted for.
We escaped using a back wall where other protestors were helping us over and guiding us to safety. At this point anger took over me, the fact that the police could so callously fire tear gas into a hospital compound was disgusting and stupid to say the least. A Chinese gentleman, noticing my eyes still red from the gas, offered me some water and some words of encouragement; we high-fived each other and parted ways into Jalan Pudu Lama.
Having been gassed I lost all the fear that I carried with me to the rally; it was a toxic baptism and, ironically, a liberating experience. I realised I had nothing to fear anymore and being gassed though unpleasant wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.
We moved along to Chinatown and eventually made our way back to Bukit Bintang via Pudu. Along the way I saw the countless brave souls who were arrested being placed on the pavement before being shipped away in police Black Marias.
We boarded the LRT and made our way home, glad that everyone in our group was alright and safe. Of course that wasn’t the end of it. As we exited Kelana Jaya LRT, there were FRU personnel there too, riot shields and all, stone faced and bored. Whatever were they there for? We just walked past them without a care in the world.
Was it worth it? That is a question many have asked; I think it is. We stood our ground, proved to our government that some issues are just beyond the ethnic interest of any ethnic community. Most importantly we can come together as one people to demand what is rightfully ours, in the face of a regime who rules us by dividing us in order to rule. I guess the thing that spooked them the most was that this was a multiracial grouping thinking along nationalistic and not racial lines.
So we failed to deliver our memorandum to the King, but we proved our point. We proved that Malaysians still care about their country and are still a patriotic lot. We proved that young people aren’t as apathetic as we thought them to be. We proved to them that enough is enough and unless real reforms are made there are only so many carpets to take the dirt, before we run out of them.
I am proud of the fact that I stood at Jalan Pudu that day with my fellow citizens demanding what is rightfully ours. When we sang our anthem there in the face of the riot lines, tear gas and chemical-laced water cannons from the police, it was my proudest moment as a Malaysian.
Moments later when innocent protestors and bystanders were tear gassed in the compound of Tung Shin hospital meters away from the building’s main entrance, that was indeed a shameful moment. Fellow Malaysians gassing their countrymen in a hospital compound, sad but true.
Will I do it again? If the need arises again, I most certainly will. There is nothing to fear anymore. Sometimes in life you have to stand your ground and be counted. There is this quote I got from the movie The Boondock Saints that I feel best illustrates my point “…we must all fear evil men. But, there is another kind of evil which we must all fear most … and that is the indifference of good men!”