I have to say that when it comes to Malaysian politics, I am not brave at all.
I try to stay the hell the out of it, especially when you consider the ridiculous amount of tomfoolery going on between both the Government and the opposition. The accusations, the mud-slinging, the leap-frogging of politicians from one faction to another, in a country where political parties are race-based – it is maddeningly frustrating!
I was a news journalist for nine years. I used to keep track of these things. My best friend Liz keeps tabs on the politics back home better than I do, and even she gets exhausted at the amount of crap going on. Thus, absorbed in my own life and worries in another country, I tend to lose touch of events.
But one local article today made me cry. That really, rarely happens.
Context: On July 9, 2011, thousands of people gathered in various parts of Kuala Lumpur to stage a protest. Understand that peace-loving Malaysians are not usually the sort to take to the streets to protest something at such huge numbers, especially when you consider that a public gathering of more than five people counts as “unlawful assembly” unless you manage to obtain a police permit. (Good luck if you’re from the Opposition).
Which is why large-scale protests make me sit up and take notice. What were they demonstrating about? A minimum wage? The abolishing of the Internal Security Act? No, politically motivated or not, the protesters were crying for BERSIH, a campaign for “free and fair elections”.
I referred to two online publications, one with Opposition-friendly sentiments, one owned by a government political party. What I gather is that police unsurprisingly unleashed water cannons and tear gas on them when chanting protesters refused to disperse. But reports also surfaced about the police’s violent response. One protester, Baharuddin Ahmad, collapsed and died while running from the bombardment. His brother claims that he would have lived if the police hadn’t refused to send for medical aid.
Clara Chooi, a Malaysian Insider reporter, writes that even if it is the voice of a single man, one should listen. That man is not alone. He has friends, family, colleagues. Whether 5,000 or 50,000 people turn up for a rally, it doesn’t mean only those people know about that cause, she writes.
‘To their friends, family and colleagues, the 5,000 or 50,000 will tell the story of a bald man seen with a bloody gash on his head being carted away by blue-uniformed men, stories of people locking themselves together in a tight knot on the ground as policemen try to tear them apart, dragging them away in arrest and beating some who resisted, stories of men in red helmets backed by fire-red trucks standing in lines and firing gas canisters at close range and without tilting their guns.
They will relate stories of the thousands of other protestors who stood together in groups, linking arms and marching on, daring to defy those who have defied them. They will describe tales of strangers becoming fast friends with one another, helping those who could not run as fast from the shower of chemical water, offering salt and wet pieces of cloth to those whose eyes were badly stung by the tear gas.
They will tell the story of an elderly lady, garbed in a yellow T-shirt, holding a long-stemmed flower and bravely marching along with protestors despite the rowdiness and chaos that surrounded her.’
What struck me, in another newspaper, was how the Prime Minister “called on the silent majority, comprising millions of Malaysians, to no longer remain silent but voice their support for the Government.” He appealed to everyone to not make demonstrations a part of Malaysian culture.
Glad that the majority of Malaysians did not take part, he said: “I hope the incident today will serve as a lesson for everyone that street demonstration not only brings hardship to the people, it could also lead to possessions being destroyed.”
“Had the event turned serious, they would fully exploit it by giving an impression that Malaysia had no political stability with instances of police brutality.”
Who are the silent majority really? Why does my heart ache for that protester who died? Why does it hurt when I think about Malaysia and how it is being laid to waste? I am not brave at all. Even if I was there at Kuala Lumpur, I don’t think I could have waded out into the rains that Saturday to take part in those protests, I could not be that elderly lady or that man who collapsed.
I can only stare at the novel I’m writing and realise how it touches on a character finding his voice to speak, despite being forced under circumstances to be silent, to be nameless, to be a ghost in his own country. Doubts and worries assail me the longer I work on the novel. Through fantasy, perhaps I reflect reality. Or perhaps it could be nightmare made true.
Is the only way I can speak out is through this novel? Can I even make it that far and finish this, instead of moving step by step like the frightened soldier testing the ground, wary of setting off these land mines of taboos, these hundreds of carefully protected cultural sensibilities?
Perhaps I am overthinking this. Perhaps it is just a book, a harmless and hopefully entertaining story about Malaysian ghostbusters. One thing is for certain: I cannot be silent.