By Kee Thuan Chye | Monday, 21 January 2013 14:29
I love the new spirit of defiance among Malaysians. I think we have come of age in realizing that we must stand up for our rights. And that it’s not wrong to do so.
After all, as the American political activist Howard Zinn puts it, dissent is the highest form of patriotism.
I’m not just talking about the defiance shown by already known people like Ambiga Sreenevasen and A Samad Said, the leaders of Bersih 3.0, when they stood up and spoke up or fought against the authorities to point out that the latter were wrong. I’m also talking about the courageous acts of ordinary people who despite having no organization to back them up did what they felt needed to be done, not just for themselves but for a larger cause.
A video grab of Universiti Utara Malaysia UUM student K S Bawani (L) and Sharifah Zohra Jabeen during the controversial forum held at UUM in Dec 8The recent act of speaking up at a forum of dubious intent held at Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) by the university’s student K S Bawani is such a case. Despite the attempt by the forum’s moderator to humiliate her, she stood tall.
She has since taken it further to demand an explanation from her university as to why it allowed a forum that seemed aimed at brainwashing students to be held at its premises. Although the university has claimed that it had nothing to do with the forum and merely provided the hall for it, Bawani claims the university made it compulsory for many students to attend it.
This appears as if Bawani is engaging in lawan taukeh and reactionaries will say she is kurang ajar, but her demand is justifiable and students do have rights, including questioning the university’s administration. UUM is accountable for approving a forum that treated students like lemmings, and featured a moderator named Sharifah Zohra Jabeen who sported a condescending attitude towards Bawani and behaved like a fascist (“This is my forum… When I speak, you listen!”).
Worse, she went on and on haranguing Bawani and blustered about irrelevant things like animals having problems, after she had used a line on the latter echoing the jibe often used by BN politicians – if you don’t like things the way they are, get out of Malaysia.
It was most improper coming from the president of Suara Wanita 1Malaysia, whatever that is. Although Sharifah Zohra looked Indian, her taunt at Bawani came across as racist. And her lowly behavior earned her the ire of thousands of Netizens of all races who promptly crucified her on social media.
Bawani has since shown herself to be the wiser and more enlightened person, saying that an apology from Sharifah Zohra is not important even though Netizens have bayed for Sharifah Zohra’s blood. Bawani is also telling everyone to focus instead on the real issues of free expression for students and free higher education in Malaysia.
The support she is now getting from fellow students and student organizations is a welcome sign that Malaysian youths are becoming a viable force. Unlike those at the UUM forum who applauded like sheep even when Sharifah Zohra waxed about the problems of sheep and sharks, the enlightened ones know what’s right and wrong and want to play a role in the determination of their future. They have regained their voice, suppressed for decades by the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA). To them, Sharifah Zohra is a representative of the oppressive Establishment, so they have now challenged her to face Bawani in a debate on free education.
Will Sharifah Zohra take up the challenge? My guess is she won’t, but I hope to be proven wrong. She would surely find it a daunting prospect facing the audience at such a debate. She would be inevitably booed and heckled, probably from the time she stepped onto the stage.
Such is the reality now, given the temper of the times. Malaysians have been bursting out in anger after years of being oppressed, deceived, manipulated by the ruling regime that has also disappointed for failing in many aspects of governance.
The number of street protests in the last few years attest to this. Despite the warnings of the police and the Government to take action against the protestors, the people have not been cowed. The reason is clear: They have no more respect for authority. After all, the holders of authority are rotten and do not deserve respect.
The protests culminated on Jan 12 with Himpunan Kebangkitan Rakyat at which Malaysians disgruntled with the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) turned up to show support for the Opposition Pakatan Rakyat. At least 100,000 people were there.
Some pundits had predicted that there would be fewer participants this time than there were at the Bersih 3.0 rally on April 28 last year, but the fears were unfounded. The event started at 2pm, but by 2:30pm, the stadium was completely packed. People filled the terraces and the whole field. Despite the blazing heat of the afternoon sun.
I sat on the terraces where I could see the entire crowd. I’d say there were at least 50,000 people inside the stadium alone, although my friend Hafidz Baharom thinks there were about 70,000.
Another friend, Azmi Sharom, later told me that when he left the stadium just before 3pm, he saw many, many more people outside. These were people who couldn’t get in. It took him a while to squeeze his way through the crowd. Another friend, S B Toh, confirmed this.
Azmi said that altogether, there were enough people at the rally to fill two stadia.
Sasterawan Negara A Samad Said, who read a poem at the rally, said he had dreamed of one day seeing a sea of people coming together for a common cause; he was happy that this dream had now come true. There was indeed a sea of people before him – in yellow, green, red and other colors.
The crowd was multiracial, with Malays making up the majority. And they came from all over the country. If this doesn’t strike fear in the hearts of BN leaders as they gear up for the 13th general election, which must be held within the next few months, they must be made of sterner stuff.
On the way home in the LRT, I sat next to a young man who had come all the way from Kedah. A college student. In fact, many students attended the rally although their universities banned them from doing so. They didn’t care. The young man from Kedah said change is a must; that’s why he came to support the gathering.
Since then, the university authorities don’t seem to have taken any action against the students. Perhaps they don’t dare.
They, too, must surely realize that defiance is on the rise and change can’t be far away.
As it is, in whatever small way concerned Malaysians can show their defiance or their disagreement with authority, they will do it. Like the group of parents in Seremban who wore yellow Bersih t-shirts when they recently went to collect the RM100 handout for students from the Government.
One of the parents, Wong Chai Soon, said, “I wore the Bersih t-shirt to make a point to the powers-that-be that the gift of money won’t necessarily make us bow down and agree with them.”
The parents wore yellow also to remind the authorities that without a clean and fair general election, Malaysia would not be truly democratic.
Heroes and heroines are emerging like never before. We had Anne Ooi a.k.a. Aunty Bersih in Bersih 2.0; student Adam Adli who refused to apologize to Umno President Najib Razak for lowering the latter’s flag at Umno headquarters; 19-year-old Ong Sing Yee who was handcuffed for stomping on Najib’s picture during the Janji Demokrasi rally; 71-year-old Aunty Mei who demanded an apology from Pahang Menteri Besar Adnan Yaakob for a callous remark he had made; bank clerk Johar Mohamad, the alleged whistleblower in the National Feedlot Centre (NFC) scandal; the men and women who took part in the anti-Lynas Green March from Kuantan to Kuala Lumpur, led by Wong Tack.
Young and old, of all races, they have stepped up to the plate. For them, and for a lot of other Malaysians, there is no turning back. They want change and reform, and the ruling regime can’t provide it. This could result in its downfall. And that downfall might come quite soon.
*Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the bestselling book No More Bullshit, Please, We’re All Malaysians, available in bookstores together with its Malay translation, Jangan Kelentong Lagi, Kita Semua Orang Malaysia. The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the writer.