Side Views

Why I had to be there on 28.4.2012 — Daniel S. Abishegam

APRIL 29 — I was there. Together with my fiancé, and a couple of friends, I made my way to Kuala Lumpur early on the morning of April 28, 2012. We were at Central Market waiting for Bersih co-chairperson Datuk Ambiga Sreenivasan to give us a rousing speech and to lead the march towards Dataran Merdeka to show the government of Malaysia that we really want clean and fair elections and that the system currently in place falls woefully short.

The carnival-like atmosphere was apparent from the moment we got there. I can only speak for the group of us at Central Market but I am reliably informed that the atmosphere was similar at the other meeting points as well. Old friends exchanged stories, new friendships were forged and drinks, food and ice cream were the order of the day.

At about 1.40pm, we began our march to Dataran Merdeka. The march itself was peaceful. There was much laughter and camaraderie in the air. The atmosphere sizzled not only from the mid-day heat but from the palpable sense that we were making a difference. The size of the crowd from Central Market alone was roughly about 20,000. We were bursting into song and chants at regular intervals. Smiles and good wishes were the order of the day. There was nothing that I saw in this crowd and from the larger group we joined later that would indicate to me that any one of these protesters harboured thoughts of anything but a peaceful protest.

But the question thrown at me from all angles and from all manner of people is why? Why go and join this bunch of ‘hooligans’ who have nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon than to cause a massive traffic jam? Why bother because the government will not listen? What if you were arrested? Who will take care of your dog?

This little note is the result of a lot of thinking and self-evaluation. Why did I do it? And the answer dawned on me. It was as plain as can be.

I teach for a living and I teach undergraduate law. One of my areas of research and expertise is constitutional law. How could I step into class and lecture about the virtues of the separation of powers and the rule of law when I didn’t do anything about the fact the chief and deputy of the Election Commission in Malaysia are members of the ruling party Umno.

How will my students take me seriously when I wax lyrical about how justice must not only be done but that it must be seen to be done and when faced with blatant examples of justice not being done much less be seen as done and I didn’t say anything about it.

How will I endure the guilt of explaining the virtues of an electoral system that is good and point out the shortcomings of a system halfway across the world when the electoral system in my home country is flawed and I choose to be silent about it?

How will I ever say the words “today we will be learning about civil liberties and the protection of these rights” and when faced with a blatant attempt to restrict my right to speech and to assemble I cowered in fear. Ultimately, how could I ever again say that the constitution is the highest law of the land when the provisions in the constitution of my country that provide for these civil liberties are ignored by parliamentary enactments and the courts do not uphold the constitution?

So you may have by now come to the conclusion that I did it for selfish reasons and I would agree. I did it because I need to sleep at night with a clear conscience. I did it because I need to show a whole bunch of potential lawyers that these words in their textbooks and notes actually mean something. I did it because it was the right thing to do.

To those who felt that our decision to participate was silly and lacking in rationality, you are entitled to that opinion. That’s the beauty of civil liberties. It applies to everyone regardless of creed or colour. And if you feel that your Saturday was ruined by our actions, I can only hope that you will one day see that having a free and fair electoral system is a win-win situation all around. The government must never instil in our hearts a sense that we owe them something. They owe us their position in power and they should behave that way.

For the at least 100,000 people who gathered around the vicinity today (and let no one tell you this number was any fewer than that), I thank you for the opportunity to participate in this historic event in a peaceful atmosphere of fun and laughter yet one that did not detract from the seriousness of the objectives to be achieved. I know of friends who stayed back and picked up rubbish after the event. I know of lawyers who were threatened with physical harm trying to document the events of the day. I saw many of my students who despite having exams in about two weeks’ time took time off to show that they will not be silenced. I salute you all.

Why did I participate? I simply had no choice!

* Daniel S. Abishegam reads The Malaysian Insider.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.

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