Columns, Cover Story

Bersihlah Negaraku

by Lee Ee May

photo credit: Wong Yu LiangMy Bersih fight started not on 709. It started a week earlier, as I sat helplessly in front of the computer, watching the friends I worked with at the NGO Empower (Bersih secretariat) being marched into the Black Maria by the police and the office I volunteered at being raided.

I cried. These were girls my age!

Watching your own friends being arrested is a tight slap across your face. A wake up call. You realise you can’t just sit back as you watch this injustice affecting your own friends.

Something stirs within you. You know you can no longer afford to be silent. Something within you mandates you to speak up. You know you need to arise.


Two days before Bersih: I had horrible jitters. I don’t mind being detained. I don’t mind water canons and tear gas. But I do not want to be injured! There were times I just broke out in panic attacks. Would I be the one to sacrifice something I couldn’t yet give up?

But I remembered the cry of Teoh Beng Hock’s sister for Malaysians to seek justice. It broke my heart. And I knew that for change to happen in Malaysia, democratic practices first had to find its firm ground via properly administered elections.

I was doing this for Teoh Beng Hock. And the other Teoh Beng Hocks we never even got to know about.


Friday noon, mum dropped me off at the KTM station and I took the train.

Personal details had been given to lawyers. Guidelines, handbooks and legal advice had been read up.

In the train, I thought to myself, ” Ee May, what have you gotten yourself into?”

But I knew it was me to stand up for what is right. Even if I was standing alone. I just HAD to do it.


We bunked in two rooms. The day of 709, we packed our tear gas “ammunition”. Baking soda water, towels soaked with vinegar, salt.

We hid our yellow shirts in the safety deposit box as we heard that police may come to raid empty hotel rooms.

We slowly crept out from our hotel in twos and threes. We passed by at least 100 police just on our way to Petaling Street from the hotel.


KL city centre had a weird eerie atmosphere that day. The ghost-like streets, the deserted walkways.

Only five groups of people were present- police, media, confused tourists, bar council lawyers and of course the protesters.

From a distance, we suddenly heard the echo of chants. The sound of marching grew louder as it came nearer.

Reformasi! Reformasi! I could hear it clearly now. I was in awe.

Finally the mass of marching people appeared. What a scene to behold!

Proud Bersih people walking with their heads held high. People carrying yellow flowers, yellow balloons, the jalur gemilang. People holding up the BERSIH t-shirt bravely up high! What was once something hidden and banned, found its liberation and dignity amongst these group of marchers.

People of different colours, religions and ages marching in unison. Shouting “Viva Rakyat! Viva Bersih! Bangkit Rakyat!”

It was a scene I will never forget and will continue to hold so dearly within my heart.

“What amazing energy !” I cried out to my friends as we cheered at the parade-like rally.

I loved how we could see the different groups slowly marching. Everyone marched knowing that they came from different backgrounds, but were all there for the same purpose – for our voices to be heard.

It felt as if it was an Independence Day parade. Except this wasn’t the celebration of independence from colonial powers. But the independence of the rakyat’s voices. We could no longer be stifled.


photo credit: Wong Yu Liang

We joined the march as the wave swept by and carried along the pockets of people standing by. I was just so happy to be a part of it. We ended up congregating at Maybank tower.

I met a group of neneks in their 70s from Kedah. I could not believe that these neneks made their way all the way from Kedah just to attend this rally. I was overwhelmed!

I met an Australian and two Canadian tourists. “Do you know whats happening?” I asked. “Yeah! Berrseeih” replied the Aussie. “I was just tear-gased at Deiiteiiran Merdeiiika!” Wow, even foreigners were supporting our cause!

I saw uncles and aunties with yellow carnations on their heads. I saw a man without legs.

I saw people like me. I saw people different from me.

Everyone was proud to be there. They weren’t afraid. We were all united. And as my friend Esther aptly put it, “Something Najib and all his 1Malaysia campaigns could never invoke.”

A PAS leader with a loudspeaker called out that now was the time to don our yellow shirts. I watched astounded as people around me reached into their bags for their yellow shirts. Fear that the authorities tried to imprint in us had lost its place.


Soon, the water canons and tear gas struck. What had been mere moments ago a celebratory atmosphere turned into one of literal suffocation.

I always imagined tear gas as one just of pain and discomfort. I never thought it was one of torture.

It deprives you of your basic need- oxygen. And as your lungs heave and wrench desperately for air, you gasp in poison instead.

You try to run to fight for air but there’s too many people and you are squashed in between the crowds and the wall.

Another tear gas cannister explodes and people start climbing up walls like insects scurrying away. Desperately choking, suffocating. Your eyes hurt like mad and you can’t see where you’re running. At the same time you are drowning in open air, scrambling for the first inhalation of fresh oxygen.

My first thoughts: despair because as I screamed out for help, noone could help me. They were all suffering the same way.

I saw people choking till their mouths foamed.

I was ready to lose consciousness when my friend grabbed me and helped me up a slope to get some fresh air.

I took a while to recover from the tear gas attack and ended up sprawled at the side of the road, heaving and gasping for air.

Many people ran up to help me. I had a dozen old Malay uncles offering salt. “Makan garam!” 15 different water bottles were given to me. 10 people helped fan me. A lady took a wet towel and wiped my whole face. Another guy gave me his asthma inhaler.

A group of paramedics rushed to my aid. My shoes and jacket were taken off. Massages given, and lots of empathy.

I was so overwhelmed with the compassion and kindness of Malaysians, looking past race and religion. All were so ready to help me. I was so touched to know what it’s like to live in a truly colour blind 1Malaysia. Moral lessons could never show you how and prepare you for the event of when it does happen- you’re knocked out in amazement.

But it wasn’t long before the cries of the police coming were heard. Oh no! We all rushed up the slope and I couldn’t run much.

Soon the police arrived. “LEAVE OR I WILL ARREST ALL OF YOU! SEKARANG!” the leader shouted.

I was terrified as I was still having trouble breathing. I thought the police would understand but he did not. The paramedics pleaded for me. “Tolonglah! Dia sakit!”

“Sekarang sakitlah! Tapi tadi tak sakit!”

I started to cry. Here I was, needing the basic thing I needed to live, to breathe. And the police head had no compassion to give me that. Was this what my countrymen was capable of? Cruel heartlessness?

As I started to cry silently and heaved and gasped for air, the police officers’ faces dropped and looked at me worriedly. Finally, after the paramedics stated that they were medics, the police’s demeanour changed. “Oh, kenapa tak cakap lebih kuat!!! Sorry. ”

Wow. If I wasn’t with the paramedics, I would have been arrested. While gasping for air.

The police left us.

We ran across the field in the rain and passed an office building. The security officer there hinted for us to pray at the surau. I was the only Chinese within a group of Malays. So I told my new Malay friends that perhaps I could also tudung and doa kepada tuhan saya (pray to my God) in the surau. I was too traumatized by the police and tear gas, I didn’t think I could take another beating.

So I hid there with a borrowed selendang until the coast was clear.

When the paramedics left the surau after their doa, I thanked them for their sweet kindness and made them remember to add me on facebook.

“Kita jumpa pergi minum teh sama-sama kat Bangi, ya!”


My friends and I managed to meet up again in the hotel a few hours later. We exchanged stories. Some ran to Tung Shin hospital where tear gas was fired into the compound and police charged inside to arrest even people sitting in the hospital.

Another friend was at KL Sentral and told us how the police trapped them at the escalator. Firing one tear gas above and as the people scarmbled to rush down the escalator, below, another FRU fired tear gas there, trapping the people from both sides.

Another friend told us how they sought refuged in a church. A female Caucasian tourist came in wailing, traumatised by her experience of the tear gas.

We couldn’t believe the stories we heard.


photo credit: Ooi Leng HangI wish I didn’t hide in that surau even after I had recovered. I was terrified. My voice was successfully quelled by the authorities that wanted it so.

I wish I charged out again and joined the other protesters all the way to KLCC.

I wished I wore yellow proudly.

But I know I did the little that I could. I took my stand on 709.

And I know I am no longer afraid the next time I am called to. Because after you’ve experienced it once, you fear less.

Because the amazing unity and energy of your other Malaysian comrades who fight on with you, strangers that share nothing but the same land you were born in, carries you.

I realised at the rally that you just cannot sit quietly comfortably when you see other Malaysians fight for your rights and your future, while you sit comfortably at home.

It reminded me of what I wrote only a few days earlier:

Throughout history, fighting for change has never been cheap. At the tipping, when the people could no longer be brutalized into fear and compliance by those who crack down harshly on them, the masses spoke out! There is power in the people!

Malaysians, 709 is not the end. We need to fear less and fight more! The time to rise up is now! -The Rocket