Cover Story, Interviews

The face that launched a thousand protests

By Chung Hosanna

 Among all the photographs taken during the Bersih 2.0 rally, one stands out.

In it, a petite grey-haired lady is seen standing alone on a deserted street, her yellow t-shirt soaked with chemical-laced water. 100 metres behind her, a battalion of uniformed officers and FRU trucks keep watch. Her eyes are closed in agony, her face a portrait of anguish. In her left hand she clutches a water bottle and a single stalk of daisies.

The woman in the photo was later identified as retired English teacher Anne Ooi Siew Lan.

In an exclusive interview with The Rocket, Ooi or now known all over the country as Auntie Anne said that her first reaction on seeing that photograph of herself was anger at the photographer, Hugo Teng. Despite initially being upset, Anne later relented when she saw the impact that the photograph had made.

On the same night the image was taken, it went viral on popular social networking sites Facebook and Twitter. Described by some as a powerful symbol of one woman’s defiance in the face of authoritarian clampdown, others have compared the photo to iconic TIME magazine and National Geographic covers.

Anne said she cried, “felt proud and felt stupid” after the unexpected popularity of the photo which sparked an immediate outpouring of emotion over the internet. Netizens lauded her for her courage to attend the rally alone, her audacity to wear yellow, and her tenacity despite being gassed four times and hit by water cannons.

Many Bersih supporters embraced Anne as an icon of the electoral reform movement while others dubbed her “The Malaysian Lady of Liberty” and “Aunty Bersih”. Admirers created videos and Facebook fan pages for her, the most popular of which has garnered over 40,000 ‘likes’ to date.

Admittedly overwhelmed by the attention, the simple lady who wears her short hair in a pixie crop is uncertain how to deal with her overnight fame. She told The Rocket she is “new to everything, including Facebook”.

The 65-year old Penangite accidentally left her handphone on for an hour-long call with her daughter during the tense standoff between police and participants at Tung Shin Hospital in Pudu.  Her daughter had called to find out the situation in the rally as she didn’t anticipate violence, having earlier told Anne to “have a nice walk.”

Unknown to Anne, her daughter was listening on the other end as she witnessed the arrest of (PR leader) Sivarasa Rasiah after he attempted to negotiate with the police for safe passage for Bersih participants seeking refuge in the compound of Tung Shin hospital.

“I shouted ‘Tipu!’ (Lie!) when they arrested him. At first we were told they would let us pass through… we didn’t expect to be hit. Suddenly they shot at us again,”

“I yelled at them, ‘Are we your enemies?’ It’s not right of them to do this to us,” she said of the four rounds of tear gas she endured. It was not long after the water cannon hit that the famous photograph was captured.

Anne says she was frustrated but not surprised at the police’s aggressiveness, adding that the previous Bersih rally in 2007, which she also participated in, was more peaceful.

The former veteran teacher of 35 years draws an analogy from her previous profession. “Police are like prefects in school who are supposed to help the teachers. They should not be arrogant… hounding us… treating us contemptibly, as if we were hooligans and scumbags.”

She was especially displeased with the controversial spraying of water cannons and firing of tear gas into the compound of Tung Shin Hospital, an incident police have denied.

“How could they deny it? It’s a lie. I was there, I saw it with my own eyes!” she exclaimed vehemently, eyes flashing with indignation.

Trapped inside the hospital compound with the main entrances blocked by the FRU, Anne started to panic.

“I was hysterical and desperate. My only thought was to get out and head towards the Stadium (Merdeka). I screamed ‘mana pintu?’ (where’s the door?)

“I couldn’t climb over the fence to escape like the others. Two men pointed out the main gate of the hospital. ‘Go, auntie, go!’ they told me.”

After walking out from Tung Shin hospital, she was not arrested by the police. “I was almost insulted that they didn’t arrest me,” Anne said.

In front of Puduraya, she saw a bespectacled man in a blue jacket writhing on the ground, struggling to breathe. His hands were cuffed behind his back. Anne says she shouted for the officers to let him go, but they did not have releasing instruments. Finally, she left the scene.

(After video footage of this episode was circulated online, the blue-jacketed man was widely mistaken to be the late Baharudin Ahmad who died from breathing difficulties during the rally. In fact, his name is Shuhardi Mohamed and he survived the ordeal.)

From Pudu, Anne walked to St John’s Cathedral to borrow a t-shirt, since her clothes were still wet from her encounter with the FRU. After a short rest, she went a nearby mamak (Indian Muslim) restaurant to eat and proceeded on foot back to Masjid Jamek and then headed back to her home in Wangsa Maju.

Unassuming and candid during the interview, Anne’s delicate stature belied the steely grit she acquired after participating in several rallies, including the 2007 Bersih 1.0 rally.

The mother-of-four said she got to know about Bersih through a friend and had been wearing yellow the whole week before the rally. Despite the risk of arrest, she insisted to wear yellow to the rally. “Why shouldn’t I?”

Asked why she attended the rally, Anne paused, perhaps reflecting on her colorful past experiences.

“I’m a doer. I cannot stand rubbish. The country today has become like a house full of dirty things. We need to clean our house, clear up the mess. We must throw out the useless things and corrupt practices.” -The Rocket

[Bersih 2.0] Malaysian Lady of Liberty 2.0 from Bannai Roo on Vimeo.