How Bersih cleansed my Malaysian soul

By Andrew Chee
July 12, 2011 | The Malaysian Insider

JULY 12 — I’m a 28 moving on to 29-year-old man in Kuala Lumpur, the place where in 2008 I decided to get a fresh start. I am originally from Malacca and had been in Singapore for about 4½ years prior to moving to KL.

For the purposes of this story, let’s just say the sum of my life experiences has made me grouchy, surly, disgruntled and yes… RACIST. But I was a funny type of racist; I’m Chinese but have part-Baba heritage with very Westernised conditioning and cannot, for the life of me, speak any sort of Chinese dialect (save to order food).

I disliked the Malays and Indians for the usual stereotypical reasons, and I disliked the Chinese even more for being too “Cina” and I disliked the “lain-lains” for just being “lain-lain.” Sure, I have friends from other races; my very best friends are Malay Singaporeans, and my childhood friend, who is in KL as well, is a Chindian.

My project band which wrote a song for the MyConstitution album consisted of me, two Chinese girls, an Indian guy, a Sindhi, and two Malay guys. We were quite 1 Malaysia. Yet I could not discard my racial prejudices.

I disliked everyone, especially if they didn’t think like me. In a sense, I was a racial nihilist. I believed everyone was just as racist and using the tools of logic and reason, which I am so proud of, I often sought to make people around me admit their prejudices.

Having done so, I would conclude, as I have convinced myself, that we could never be 1 Malaysia or be just “Malaysian” and neither would meritocracy ever prevail in what I perceived in a society that was only a cultural pot of prejudices.

Diverse, yes… in its prejudices and preconceptions. There was a glimmer of hope when Hannah Yeoh tried to register her daughter as “Anak Malaysia” but then a small section of society, as portrayed by the mainstream media, vehemently opposed the temporary registration of her daughter as Chinese whilst she fought this battle. All I thought was: “There you go.” I smiled smugly to myself; I loved being proved right.

When Bersih came about I merely thought, “OK-lah, it’s a good thing-lah I suppose.” I decided not to go as I have exams soon and working while studying here has made me even grouchier, more pessimistic and somewhat depressed.

I felt like a small cog in the giant machine of society, plus I hadn’t quite had the time to prepare for this exam. So going for Bersih was definitely out. Besides, what would it change? This was the one time I was glad to be proven wrong.

My mum had called me in the afternoon that day to ask me where I was and, being concerned about the volatile situation, asked me not to go and focus on my exams. My mum is quite the socio-politically-aware woman but I knew she only had a mother’s concern for her child’s safety in telling me to stay at home.

I told her yes, I’m not going. But the very moment I said that, something urged me to go. My curiosity grew like a calling to fulfil some sort of purpose. In some ways, God, whom I’ve neglected for so long, decided that day to crush my arrogant notions and my supposedly infallible sense of logic and reason.

In a state of mild euphoria, I drove through some lesser-known roads and parked at Brickfields. Absolutely lost, directionless and intimidated by the police presence, I called my friend David, who called his wife, human rights lawyer Renuka.

They had just been tear-gassed in KL Sentral and Ambiga had been arrested. She nonetheless guided me on how to join the march and that she would come get me if she could. But the aftermath of the KL Sentral incident was too thick with tear gas and I instead joined another group which walked to the Chinese temple just outside Stadium Merdeka, which was blocked by a heavy police presence and a few fire engines, and ultimately to Pasar Seni LRT.

I was surrounded by the very people whom I had held so much prejudice against; the Indian uncle, the Chinese Ah Beng, the Malay pakciks and makciks. But this was different, I noticed that most of them were from out-of-town whilst I, who up to the last minute, had decided it was too bothersome to go what with the roadblocks and such.

I also noticed that most of them did not know each other, but had extended a warmth so tangible that I almost shed a tear in regret of all my stupid preconceptions about these people. I had up to this point concluded that most people were simply, out of the burden of city life, selfish and cold.

No, I was the one who was cold and selfish. Throughout the whole thing there were people who attempted to talk to me, seeing that I was rather quiet, perhaps guessing that I may be feeling a little scared. But I kept quiet, still trying to come to grips with what I was observing that day; the true Malaysian spirit.

No one saw me as Chinese or a city dweller or anything but a brother. I always thought people are inherently evil, but in spite of so many opportunities to steal, bully, rob, loot and plunder, I promise you no one even so much as committed a misdemeanour.

I saw my Malay brothers (I now call them brothers in the hope that they and others take me as their brother too) demonstrating their frustration at the injustice suffered, I suspect, not so much by themselves, but for their non-Malay brothers and sisters.

I could tell that many were not out there for themselves. And it was not so much during the chaotic moments that the Malaysian soul manifested, but in the moments in between. In between the chaos, many chattered to strangers and, surprisingly, to a stranger from a different race from themselves.

In the 7-Eleven, a Chinese man from Penang expressed his concern to a Malay stranger from Pahang about the Lynas situation while he in return expressed his admiration for the Chinese man’s effort to come all the way from Penang.

It was the quiet Indian uncles who came to demonstrate their love for the country, not the men who blare so loudly in the coffeeshops about the unfairness they suffer. The 60-year -old Chinese aunties, whom I suspect can barely speak English or Malay, came out with a look of joy and hope in their faces as if they saw a dream fulfilled.

It is with great shame that I confess that the Chinese-speaking youths with their blond hair and their Malaysian kindred had much more empathy and an understanding of unity than I gave them credit for or that I ever had. The love they had in their hearts for the fate of their nation and their brothers and sisters therein for a life and a promise of the idea of “Malaysia”.

I, with a formal education in jurisprudence and an intense penchant for philosophy, was the least among these greats. I had ideas of a socio-democrat Malaysia or of a modified contemporary Marxist/Socialist utopia but I was wrong. I forgot about the true patriots of this country. I was the fascist among these great socialists. They understood society better than I ever will. They understand sacrifice whereas I only understand theory.

I am equally guilty as the current administration for not understanding, and worse, for not even attempting to understand what Malaysia means. For this I am sorry.

Bersih and the tear gas have cleansed my Malaysian soul. I will never forget the moment when the tear gas canister flew over my head, the moment I was happy in this dreary existence. I am most likely to fail my upcoming exams but now I would rather fail it than not have gone for Bersih 2.0.

My Malaysian soul is wiped clean and I will try to rebuild slowly the spirit which my brothers and sisters displayed so strongly on July 9, 2011. And to Annie Ooi, you will always be my most foremost Lady of Liberty. I will think of you if ever my prejudices arise again.

  1. #1 by sherin lim on Tuesday, 12 July 2011 - 2:43 pm

    Ditto in terms of our misconception of the public people. You may be young and have not encounter the warmth of muhibbah spirit. For me, a middle-age lady, the experience in the rally brought back nostalgic warmth during my school days. You have written the article very well. I guessed you have aged 10 years just from the few hours experience. I wish my daughter was with me. She is 17. That’s my only regret.

You must be logged in to post a comment.