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A thin yellow line

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Tessa Houghton describes her experience as an observer at the Bersih 3.0 rally in KL.

The morning of 28 April 2012, in Taman Seputeh, Kuala Lumpur. Two slightly hungover New Zealanders do a bag check:

“Water?” “Check.”
“Camera?” “Check.”
“Cellphone?” “Check.”
“50 ringgit each?” “Check.”

So far, so touristic.

“Running shoes?” “Check.”
“Black and white clothes?” “Check.”
“Salt?” “Check.”
“Spray bottle with bicarbonate of soda water?” “Check.”
“Wet towels and scarves?” “Check.”
“Wire cutters?” “Check.”
“First Aid Kit?” “Check”

Query: does not compute.

* * * * *

I wake on the 28th morning with an odd feeling in my stomach, and it wasn’t (just) from too many single malts the night before. We are going to spend the day at Bersih 3.0, the third mass street demonstration calling for electoral reform in Malaysia. The Bersih (or ‘clean’) movement is run by a collective of civil society groups and is unsurprisingly backed by Malaysia’s eternal opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (the People’s Pact) – eternal in that the current governing coalition, Barisan Nasional, have held power for over 50 years.

The previous Bersih rally (2.0) took place two weeks after I arrived in Malaysia, in July 2011, resulting in a delayed move from the hotel I was being kept in 30 minutes out of KL into my new home on the fringe of the city centre. Having spent the previous six months effectively homeless due to the Christchurch earthquakes, and having no real conception of what was about to happen, I was quite annoyed at being confined to an itinerant existence for another week. Sick of subservient be-suited men opening every door for me, sick of the hotel food, sick of the dusty Kajang windowscape out my hotel window… #firstworldproblems, you name them, I had them. I couldn’t understand why a protest calling for basic democratic rights in a democratic country, and in an entirely different part of the city from my new home, could possibly require yet another day of being subjected to the tender mercies of the Oriental Crystal Hotel.

But then the news reports about the rally started trickling in. The whole city centre cordoned off by police road blocks, tear gas, water cannons, police brutality, journalists being harassed and their equipment seized or damaged. Welcome to “Malaysia, truuuly Aaasiaaaaaaa…”. To borrow a phrase that may be somewhat lost on non-Kiwis, “yeah, right.”

Anyway, fast-forward ten months (my, how time flies when you’re fresh to academia), and we set off on our sweaty walk towards KL Sentral to catch the train to Masjid Jamek – the closest stop to Dataran Merdeka, where the Bersih 3.0 supporters were intending to sit peacefully until DBKL decided it was only really suitable for such occasions as Nestle’s 100th anniversary of involvement in Malaysia and erected a tripartite, razor-wire festooned barrier system around the historic square (hence the wire cutters; I’m worried people will get pushed onto the wire and will need cutting lose). There seems to be a strong suspicion in the alternative media that DBKL are being made to take the fall for the government (who have, as yet, been largely silent and uninvolved). (As a mat salleh, I couldn’t possibly comment.)

Brickfields, the ‘Little India’ that lies between us and Sentral, is unusually quiet (meaning that it’s streets are single-parked rather than the usual double- or triple-parked). Here and there, crowds of yellow-attired Malaysians tuck in their makanan, gathering their strength before the days activities and performing the one act that seems to unite Malaysians of all colours and creeds – the love of good food (and of endlessly debating who and where does it best). We follow a small group of them up the hill to the station, before literally packing ourselves into a LRT carriage that resembles a sardine tin even more than is usual. As we glide past a melee of yellow people from above, a middle-aged Chinese man asks me if I know what’s going on. “Bersih,” I answer. “Good”, he says, smiling.

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We get off at Masjid Jamek and are immediately in the thick of things, with yellow-bedecked people thronging the streets as far as the eye can see. Not just my eyes, either, I ask my partner whether he can see an end to the crowd from up there at 6’2”. Nothing doing. So much for our plan to keep to the fringes of the crowd and not get involved – keeping to the fringes in this respect means staying to the sides of the street, and not joining in is limited to refraining from joining in the waving, fist-pumping and chanting, much as I might like to. I allow myself to clap a couple of times; I spend the rest of the time (when I’m not taking photos) feeling entirely unsure what to do with my uselessly dangling appendages.

This is a Malaysia I’ve never seen before. A festival of citizenship, one of those Lefebvreian moments where everyone is united in a common desire to see democracy served and politicians bow down to their citizens, rather than the inverse. Old, young, women, men, middle-class, lower-class, able-bodied, disabled, Malay, Chinese, Indian, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Daoist, Sikh… in this country, divided and coloured as it is by the dividing lines of class, ethnicity, and religion, this kind of boundary-subsuming unity is truly revolutionary. Awkward looking mat rempits and ah bengs lean on their bikes and smoke; tudung-wearing grandmothers, mothers and daughters sit on the ground next to sleeping babies; a duo of men in wheelchairs go hurtling past to cheers from the crowd. Anti-Lynas protesters colour the yellow with touches of green – a combination I’m genetically predisposed to bristle at, and ironic given the ownership of Lynas.

Ambiga and Anwar come past on a ute (although we only realise it’s them after they’re passed), giant yellow and green beach balls and blimps are bounced from person to person, slowly moving towards Dataran Merdeka. I’d have liked to have heard Ambiga speak, but am less than convinced that Anwar isn’t just another slimy politician; anyway, the day is about the rakyat, not celebrity activists, so I’m not too disappointed. A young Malay man holds a picture of Gandhi to his chest. The local MacDonalds and Burger King do a roaring trade, as streams of people (including us) seek sustenance and rehydration. There’s no actual march, or movement towards the square – there’s not enough room in the streets. Instead, subgroups of people move backwards and forth constantly, but the cycle of chanting never stops, forming a constant call-and-response audio backdrop to the day’s events. I have no idea who’s leading them, but they have a good pair (or pairs) of lungs on them.

“Hidup Rakyat!?” “Hidup Rakyat!”

“Hidup Bersih!?” “Hidup Bersih!”

“Duduk Bantah!?” “Duduk bantah!”

“Reformasi!?” “Reformasi!”

“Bersiiiiiih, Bersih, Bersih, Bersiiiiiiih… Bersiiiih, Bersiiih…”

We lose track of the number of times that people in the crowd stop and ask us where we’re from, whether we know what’s going on, check if we need any help, or simply smile at us to let us know we’re welcome. I share many commiserations over the general awfulness of governments and politicians, although my shame at having an ideologically-vacuous ex-forex trader as the democratically elected leader of my home country seems a bit pathetic in contrast to what seems to be going on here. Some seem a bit confused about why exactly we’re here if we’re not joining in; I try to explain that I support the Bersih movement, but that it’s not my place to attempt to speak as a Malaysian, I just want to be here to observe and help if it comes to that.

* * * * *

And oh, does it come to that. At about 3.30pm, we’re watching Pas’s Selangor Youth chief Hasbullah Mohd Ridzwan hold a ceramah in front of an attentive crowd at the intersection of Leboh Ampang and Jalan Tun Perak and getting a bit excited about spotting a large cohort of the Unit Amal, who we’ve privately taken to calling ‘Pas’s Muslim Ninjas’ (they’re Pas’s security team), when the word starts filtering through that they’re tear gassing the crowds closer to Dataran Merdeka. The crowd starts eddying uncomfortably, and the Unit Amal link arms and run off in a human chain towards the centre of the disruption. Like everyone else, we mill around uncertainly. We don’t want to go home – like everyone else, we’re having too much fun, reveling in this KL we never knew existed.

But then the air starts to smell strange and our noses and eyes begin to sting. We tie our scarves around our noses and mouths; we’re obviously complete n00bs to this, because a young man offers us some medical masks which we accept gratefully. A lanky young Tamil reminds everyone not to run, and so we begin a mass retreat down Leboh Ampang. We’re well ahead of the centre of the gas, but the light breeze that we’ve been so grateful for all day brings the particulate to us, setting off paroxysms of coughing and streaming eyes. Some people retreat inside shophouses, pulling down the shutters. I consider it briefly, but am later glad about my decision to keep moving.

Everyone gets to the intersection of Leboh Ampang and Jalan Ampang, and stops, joining up with the crowd coming from Jalan Ampang itself. We eat some salt, offer it around, as do many others. It slowly lessens the chemical tang that has by now flooded my mouth and nose; a few sprays from the plant mister full of alkaline solution makes my face sting a bit less. We move along to the intersection of Jalan Ampang/Gereja and Jalan Tun H S Lee, where it becomes clear that the authorities are tear gassing all the way down Jalan Tun Perak – we can see the roiling clouds of gas at the intersection. Traffic police roar past on their motorbikes; their Hans Solo-esque uniforms suddenly less kitsch-chic than intimidating. (I’m not surprised to learn later that a policecar hit some protesters – I was surprised no one was hit by the motorbike police I saw.) They park briefly at the lights to confer on where to go next; the people milling round reminded me of nothing so much as stray animals trying to go about their business, but aware that a booted foot and swift kick is uncomfortably close. We all watch them out of the corners of our eyes until they roar off to ‘serve the nation’ somewhere else.

We get to Jalan Raja Chulan, and pause briefly before it becomes clear that the tear gassing is continuing up this way. More police hurtle past on motorbikes and in cars; the constant hollow thunk of tear gas canisters being fired has replaced the chanting. We follow a stream of people up the slipway towards the city centre before cutting back down some side streets to get to Jalan Pudu, past clueless tourists trying to walk towards the Golden Triangle, past a yellow-clad cyclist doubled-over and vomiting, surrounded by people armed with salt and spray bottles. “Shut your eyes” a woman instructs him, before they all begin washing the gas particulates off his face.

A young Chinese woman walking next to me asks me, somewhat rhetorically, “Isn’t our government awful?”. I can only reply with a heartfelt “Ya”, and she asks me to please write about what has happened and tell people from my country about it. I promise her I’ll do my best, and we keep walking, away from the mayhem that continues to unfold behind us.

Despite knowing that it would probably come to this, I still find it utterly and abhorrently alien that this is what Malaysians can expect from their supposedly “by the people, of the people, for the people” representative democracy. Most people are still smiling; certainly they’re friendly and calm, if wearing somewhat resigned looks on their faces. (As I said to my partner at the time, “This is the happiest looking bunch of tear-gassed people I’ve ever seen.”)

I cannot even begin to imagine the police tear gassing protesters in New Zealand – there’d probably be civil war, akin to what happened the last time the authorities really cracked down on civil protest. Our politicians are s… too, but at least we know we brought them on ourselves, and so do they (which means they also know they’ll be goners if they’re not careful). While I’m being tear-gassed along with my new countrymen, halfway across the world in New Zealand’s biggest city, 8,000 people are marching down the main street to protest the current government’s privatisation agendas, one leg of a two-week hikoi along the length of the country. Although I’m sure there has been police presence, it’s no doubt more akin to help and doesn’t merit a mention in any of the major news websites. All these “happy tear-gassed people” want is to sit in their own public bloody square to ask for the fundamental democratic right of being able to elect who they want as their representatives. It’s not so much to ask in a country that’s supposed to be democratic, is it?

We walk past the KL Police Headquarters to get on the Monorail at Hang Tuah. Tourists pushing babies in prams and couples holding hands and clutching shopping bags stare at us curiously; we’re still wearing our face masks, have scarves wrapped around our heads. We get a text from one of my senior colleagues. He has been tear gassed three times, and has had to jump over fences to escape after being caught in a dead-end. “I thought I was going to die”, he says later – we joke about joining the Unit Amal to get in peak condition for the next Bersih rally. After confirming that he’s OK and is on his way out of the city, we take the monorail to Sentral, stop for a thosai in Brickfields, before taxiing home, unable to face the walk up the hill to home.

* * * * *

The fallout over ‘428’ continues: the alternative online media endlessly rehash the day’s events; the recursive cycle of blame begins and follows its predictable patterns; the government-controlled mainstream media spin like tops; politicians make absurd statements which are then revealed as such; the local and international community decries the violence agains citizens and media personnel, as well as the media censorship. Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak is nowhere to be seen, and there seems to be a general naivete-cum-arrogance amongst the elites on both sides; neither seem to have realised that digital eyes are always watching.

There is a shared assumption that Bersih 4.0 is imminent. I’ll be there, performing the observer, walking the thin yellow line. After all, what else can a mat salleh do?

Dr Tessa J Houghton is Assistant Professor in Media and Communication at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
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Albert Choong
19 May 2012 1.36pm

Our New Zealand expats would realized that we Malaysians are living in First World concrete jungles in big cities but our government are working with Third World mentality. What happened to our developing Democracy? Is high time we true and loyal Malaysians use the first tenet of true Democracy, Freedom of Assembly and Peaceful Protest to change the 55 year old BN b government and regime. UBAH! UBAH! UBAH!

18 May 2012 2.29pm

Very well written, I thoroughly enjoyed reading that.

I was passing through KL from Singapore about 2 PM that afternoon, taking the LRT from KL Sentral. No tear gas or water cannons yet, very festive and relaxed atmosphere.

I’m an expat, and people were very happy that I was asking people on the LRT about the rally, how it was going so far. I had to drag my rather hefty luggage behind me in transit, so I obviously wasn’t in a position at that time to participate.

daniel tan kah beng
daniel tan kah beng
18 May 2012 2.22pm

if those govt is good, why they fear of peaceful demo ?
is because they have something to hide and let its people in oppress ?
is there a truth of the rakyat choose the govt or the govt decide who shld rule ?
am looking in dept that the people have no right and the minorities of voters base on sits won (mostly rural areas) and the majorities being play out, why ?
are the balot boxes fair or NOT ?
it seem this game is sided in one direction, and can be manipulated !
yet the ruling govt love it , ha !
am praying for miracles and the mercy of God be with its people, if NOT then the God in heaven let it happen to let man be fools themselves, until the final hour, being too late, its sins bring them to hell,
then GOD’s said, its enough , sudah cukup.
the fools of man be review !

Lilian Tan
Lilian Tan
13 May 2012 8.08pm

I enjoyed this. Any expat who is prepared to look past the facade of a happy, multiracial, multicultural Malaysia to discover who we really are has my respect. Also, I’m amazed that the writer brought along wire-cutters just in case anybody got hurt being pushed into the barbed wire barricades… I really admire the resourcefulness and thoughtfulness. I only hope the University of Nottingham is not pressured to terminate her contract for having the courage to participate in the rally and then write about it!

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