Dude, Where’s my Country?

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.

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15 Comments

Filed under Depression, Fantasy, Malaysia, Novel, Writing

15 responses to “Dude, Where’s my Country?

  1. The thing about being a writer is that you have an obligation to write about things that matter–which you are doing with your novel.

  2. A writer’s job is to act as the voice of conscience. Charles Dickens comes to mind.

  3. For an alternate viewpoint, you can check out my thoughts on the Bersih rally. My article was written and published before the actual rally happened, but I didn’t announce it publicly because I I didn’t want to be seen as swaying people in one direction or the other, especially given the incendiary nature of the ruckus both Barisan and Pakatan have kicked up.

    http://johnlingblog.wordpress.com/2011/07/11/astroturfing-is-bersih-made-of-real-grass/

    • Ahhh, thank you for that article. I am indeed aware that like all political institutions, one is not necessarily everyone’s knight in shining armour. It’s partly my weariness about it all that encouraged me two years ago to consider that perhaps I could try another line of work. Or do something else 😉

      To this day I’m not sure I could go into news journalism again. Too many days of chasing after politicians who leave a bad taste in my mouth. Too many nights of vitriol barked through speakers to rouse crowds lapping it up. Can’t do it.

      I think it’s quite gutsy of you to lay it out there tho 😉

  4. I know. I actually sensed that about you. You’re not all that comfortable about being a mouthpiece for one side’s propaganda. 🙂

    I’m not saying people should not support Pakatan or vote for Pakatan. But be rational and informed about it and don’t be so quick to get caught up in emotion.

    For example, Pakatan is now publicising the death of the taxi driver. Treating him as a shahid. A martyr. Getting his family to declare that his sacrifice is worthwhile in the name of the cause. And this propels outrage to feverish levels.

    The danger here is what psychologists call ‘force drift’. It’s when practitioners of death and violence believe that if some death and violence is good, then more is better. And, incrementally, more and more force is applied until everything spirals into esclation. The usual checks and balances are abandoned.

    I’ve always been concerned about this aspect, especially when I was briefly involved in the Pakatan cause back in 2004/2005. Back then, they were already talking of mass street demonstrations to blunt Barisan’s power and re-energise the Pakatan base. But this would put innocent people in harm’s way, and I felt uncomfortable with it.

    I suggested a safer and more non-violent method of protest — Pakatan supporters staying home for a week and not showing up at work. This would cut to the core of Barisan’s corrupt business practices, recruit supporters who would otherwise not march and safeguard the lives of those who would march. It would sent the most potent of messages.

    The response I got was revealing. ‘John, we can’t do that. It’ll harm the interests of the richer segments of Pakatan. The business owners. The tycoons. The heavy hitters. We need them for logistic and financial support once we eventually boot Barisan out of power.’

    So say I was shocked would be an understatement. So lives of the poorer segments of Pakatan — the gullible — are expendable, while the profits of the rich cannot even be sacrificed for one week to make a positive statement.

    This truly opened my eyes to a great many things that is well and truly happening in Malaysia.

  5. My only fear here is that a lot of people will have to die before Pakatan can actually dislodge Barisan, and I’m uncomfortable with the way Pakatan is throwing people right into the fray with little thought for their well-being.

    • Yeah I was in the middle of a protest years ago, with people scattering from FRU personnel shooting tear gas canisters into the crowd. Nothing quite like that to clear the sinuses ;P

      I fear more that my loved ones would be caught up in the violence. I’ve heard horror stories of the 1969 riots and the last thing I want is for my family to be caught up in something like that.

  6. Ashley

    There is no easy answer to politics. People are people, and when two of them are in a room there are politics, and until we map the human brain so thoroughly that we can predict even the random strayings of particles through it, we’re pretty much screwed as far as figuring things out.

    The people in charge of that rally feel that other people’s lives, so long as there are no consequences to them (or their donors), are worth spending to achieve their goal.

    The government in charge of suppressing that rally and any others like it feels that people’s lives, so long as there are no consequences to them (or their donors), are worth spending to achieve their goal.

    The people who were actually in that rally want this to stop. They may feel that they’re being oppressed by one side or another, but really, both sides are using them in a massive tug-of-war for supremacy. Makes me think the idea of passive resistance has an awful lot of merit. Time to apply some consequences. Trouble is, the imbalance of power is typically corrected in blood, and that is not a fun medium to write in.

  7. Chris — Yes, I fear the same as well. No tyrannical government has ever been deposed in a bloodless coup.

    At the moment, most people seem to be under the false impression that because both Pakatan and Barisan have split the Malay vote, there won’t be another May 13th. Malays couldn’t possibly go on a riot and kill other Malays.

    But if you really do the research, May 13th wasn’t a racial clash at all. It was, in reality, a coup by nationalists and capitalists unhappy with Tunku Abdul Rahman’s fair-mindedness. They triggered the clash to depose him, creating ‘incidents’ to force ordinary Malaysians to battle each other. The end result speaks for itself. The Tunku was forced to resign, the NEP was enacted and a handful of well-connected Malays, Chinese and Indians became rich as a result of patronage. And, last but not least, Gerakan, a party that used to be part of the opposition, later switched camps to Barisan.

    I really do hope that Barisan will step down without resorting to bullets and machetes, and I hope that Pakatan will have enough sense to pull back before it pushes the situation over the brink. But all I can do is hope…

    Ashley — yes, there’s no doubt that many ordinary Malaysians want the corruption and abuses in Malaysia to stop. But so did many regular Americans, Britons and Australians in regards to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Sometimes, you can do the thing that feels emotionally and viscerally ‘right’, and yet it can turn out to be the biggest mistake ever.

  8. everyone has pretty much said what I would have said so…I am just going to vehemently agree with them! Both about your writing and about the politics going on in your country! stay strong bro!

  9. Elizabeth Tai

    Hey Chris, boy you’re blogging a lot more these days 🙂

    Anyway, you may be inspired by A. Samad Said who did his bit for Bersih: http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/malaysia/article/after-bersih-samad-said-new-factor-in-malaysian-politics/

    Maybe some of us aren’t brave (I know I’m not) and have different priorities, but we can do what we can to turn things around. The pen is mightier than the sword after all!

  10. I agree with you through and through, Elizabeth. The best we can do is write to the best of our conscience and do our bit to raise awareness.

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